Key questions in education

After many years of teaching, I wonder about some of the directions we’re heading in education. I’m not sure that parents and upper level policy-makers – even “experts” are aware of what’s actually going on in classroom. I’m not sure about the validity of some of the assumptions we make about how students learn and what they need to be successful in school. Meanwhile, our unchecked assumptions about what students need have led to new initiatives in education, most involving digital technologies. Some claims that teachers make about the success of their initiatives go unsubstantiated. For example, people who are using various lesson techniques (say… iPods in the classroom) are reporting success, but no one seems to question whether the success is:

a. achieved to the same degree it would be using more traditional techniques

b. able to generalize to a setting outside of a particular teaching scenario

c. a reflection of how the teacher measures success (e.g. more participation? improved reading skills” more fun?).

Technologies are coming out faster than we are able to evaluate their efficacy. Teachers are being rewarded for ascribing to technological models: winning acclaim and sometimes promotion for spearheading change using technological initiatives. Education ministries are looking at exploiting digital technology’s power to reach many people at once as a way to decrease the need for teachers’ and students’ presence in classrooms. Many students are taking online courses. It seems to me that we are on an inexorable path toward change, without really pausing to examine whether this is a good idea.

What follows is a list of sevenquestions that I consider to be essential, followed by my speculations about the answers.

1. Can we assume that all students are always motivated to do the work required to improve their skills?

I don’t believe we can. I believe that there are some students who either don’t know why they are attending school, or just plain don’t want to be there. I also believe that there are students who, despite being perfectly capable of participating fully in their education, prefer not to engage in the work. Furthermore, I believe that many who ARE motivated to do well will do the minimum amount of work they can to get the grades they expect. For a surprising number of students, a 50% pass is the end goal.

This all says more about human nature than it does about teaching and learning, but we would do well not to fool ourselves. Despite the efforts of the most competent teachers, students will not always learn as much as they can.

2. Can we hold teachers accountable for the failure of students to engage in school?

I believe that teachers should be evaluated on their ability to provide meaningful, organized, engaging instruction. Teachers and schools must do what they can to make learning accessible, without lowering expectations. There is much research in the field of learning theory and cognitive psychology that can advise teachers about best practice. However, if students actively resist the direction and effort of the teacher, learning will not occur. In such a case, the teacher should not be held accountable for a student’s failure. Furthermore, the teacher has an ethical obligation to accurately report the student’s lack of progress, and to carefully consider whether the student should be allowed to proceed to the next level. In the vast majority of cases of failure to learn, the teacher is not to blame. Above all, schools should not pander to students’ desire for fun and easiness over substance.

3. Should schools be learner-centered?

No. They should be learner-focused, but learning-centered. Schools are places of learning, not social clubs or health spas. Not all learning can be fun. All courses have expectations that must be met by students. Teachers should not be pressured to make courses meet students’ expectations. The school’s primary purpose is to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes, not to entertain students or to provide day care. Although a successful teacher must do his best to tailor his instruction to meet the needs of the individual learners, his curriculum is not learner centered. Instruction is learner-centered; curriculum is not. Otherwise the whole idea of education would be absurd.

4. Is choice important to student learning?

Yes. Good schools offer electives that are attractive to a variety of different students. As students gain a general understanding of the world, it is natural for them to want to specialize. There is also some benefit in allowing students to investigate topics that are interesting to them in project-based scenarios.

5. Should students be able to choose how and what they learn?

Not always. Every content area has basics that must be learned whether they are engaging or not. For example, any successful student of piano knows that arpeggios and scales are not as engaging to play as sonatinas and nocturnes, but they are important rudiments to the development of technique that allows for specialization. No amount of salesmanship by the piano teacher is going to engage the student in practicing scales. No student should be allowed to take a course he is not prepared for.

6. Is an “inquiry-based” approach to learning the best way to engage and teach students?

I am quite certain that inquiry is at the heart of learning. For example, through directed inquiry and well-selected readings, students will be able to gain an understanding of literary themes and of symbolism. In such a scenario, the teacher’s role is to guide the inquiry. Once the child is engaged in the inquiry question, he will need the teacher to direct him to the answer (or just tell him the answer). Inquiry-based teaching is very demanding in terms of resources, especially if students are to choose their own inquiry, because the teacher will have to creatively inject learning goals into to the students’ project, rather than rely on a prescribed one-size-fits-all content as we have done in the past. Smaller student to teacher ratios will be necessary.

7. Does digital technology enhance learning?

No. While I believe there are many instances in which digital technologies can help with teaching and learning, they will never replace good teaching. Technology has its benefits. It offers instant access to factoids, which can shortcut the teacher’s and students’ search for exemplars of knowledge. It can also be used to disseminate  myriad information to multiple audience members instantaneously. A case in point is the variety of Youtube lessons that help do-it-yourselfers like me to fix their cars. In the name of efficiency, it is natural that digital technologies will be exploited. But I believe we must proceed with caution. For example, we know that kids are spending a lot of time in front of computer screens. A lot of people find it disconcerting that kids are opting for digital games rather than outside play. Scientists are postulating  links between the increase in on-screen gaming, and ailments such as obesity and attention deficit. There is even talk of students being “addicted” to online technology. At the very least, this concern should be raised before we wish for every student to have a computer screen in the classroom. It will be interesting to learn what the next few years of research show us.

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