Saturday, January 7, 2012

Schooling: The Nature of Learning

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film, but it was this 20 second clip which destroyed it's legitimacy and perpetuated a view of teaching that I believe is obsolete and harmful.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.

What Drupal training could be
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?


Dick Hatfield said...

I was trying to do actual work, but your blog post (i.e. technology) distracted me from my goal. Just thought that was ironic (or fitting?).

Also, it's so weird that you mentioned "Waiting For Superman." I just watched it two days ago. I thought it was good. I didn't even bat an eyelash to the scene you pointed out though. I suppose that's how engrained that type of education is. Then again, I think that scene was merely meant to illustrate the way education (as we have known it) works, and can work, with good teachers.

Nonetheless, I found the "schools kill creativity" video to be much more effective in illustrating the wrongs of the public school system. I could have just watched that instead and saved myself a good hour and a half!

Actually, that's not true. I think for Waiting For Superman is valuable because it's the first movie that I know of that actually places part of the blame on teachers for the failed public school system. Maybe it's too simplistic of a viewpoint, and other causes such as standardized tests and wrong-minded federal mandates get short shrift, but it's one to consider. Teachers are often placed on a pedestal in this country for their "noble" work, but bad teachers can be extremely harmful, and there's very little recourse available to get rid of them. That's what I took from it, for what it's worth.

DefEnjoyment said...

My hopes with most writings is that they rob you of time / energy of the important thing you need to do like a lecherous parasite. Thanks for the read and the reply though.

That scene is really only 20 seconds so it's easy to miss and it's easy not to think much. I don't know why they put that scene (I think guggenheim does a bunch of animation and such). But, if we want to prepare our learners for the workplace that will enter into, that way of teaching can't work. Based on what I believe to be the need to create an independent, inquiring, adaptable, technologically literate and self-reliant workforce that will enter into the economy, I don't think our old way of teaching can work. Even if a good teacher does that model well, they will not have the traits needed, I believe at least, to be as successful as they would if they had went through a learning centered classroom.

Some level of blame can be put on teachers and unions, but not nearly as much espoused by Waiting for Superman. The film doesn't do enough to address discuss all the issues of inequity, of poverty that the rest of society thinks teachers can easily address in their classes. Absolutely a good teacher can get any group of students regardless of background to excel, but it much harder to do so when there are so many more issues that the student's bring in with them. People fail to realize many of these difficulties. Waiting for Superman glosses over this huge factor of a long ingrained, historical societal inequity and puts too much on the behavior of some teacher unions.

lynn baum said...

I thought you had some very good comments about education. I wanted to add this link on the 21st Century Learning Skills that I think is helping to balance what is being valued in the classroom - and is guiding educational programs in museums.

humoshi said...

Interesting post.

I think the dichotomy between teacher-centered and student-centered is a bit of a problem. I hear it a lot, but it seems to be based on the Ben Stein caricature than what actually happens in a classroom. In all of the classrooms I have observed, there is very little lecture, much group work, and a focus on methodology rather than rote memorization. This is because the National Science Foundation has been pushing for inquiry-based pedagogy for quite some time now. Even when I went to school, many years ago, there was a mixture of lecture and activities. What are the results of the NSF curriculum at these schools? Science scores have gone down, and they are being closed in the fall because they failed to make AYP for many years.

I understand that our current education system is failing miserably, but what exactly is the problem? And is student-centered learning the answer? Where is the overwhelming evidence that drastically changing our school system's facilities, scheduling, methodology, and pedagogy in this manner are going to solve the problem?

Here are some good papers about student-centered learning.

The Equivalence in Learning Paths in Early Science Education


Why Minimal Guidance Does Not Work

Honestly, I have no idea on how to fix the system. I think the only practical thing to do is take the restraints off of schools and allow parents to choose. Increase the variability and the selection pressure, and let the system slowly redesign itself from the bottom up. Let's use the collective intelligence of the public* to solve this problem, as opposed to having some academic from on high say "I have an idea that is supported minimally in the literature. Let's make it a mandate for all schools!"

* Every time I write collective intelligence, a picture of a Michele Bachmann rally flashing into my mind and I cringe.

DefEnjoyment said...

Apologies about the late reply. A couple points...a classroom can certainly be student centered and still fail. Most of the time in my high school students were doing independent work. However, one factor that I mainly argue is overlooked is a certain level of openness and richness that the material and work students are doing allows. For example many the labs I would do in science clearly prescribe out each step of a procedure and in the end you are supposed to see a desired outcome that may or may not work. This didn't allow for the ability to use more problem solving skills and ignores the fact that most real world problems, there are not standard conditions and steps to work from. Especially in our changing world, we need to figure out how to solve novel problems and especially doing so when starting from the beginning. Problem-solving and inquiry based teaching needs to be balanced however with efficient ways to develop background knowledge.

Having the ability to develop fluency and comfort with important points of prior knowledge is crucial to do the skills involved in higher learning. Whether it's being able to comfortably do math equations efficiently, familiarity and practice with the periodic table, developing sheer fluency in how many words per minute or developing a rich background in the basic facts of American History, learners need exposure and practice to/ with information. Much of this however, is still efficiently done independently after a teacher has modeled and ensured that their group of learners is comfortable with the skill and knowledge they need to develop.

In the end though, I think our biggest problem in the educational system comes down to equity and access. You have a lot of amazing schools in the country where you won't see the problems were discussing. However, you have many schools (often based in areas with drastically higher rates of poverty) that are just utterly dysfunctional. Fareed Zakaria notes that similarly, our decline STEM education is rooted in this. We have some great schools that teach math and science just fine, but we have way too many schools (often underfunded, but there are other factors certainly) that are lacking and often have high concentrations of students from impoverished backgrounds who have more needs coming into the classroom.