The new terms in teaching – and why we should be skeptical

A few bits of education jargon that have recently shown up scare me. Before you write me off as an old curmudgeon, let me first say that I have always been at the vanguard of integrating technology into schools. It’s not a new thing at all; what’s new is that, at last, digital technology has become ubiquitous, but contrary to what various celebrated articles have suggested, technology has NOT changed the way students learn. Not really.

What follows is a list of terms that sound good. Essentially, they suggest positive ideas. Who wouldn’t want students to be exposed to a wide array of choices? Who wouldn’t want education to focus on the needs of the individual child? Indeed, the terms are seductive. They win converts to certain school initiatives: not just parents, but teachers as well.

But quite often, what underlies these terms is a policy directive that is not at all based on sound educational principles. Education has been around for centuries. It has been tinkered with, and commented on, by the greatest minds in history, including Confucius and Socrates. Certain realities will always demand that we tweak the system. This is natural, and desirable. But if our ideology — the “foundation” of our pedagogy starts to stray, we open ourselves up to trouble.

It is very important that we understand the impetus for these policy directives. Quite often these directives are efforts to increase “efficiency” (read: cut funding) from education. They euphemistically promise to make things better for learners, and they are used to segregate teachers into those who are “on board” and those who are not, but at their core, they can be flawed ideologies. For a well referenced look at this issue, see Philip McRae’s excellent post.

So without further ado, here are some of the terms that are worrying me. Feel free to comment if you think of more.

1. Student-centred education:

This sounds like a humanistic idea: the idea that we should try to meet the needs of each individual student – that we should consider the fact that all students “learn differently” and have different interests. This is all well and good, but it concerns me that we may be subtly reinforcing to children the notion that they are the centre of the universe and that society should cater to their needs. Furthermore, the idea that all students “learn differently” is a bit spurious. Aside from individual proclivities, for the most part, all humans “learn the same way”.

As parents and educators, we know what knowledge, skills, and attitudes children need to be taught in order to participate in, and contribute to a rich society. Students “go to” school for an education for that reason. They “go to” the bigger ideas that they don’t already know. It’s not the other way around. Surely education should be “learning centred”.

2. Student engagement

A good lecturer will be engaging for his audience, and a good teacher will create lessons that engage students by accessing their prior knowledge, and using what they already know as a springboard into knew ideas. This is good pedagogy.

However, student engagement can be problematic. There are kids who, for myriad reasons, are very, very difficult to engage. Teachers are being brow-beaten with the idea that they must “engage students”. This isn’t fair. While the teacher must do the best he can to engage children, the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” holds true. The teacher has no control over most of the factors that decrease student engagement.

Engagement is the purview of the student. Most often it is a choice. Even the most monotonous lecture can be a brilliant learning opportunity if the learner is tuned in. It’s a ridiculous assertion that it’s the teacher’s fault or the “system’s” fault that a student is disengaged. No responsible parent would ever say to a child, “That’s okay. You don’t have to do it if it’s boring.”

The teacher should make learning “accessible”, but “engagement” is up to the student.

3. Flexibility:

There is a line of thinking that suggests that the knowledge of facts is not important any more. It is based on the success of technology. The reasoning goes “With the ubiquity of technology, factual knowledge is at our fingertips; therefore there is no point in having students memorize irrelevant facts”.

There is a kernel of truth to this assertion. It is easy to find factual knowledge online, and I quite often find students checking up on me when I teach them a new idea. I love this! It shows me that they care about what I’m teaching them. And if I get it wrong (which is rare), I allow them a little playful derision.

But there are some facts that must be taught. Yesterday, I explained to my grade 8 students how the provincial parliament works. After about 15 minutes of hopping around and drawing diagrams on the board, I asked them if any of them had learned anything; if they’d known this information already.

For all of them, this was new information. Now, they could have looked this up online, and discovered for themselves how a parliamentary system works, but I believe that I was able to filter out some of the extraneous information, focus on what was important, disambiguate the terms, and generally contextualize the information in such a way that they could really “learn” it.

There is no way on earth that they would have chosen to do this on their own, and there is no way on earth that they would have learned it better if they had inquired on their own. There is too much vocabulary involved, and there is too much background context to democracy for them to be able to integrate the knowledge into their personal experience on their own.

Certainly this basic lesson in civics is important for democracy. And yet a misunderstanding of “flexibility” models threatens to allow students to learn what they would like to learn. It would be a disastrous thing for students to get through school having bypassed a knowledge of how their democracy works, simply because they chose not to learn it.

