Alright. Here is one of several pieces on education that I'd like to write about; just to get some ideas out. I want to start off by sharing a video that I worked really hard to find. Watch this video below and think about it for a bit.
I first saw this clip from the controversial movie, Waiting for Superman. The movie, made some coherent points but did more to frustrate many working in the field of education rather then be of help. Other things bothered me about the film, but it was this 20 second clip which destroyed it's legitimacy and perpetuated a view of teaching that I believe is obsolete and harmful. It was this clip, that relegated the film to the many other parties in education reform that talk a lot about what specifically needs to be done but don't have the experiences to know what they're talking about. Others felt similarly about this clip.
Our schools should absolutely be doing much more than having teachers "fill their student's heads with knowledge". This clip espouses what some call a Teacher-Centered classroom and I will use this term for this article. The idea views a teacher as one that transmits knowledge to a student. Little concern is given to what the students are doing during a lesson or what prior knowledge/ experiences they come in with; they are passive vessels and receive education from a teacher that they need to remember.
This view; and much of our public education, has it's origins industrial era. Schools were viewed as factories, where teachers were workers generating students who were products that should efficiently be produced. This video supports this outmoded view, and I would like to elaborate on what can be termed a "learner centered classroom" which is a more valid lens in which we should view education.
|Somewhat silly, but this diagram contrasts a potential learner versus teacher centered classroom|
We live in a different age then the industrial era. For the most part, factory jobs in our country, where individuals can work and do much of the same tasks day in and day out to make a living wage are not as available. An "education" is a general requirement to be able to support a family comfortably. We expect an educated workforce. There is thus more of a need for education today then when our public system of education was founded.
Information changes as we learn more about our world. "Facts", one comes to learn, can be factual one day, but be false in others. Pluto isn't a planet anymore; our classification system that we've relied on doesn't seem to fit in places in the light of DNA evidence; historical facts become questioned and picked at when different perspectives emerge. We need to do much more then simply memorize facts if we're to succeed in our educational endeavors. Life changes, facts change and evolve, and we need to be able to handle this. This video elaborates on some of the ideas that follow (and most of my ideas... ok, I stole some of these ideas from these videos) nicely. It's my belief that most teachers (especially elementary) can't predict what the world will be like, and what skills and knowledge base will be necessary when their students graduate.
The infusion of technology has become so immense in the lives of students. Many complain about ADD epidemics, but the realities are that because everything is so much more instantaneous, there is evidence to support that we can't sit still as long to receive teaching and information. Between the shortened time of movie and television and film scenes, the massive interactivity allowed from computer games, texting, iphones, facebook; the interactivity that is so commonplace OUTSIDE a classroom all lends itself to the idea that the nature of teaching needs to catch up to our modern, technological and quickend world. This video, an animated talk by Phillip Zimbardo, takes a look at the nature of time and education.
There is also an immense diversity in the way students learn. There is evidence that there are rising rates of student's with special needs (partially do to increased diagnosis, but also potentially due to our increased ability to keep kids alive during child birth). How can this teacher centered view accommodate all the different ways kids learn? How can a statement, fact or idea presented by the teacher resonate and connect to all of the different students in our modern classroom? I don't think it can. A teacher-centered classroom, born in an era where standardization was valued for it's efficiency, is utterly unfit for accommodating all the needs of our learners.
You can see instances where teachers are barriers if they are the center of their class. Classrooms, I think can be naturally boring environments, lacking the richness of a plot of woods, a science lab, a mechanic shop, some modern day offices, or even a computer with reasonable internet access. There is much a student can learn, but if they are limited to learn to what a teacher can speak or present on, then we're robbing students of their access. Student's need have direct access to powerful instruments of learning which can vary from the millions of possible excellent lessons that have been and can be generated. Teacher's should not be the gate-keeper to learning.
A teacher-centered lesson cannot compete for the richness and power of a good learning tool or student-centered experience. A teacher intending to have their student's master Shakespeare would fail, I believe, if he spent more time lecturing then allowing the student's to read Hamlet. A science teacher that mostly lectures about the behavior of an Amoeba will fail miserably against a lesson in which learners can view and potentially experiment with such a creature. A history teacher only telling students what happened throughout the civil war will lose against student's that have access and supports to primary source readings or multi-media tools reenacting battles and sharing their experiences from the actual time period.
