Some Components I’ve Noticed In Educational Discourses
Here is my first, very rough draft (dated 2nd November 2008) of what are the wider themes of educational discourse that I have encountered in conversations, online and face to face, at my school and at conferences and other schools, that are on my mind.
By discourse I mean the sorts of things that are said and are likely to be repeated
I invite comments, particularly to suggest better ways of phrasing the arguments below, and the terminology.
I simply HAD to get these ideas down from my head into text. I’ll polish them and comment on them later.
Please note I am not yet commenting on WHAT I THINK. I am simply parroting in my own way the sorts of things are being said. I am preparing to make some comments especially in relation to my recent experience of schools in the US. But not yet!
Also, what comes below is not exhaustive, just what seems urgent to me for me to make up my mind about
WHAT IS BEING SAID ABOUT...
1. Old School
2. Technology in Education
5. Direct Instruction
1. Old School
There is an image I have in my head, that exists all too often in real classrooms, of the well-meaning teacher who over-regulates the classroom both in terms of behaviour management (very strict) and content (focus on the concrete).
The teacher is prescriptive, the classroom safe, predictable, and boring. Student behaviour tends to be more difficult because those students who do not prize conformity and teacher-approval are liable to do anything, anything, to make life more interesting.
Of particular note is that the student agenda does not match the teacher agenda. The teacher’s agenda is:
- To cover teaching content by having students complete activities.
- To maintain control of the students.
The student’s agenda is:
- Possibly to be compliant. This may be for teacher approval, but also due to a general notion that success in school equals success in life, which is a message students get from every direction, although it is false. Compliance may also be to avoid punishment.
- Social Rewards. Who will they sit near? Who will they talk to and work with? What will they be known and valued for?
- Avoid boredom. Or put up with it.
The clash of agendas makes the teacher exert greater and greater psychological force and threats of sanctions in order to win compliance. Their sense of ‘face’ becomes tied to winning compliance. Once a teacher goes down this path, the dynamic often intensifies and habit sets in. The clash of agendas comes to be the definitive dynamic of the class. The teacher gets better and better at championing their agenda.
The class looks orderly, under control, and successful, but is still fundamentally defined by an underlying conflict that the teacher just happens to have won.
The teacher has spent years learning how to achieve this and is very reluctant to change. Blood, sweat and tears have gone into their techniques, and awful memories of past failures and humiliations, (where the students ganged up and won the conflict) linger in the teacher’s mind.
In the Old School classroom, the dominance of the teacher’s agenda is the single defining characteristic of the lesson, well over and above learning and student growth.
2. Technology in Education
There is a strong teacher movement to use technology in education.The possibilities are incredible.
Technology in education is best thought of as a new “space”.
The students move in this space anyway, outside of school. In fact the technological space has become a fundamental component of their world.
Furthermore the technological “space” shrinks and transcends the physical world, allowing meaningful global communities spanning countries and cultures, and transcending the limitations of time, since the connections are always on.’
When technology is conspicuously absent from the learning space this sends a powerful, if invisible, message to the students about the relevance of school to “real life”.
However, using technology does not cure a teacher of the Old School dynamic I defined above. The new technology “space” can be used very conservatively. Instead of writing, students type or record their voices. Instead of using the Encyclopedia Brittanica, they look at Wikipedia. Instead of watching a video, they watch YouTube. None of this is revolutionary.
But technology will tend to “rock the boat” of the old school approach. The teacher who uses a wiki learns very quickly that they do not have a final say or veto over it. When students publish work online the teacher is no longer the definitive audience.
Technology ought to be used in all schools and made fully available to all students, but it does not necessarily transform classroom practice.
3. Creativity in Education
What do we actually want our students to have?
At conferences and in the online discourse by teachers, creativity is the new black. Throw out Old School, because Old School focuses on skills and a willingness to conform and comply. These characteristics, so the argument goes, are great for an industrial economy, but not for an information economy, where ideas and information in general, and new ideas in particular, are the new commodity.
4. Constructivism / Inquiry-Based Learning / Project-Based Learning
Constructivism is quite Socratic. Instead of starting with the teacher, you start with the student. The student learns about the world through their own initiative, experiments and decisions. The path they take is dictated not by the teacher but by their own curiosity and their own strategic decisions.
They end up learning similar content to Old School, and much more besides, but the content is learnt as it becomes useful to achieve a higher aim – to write a book, construct a mechanical vehicle, design a bridge, persuade a politician, or whatever other real life aim they have.
The teacher plays the role of coach, guiding the student, providing information and technique where appropriate.
Constructivism presupposes a general match in student and teacher agendas. The student comes with natural curiosity. The teacher wants to encourage that curiosity but not dictate its path.
Students tend to learn much more efficiently than with Old School, because their agenda is to learn.
This also requires more effort on the students’ part because they are mentally engaged and making their own decisions.
5. Direct Instruction