Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Educational Reform

I'm teaching a "new" type of program call the Futures Forward Project.  It joins three grade ten subjects for the morning with one teacher.  The idea is that if students have one teacher all morning, with three subjects, their education can become more flexible and therefore more student-directed as they individually decide every day what kinds of projects to do and when.

The idea has been around for centuries.  It started with Rousseau, then Montessori, and more recently with Hall-Dennis, Outcomes Based, and Mastery Learning projects.  All of these recent additions to education seem to come and go over and over under different names.  It's curious to me how we have this one main way of teaching that involves socratic teaching and some rote memorization of facts followed by testing and the practical application of skills within a typical classroom setting, and then every few years or so, we're told to throw it all out and do something radically different.  Then we revert back to the old standard again.
At first it seemed to me that maybe this Rousseau-ian program was just what we needed, and maybe it disappeared repeatedly because it was too difficult for teachers to accomplish.  After one week in, it's clearly a much more difficult type of challenge for the teacher than the standard method.  So, is it the case that it's actually a much better program that the standard, but we just lack enough dedicated, motivated teachers to make it effective?

I got my answer (so far anyway - it could change again) when I had my class watch a TED talk that helped kick off the program.

The speaker is Ken Robinson who wrote the book Out of Our Minds.  After being prompted to show the video to class before the term started, I immediately went out to get his book to better understand the theory behind it all.  There's little more in the book than what's in the TED talk. Very. Little.

The theory is this (liberally paraphrased):

P1. Human beings are amazing and limitlessly creative and have a boundless energy for learning.
P2. Education has stagnated our creative outlets so much that we're no longer interested in learning.
C. Therefore, if we change the education system, we'll all suddenly blossom into our true potential being.


Rousseau started with a similar premise that people are generally pretty smart and nice, and it's society that messes us up.  If we can change society, then people will no longer be so greedy and dastardly.

I suggest that Robinson's claim is an argumentum ad consequentiam - an appeal to consequences.  We're being asked to believe that if we change the education system we'll discover buried creative forces within us because of nothing more substantial than that the consequences will be delightful.  We want it to be true.  We hope that if education changes (or something within our control changes) that we'll finally get off the couch and start painting or dancing or building that shed out back.  We want to believe this so badly, we will spend tons of cash reforming education to make it fit a theory that is highly contentious.

In my classroom I asked for a show of hands:  "How many people think most people would choose to learn something for its own sake if they had the resources and time?"  I only got a few hands.  Then I tried:  "How many people think most people would rather passively be entertained by a movie or endless YouTube clips?"  Most the hands went up.  It's hardly a scientific study, but it is an indication of what many of us think of human nature.  We'd rather sit idle than create, and I actually think that's okay.  We need the majority to watch the shows and read the books, so the minority can make money being creative.  It's all good.  I think part of the reason this type of program keeps getting pushed into being is that a few creative learners at the top have fallen into the false consensus effect - believing that everyone is like them and would love to learn if only given better opportunities.

I think the reality is that many people just don't have any repressed creative talents that can be unearthed.  Many people don't really want to learn any more than they have to for the moment.  They just want to be entertained.  They'll struggle to learn something new only in so far as it is useful or entertaining to them.  After one week with students trying to learn for learning's sake, the focus of the majority was clearly on gaining social rewards from other classmates and little else.

The idea of mastery learning (working exclusively towards the goals of the course) is appealing in that the final marks will be a true indication of ability and not effort, but if we don't give rewards for effort then the bright ones soon realize they can efficiently do virtually nothing all term until the last few weeks, and the weak ones will give up once they conclude their efforts are getting them nowhere.  I introduced the idea of mastery learning on the first day, but I think I'll be backing up on that one.  This is the first time in decades I've had classroom management issues.  I'm going back to giving them marks for daily work habits.

To be fair, part of the reason mastery learning doesn't seem to work in this course is the confines of the term. We're trying a Montessori-type method within a standard school structure.  With true mastery learning, the bright kids who can meet all the goals today would get the grade 10 credit and move on to the grade 11 and 12 credits.  With our current system, they're stuck doing more self-directed projects to prove over and over that they have the skills and content mastered.  They can't get credit for working ahead.

Therefore, it seems to me that it's not the case that open-ended teaching methods that allow students to discover their passions will necessarily take students anywhere they wouldn't go otherwise.  And it IS the case that students still need teachers to develop engaging lessons and give them marks for every little thing they do, or they just won't do anything.  Some people love learning for its own sake, but some people like jogging at five a.m. every day.  The rest of us look at them strangely, then get back to watching YouTube videos (and not the educational ones).

But it's only been the first week.

On a side note, Rousseau also wrote about moral inequalities arising from social institutions.  Each school with this program was given seven netbooks for students to use in the classroom.  It was surreptitiously hoped that students would supply the remainder of a class set with personal devices.  In some schools, all the kids in the class have their own laptops.  In less-wealthier demographics (like mine), only a handful of students can bring in any devices.  The obvious solution is for the schools with a surplus to share with the schools with a deficit - and they would, except they're not allowed to because it wouldn't be equitable.  This is an interesting version of equity that would insist, at an Olympic dinner for instance, that a 250 lb. wrestler should be given the exact same amount of food as an 80 lb. gymnast, AND that the gymnast should not be allowed to share her leftovers because it wouldn't be fair.  Curious ethics at play there!

ETA: Here's my updated reaction a year later.


Anonymous said...

Dubious indeed.

My thinking and your words struck resonance in one of the final paragraphs where you say:

"To be fair, part of the reason mastery learning doesn't seem to work in this course is the confines of the term. We're trying a Montessori-type method within a standard school structure."

I'm left wondering now, if after a full year,you still feel this way about FF?


Marie Snyder said...

I'm writing something today that will answer that question thoroughly. Although part of the answer is that I still wish we could work outside the confines of the semesters to allow the few students eager to work at their own pace to be allowed more independence. But I still think it's only a few people who benefit from an alternative route. More students need rewards to keep them working towards the finish line. The "factory school" model isn't around just to serve factory-type jobs - it's what actually works most effectively with many students. Where I agree with Robinson is that there are kids definitely held back by our rigidity - but only a few.