[post_intro]There’s a lot of talk about 21st century education. There are the skills that children need, the jobs that don’t exist yet, the access to learning anywhere and all the wonderful things the internet enables us to do. All of this is valuable, I think, but I wonder how much it is side-stepping the real issue?[/post_intro]
When I first started teaching, the wonderful Annie Younger pointed something out to me. She said that “children will learn from you even when you don’t want them to. It is a blessing and a curse.” What she meant was that in a school you are constantly observed. Not just in lessons, but in the corridor, talking to colleagues, spilling soup on your shirt in the dining room and the children learn from that too.
Much of the 21st century thinking about schools that I have read has focused on overt areas( e.g. assessment and badges) and times (e.g. homework and flipped classrooms) when we do want children to learn. Badges, flipped classrooms and the like. This is all good. Perhaps, though, we are ignoring think more about the tacit, unintended, soup-spilling messages our 20th century schools are giving out.
The main one, for me, is the structure. Perhaps more out of tradition than intent, schools are hierarchical, command-and-control beasts. While yes it’s good to look at ways to reinvent the classroom, what if we had a closer look at the way our schools were structured? It’s always easier to think in binary terms – hierarchy (bad) vs wirearchy (good) – and there is a danger that that blurs much of the goodness in the overlap but should we be beginning to adjust the organisational structures to fit a more fluid world? Does a school need a head? How do we embed teams? Should we? How do we engage in a less us and them manner with parents and communities?
Dave Gray‘s talk below is a great starting point for thinking about this.
As a teacher it’s hugely exciting to be able to use all the magic of technology. It’s great to be able to tweet and blog and share photos and get classrooms connecting with others around the world. That is, as Annie Younger might have said, part of what I want the children to learn. What I’m not sure I want them to learn is that all of this happens despite, not because of, a school’s structure. The values that are implicit in what I am trying to teach are not necessarily carried through in the way my colleagues and I work. That is the soup on my shirt.
Collaboration, in more and more of what I read online, is a pre-requisite of good “21st century” learning environments. I can see why it is important, but as with a lot of online discussions, it seems needlessly binary. One has the sense you either subscribe to the “we should all be collaborating model” or you are a reactionary dolt who just doesn’t get it. I’m not sure it’s a simple a good as people make out, though.
There are various points I’m unclear about. The first is political. As this report comments,
“Working in groups can have considerable drawbacks for learning as well. Many students do not know how to work together and must have good models and instruction for the process. The status of individuals within a group can make some students consistent leaders and others always followers. The person whose ideas are respected in general may not be the person with the best understanding of the problem to be solved. Collaborative learning must also be organized in ways that tap diversity as a positive resource and counteract classroom stereotypes”
In other words, yes collaboration is important but it needs some quite serious social training and/or engineering for children to get the most out of it. How often does this actually happen in class compared to the herd them into groups and see how they get on approach?
The second is character. Not everyone is an extrovert. Yes group work is useful: if nothing else it adds energy to classrooms and gets children engaged. Any introvert, though, who has sat through a seminar with an extrovert full of their own ideas knows how painful group work can be. Susan Cain puts it far better than I can.
It would be a great shame if the quiet of contemplation lost out to the noise of collaboration in schools.
The third is interest. Collaboration seems to trump co-operation. These are different things, though, and I am not sure why one is better than the other. The group approach implicit in collaboration helps foster a group ethos and all the good that comes from shared goals. However, if it is important to personalise learning, then perhaps we need to be careful when we insist on collaboration that the child’s own goals are not too frequently sacrificed to those of the team? Personalisation and collaboration are not wonderfully easy bedfellows.
What can the humanities offer students in the twenty-first century? Merely the possibility of teaching them to pay attention, to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to experience awe and wonder, to think with depth and sensitivity about life, and to know there are values beyond profit and self-interest. The humanities teach us habits of critical thought and the historical perspective necessary for citizenship in a democracy. And they help us to think about how to use technology to make the world a better home for humanity. This is not meant as a rallying cry for educational Luddites or to deepen the divide between the world of science and technology on the one hand and the humanities on the other. But it is meant as a reminder that the classics, from the ancient to the contemporary, became so because they endured, and they endured because their greatness in form and content transcends their time and place and thus speaks to everyone. The humanities speak to us, but the responsibility to listen is ours, and it is our responsibility to lead students into such listening.
In 2006, Julie Gainsburg studied structural engineers at work for over 70 hours.She found that although they use maths extensively, they rarely use standard procedures. [via the excellent The Elephant in the Classroom.]
“Recognizing and defining the problem and wrangling it into a solvable shape are often part of the work; methods for solving have to be chosen or adapted from multiple possibilities, or even invented; multiple solutions are usually possible; and identifying the “best” route is rarely a clear-cut determination, thanks to the competing priorities of various parties …
[the traditional maths curriculum] with its focus on performing computational manipulations, is unlikely to prepare students for the problem-solving demands of the high-tech workspace”