What “flexibility” is really about is denying the importance of input from teachers. The current ideal seems to be a world in which the students choose their courses, are given learning packets, and then go to school to get help with their learning exercises from aides (not teachers). So the idea is a cost saving measure – an effort to use technology to “teach” children, thereby reducing the need for teachers.

It should be noted that my lesson on the parliamentary system had been impromptu. We were actually examining the Justinian Code in an effort to get at the meaning of “law”, and the history of where law comes from. A student had asked a question “Can’t the government just make up any law that it wants?”. This led to a discussion of the difference between, and the roles of the courts and the government.

It should also be noted that this information is available online, but had I not understood the parliamentary system myself, I would not even have been able to know enough to address the issue. This idea of “flexibility” which is supported by such terms as “discovery learning” or “inquiry” is bunk.

4. Inquiry:

Never in the history of teaching has anybody ever suggested that teachers should just lecture students about the world while the students sit passively. No learning can take place without inquiry. From our first breath as human beings, we learn about the world through inquiry – through the cycle of questioning, hypothesizing, testing, revising and integrating. Any parent knows this from watching her child in the bathtub. The child will become curious about something, begin playing, and discover new things (for example, how to make a big splash!).

Even in the most drear of lectures, learning can take place if the audience member listens, anticipates and predicts what is coming next. Inquiry is at the heart of learning.

But these days, it’s as if we’ve discovered for the first time that inquiry is important. So we’re coming up with hair-brained notions that students should choose for themselves what is interesting (see “flexibility”), and that they should learn through inquiry projects on their chosen topics.

Even the most competent student will not likely be able to discover on his own some of the knowledge that he will need to have in order to become sufficiently expert in his field of inquiry.

Take a physics lesson, for example. Students could do an open-ended inquiry on simple machines, but in doing so they may never arrive at the most important idea behind the topic (indeed the very reason we teach it), which is that machines produce a calculable mechanical advantage. We teach this concept because it is a rudiment for further understanding – a stepping stone for students to develop enough expertise that they can eventually form their own inquiries into the applications of this concept.

To teach this idea in the traditional way, the teacher directs learning toward the goal of this understanding. He uses readings, exercises and lab experiments to provide an inquiry pathway for students to discover this concept. Always the teacher is mindful of Blooms Taxonomy, combined with his understandings of age-related levels of intellectual development to “push” learning. So “inquiry” is at the heart of his teaching.

The notion that students can direct their own learning is absurd. Students “go to school” to discover the body of knowledge that exists in the “university” (the one truth) that we must show them. School does not “go to students” for them to select what they would like to learn. This form of inquiry is directionless, and it will only ensure that our society as a whole will become stupider.

5. Blended Learning

“Blended learning” is a term being bandied about a lot these days. It is the latest and greatest “technique” that will revolutionize teaching and learning! Hallelujah!

What blended learning actually is, is the integration of technology into sound pedagogical practice. I do NOT oppose blended learning. What I oppose is Blended Learning™. This term creates a little clique of teachers and administrators who can become “experts” on it, thereby identifying themselves as teacher leaders, as if the idea of integrating technology into pedagogical methods is some new technique that only those who’ve been to the workshop can understand.

Again, I am not against blended learning, but when the term is used as a hammer to attack teachers who are doing a superlative job without using computer gimmicks in their teaching, I object strongly. Teachers are exposed to this kind of tawdry proselytizing through their whole careers. Many of us will remember “whole language.” None of this has ever made any positive impact on good teaching or learning.

What is particularly dismaying about Blended Learning is that it seems to ignore the fact that technology in schools is often more of a distraction than it is a learning tool. Walk through any school, or simply observe your own children. Their cel phone is constantly taking their attention away from a learning task. You may say, “So what?”, but there are things in life that require intense, focused concentration. Persuasive writing, for example, is one of those things, as the writer needs to gather evidence, anticipate criticism, and articulate thoughts in a cohesive sequence all at the same time. Any distraction can be the death of a good treatise.

Amazingly, many teachers are ignoring the evidence right in front of their faces, and subscribing to the idea that students can be focused while listening to music or checking into social media.

In fact, there is NO EVIDENCE that these things enhance concentration. At the very most, we find that there are some rare instances in which music being played through headphones can mute out external distractions and enhance concentration, but I will argue that the circumstances in which this is preferable to silence, are rare indeed.

