On flexibility in schools: a caution.

Excerpt from a previous post:


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.


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