The question of why and to what ends do we educate our populace is a central question when developing our public education system. How People Learn, and Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, which present research and suggestions for human learning are my favorite current resources that explore this question effectively. You can actually read parts of them at least on the previous links. But here are some final thoughts on what needs to be taken into account when deciding on what and how to teach.
A friend of mine is an Architect. He was commenting during lunch about all the frustrating things he notices about ceilings. Lights are put places, clearly without thought, space is not maximized, simple steps to prevent leaks are not taken resulting in a buildup of moisture. They're ugly and do little aesthetically. As an expert in his field, my friend notices all these nuances about something as mundane as a ceiling that the rest of us at our meal clearly don't. Upon noticing these nuances about ceilings, this Architect canoffer up a multitude of ways to design a better ceiling for the same cost. As an Architect, based on his years of experiences and prior knowledge, what he sees in a ceeiling, or an entire room, is exponentially richer then what I can see, and his skill sets to improve, or create a novel design are vast.
My point with this is that we want to develop these mindsets of expertise in our learners so that they have algorithms, schemas and methods to be able to do something, not merely know things. Education needs to not concern itself simply with the amount of facts that our students know, but the way information when conceptualized by the learner, is used.
Students need to be more willing and expected to try and figure things out on their own. They need to not just be told a fact by a teacher and expected to recite enough to remember it correctly on a test. Although a teacher will say "there is no wrong answer", they will more then happily not value a thought, idea, or hypothesis simply because it doesn't match with our current notions. Teacher's need to put more value not merely on what notions a learner has, but the process they used to come to these ideas. This counts for a lot, as it's what we need as a society to be able to do. Having classes where students are expected to figure things out for themselves (not all the time and not without supports) will give them chances and practice to develop their methods for discovering, for critical thinking and innovation, which are at the very least traits we can bet strongly that are important in our modern economy.
There are more nuanced reasons for this inquiry based education. There is more opportunity for buy-in and meaning if the students drive at least some of their own learning. With supports and good design by the teacher, a student can "buy-in" to their learning more so, and have more meaning when they figure out for themselves what a plant needs to grow, or what is happening when you divide something. The finding a student comes too is more meaningful if they, to some degree figure it out themselves. It also means that what they found is conceptualize and connects with their prior knowledge, whereas a teacher telling facts to students is more likely to have less meaning. Most people don't want endings of movies spoiled for them, and in the same sense, we shouldn't want our educational endeavors spoiled for us.
More crucially, we have to realize that because a student may memorize a set of words, it does not at all means that it meaningfully changed the schema, the imagery, and the actual understanding that they have. Because student's can state "Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert sunlight, carbon di-oxide, and water into glucose" does not mean they have a conceptual understanding of the process. It's very possible they don't have a meaningful basis for the some of the terminology (CO2 or glucose) semantically, but even more so, they don't have a physical, meaningful experience to back up this statement. My guess would be many students, if asked later on, would say that soil is necessary for plant growth, or believe that water / soil level might decreased as plants grow.
Our learners need to be able to use and transfer their learning to novel situations. They need to be able to take what information and experiences they've had in a learning environment and be able to recognize similar situations out of their original context. We want students, learning probability in a math class, to be able to apply their new skill in a later game of monopoly, or poker, that they would play with their cousin. If student's are developing their understanding of what makes something biotic, versus abiotic, they should be able to apply these definition to novel objects and organisms.
Partially, this solidifies their budding skills, but, if our student's can only demonstrate their understandings in their original context, they can't be useful with these skills in a novel situation like the workplace that they should be entering into. If they are dependent on the teacher for having a set amount of facts presented to them, their outcomes for learning are much more rigid, and transfer less likely.
Our schooling and our populace that affect the nature and direction of our schooling system need to adopt a more learning-centered, more modern view of education, where the purpose of learning focuses on the development of skills, methodologies and processes; where students develop a willingness and enthusiasm for delving into learning experiences independently; where our curriculum focuses in depth in a certain domains of knowledge rather then covering a wider net of facts, and teachers expect their learners to be doing the cognitive heavy work in their learning situation. Contrary to the clip from Waiting for Superman, education in an incredibly complex endeavor. As our world is incredibly complex and changing, how could we expect any less from an education?