At the heart of “blended learning” is the notion that students will have networked technology at their side, and that somehow all of the latest enhancements in technology will be able to enhance learning. There is no question that some technological advances will impact and likely benefit learning, but we need to dispel the ridiculous guilt trip that is put on teachers (quite often, venerated senior teachers) who dare to impugn God’s latest gift to teaching. There’s an ugly arrogance in some of the promotors of this new movement (that is not new at all), and their smug missive that those who raise concerns about student distraction are just “doing it wrong”. Please…

And we must also question the motives of the people funding these initiatives. I would be extremely wary of an ideology that is backed by, say… Microsoft.

I’m skeptical about these terms, but you should not confuse skepticism with cynicism. I am not cynical. I still believe in the wonder of knowledge, and I still believe in the sincerity of children in their pursuit of knowledge – and even in the sincerity of policy-makers in their aspirations for a well-educated society. But I am skeptical enough and experienced enough to know that not every new idea is a good idea, and I am also aware of the crossed purposes of policymakers: their desire to marry the education system to their political ideology – possibly to the detriment learning.

Parents and teachers must be careful to remember the philosophical bases of the school system, and of teaching and learning in general, and to not fall into the trap of accepting unconditionally whatever comes down the pike in education policy. Particularly, we need to be skeptical of jargon that euphemistically masks the influence of corporate or political agendas at the expense of universally accessible, comprehensive public education.

We must always remember our ideals. What kind of citizens are we raising? How will they contribute to an inclusive, happy society?

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7 thoughts on “The new terms in teaching – and why we should be skeptical

  1. Hi Jim,
    I agree with you that we tend to glom onto buzz words or phrases in education, like “21st Century Learning” for example. However, I think they can also offer ideas that we can incorporate into our practice. For example, I personally am not so upset by the term student-centred. I think its purpose is to show that we need to move away from the one-sided idea of constructing curriculum. But I like your term better as it puts learning at the centre, which can include the whole school community. In the final analysis, there are things kids have to learn and we can’t just say pick whatever you want, but I think the idea is to allow more choice than we have in the past. For me, school is about the community and the relationships developed. By giving students a voice in the system, we give them a reason to keep coming so that we can then “produce” moral citizens.

  2. I love and very much respect your raw, true anger and dismay at a system gone so far astray. It seems we who question and criticize the new educational fads, and find them to be the noxious pieces of shite they truly are, are castigated as “the old guard” or as hidebound naysayers. Joe or Jane Schmo “educational consultant” or “visionary educational leader” simply collects her/his acolytes, and dismisses us as “haters gonna hate,” as if we hated their “ideas” because they are new (which they are not), or because they threaten us and our methods.

    Nothing could be further from the truth, as you so clearly prove. Any important – even life-changing – system that ignores the time-tested, fair, caring, equitable, knowledgeable, and rigorous methods of its best veterans, in favour of shiny new technology pushed on us using the same sleazy methods of snake oil pedlars and used car salesmen, is a system in terminal decline, being held together only by the continued efforts of the veterans in every school who continue to teach, and help students (not “learners”) be the best that they can be, not for their own sakes (as in the “flexibility” and “inquiry” terms you write of), but for the sake also of the culture and society in which we all live.

    The brainless, pinwheel-eyed zombies in thrall to the likes of Alfie Kohn and other dimwitted – but popular because easy to read – educational “scholars” are not just purveyors of ideas that “can be flawed,” as you say: they are the educational equivalent of drug pushers, pushing unproven, improperly-researched, and untested theories on our students and colleagues. Their drugs – as all drugs – are alluring to the gullible and inexperienced, who love the immediate feeling of a heightened sense of personal efficacy and worth coursing throughout their veins. Here’s this new technological/inquiry-based/flexible/student-focused “idea” or “technology” that is so easy – it promises less work (the teacher can be an “advisor” instead of an educator), easy availability, much reinforcement and encouragement from one’s colleagues (usually equally inexperienced), and ready praise form one’s superiors. And, like Soma – the perfect drug in Huxley’s “Brave New World” – it has no hangover. No one bothers to really assess whether X or Y “new idea” or “new technology” works to make education more effective; it is just accepted that the new idea or tech is better because, well, it’s new, and “visionary” and so 21st Century!

    Soma, however, is a satiric drug: it exists only in fiction. Real drugs have hangovers, and can ruin lives. This is why ALL the educational ideologies you mention ARE flawed beyond repair. They can’t be tweaked to make them better; they are now beginning to be, and look to be increasingly and actively, harmful to our students’ educations and lives. Also, the easily-hooked young teachers addicted to the crap coming from the big pushers (universities and “thinkers” like Alfie Kohn) will be unfit to really teach once reason again takes over, and makes us all realize the purple haze we’ve been in for so many years.

    I thank you for your righteous anger, sir! A much-needed antidote to the credulous claptrap coming from almost everywhere in education these days.

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