Learning-focused education

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What’s in a name? 

Imagine you are an advocate for a failed  teaching method. What should you do? Change the name and carry on. 

There are plenty of methods to choose from and they do have their own emphases. Some will prioritise authentic problems, others will focus on cognitive conflict, still others are more subject specific; for instance, the approaches to history teaching that stress source analysis. These interesting facets aside, the main axis along which teaching methods vary is the level of explicitness.

I advocate explicit instruction in which concepts are fully explained to students before they are asked to use or apply them. This is appropriate for school students learning new ideas because it manages cognitive load. However, it is not fashionable and only has two names that I can think of: explicit or direct instruction.

There is a plethora of less explicit teaching methods. At one end of the scale is pure discovery learning. Virtually nobody promotes pure discovery because it so manifestly doesn’t work. Instead, implicit approaches have to add in scaffolds and guidance to manage the load and this tends to make them inefficient.

Now you might be wondering why I’ve started to sound like an accountant: Why should we be concerned with efficiency? Education is about growth and development; it’s about becoming more fully human. What kind of heartless monster bangs on about efficiency?

Well, think of it this way: If you have an inefficient teaching method then you are going to have to spend more time in the superficial and the trivial; you are going to have to attend to lots of irrelevant details. If you have an efficient approach then you can get to the deep structure and conceptual understandings much more directly. You can ask and answer bigger questions.

So it is a really bad idea for an implicit approach such as inquiry learning to crowd out proper subjects in primary schools. It’s a dreadful waste of opportunity.

Explicit teachers know this and they know that the evidence supports their position. Yet we haven’t won the argument yet. Why is that?

One issue is the name game. Whatever evidence you present, people will claim it doesn’t apply to a slightly different approach that they happen to favour. For instance, Tim Taylor has tried to draw a distinction between inquiry learning and discovery learning. No doubt this is because he is a promoter of Mantle of the Expert, an inquiry learning programme where children pretend to be experts. 

And it’s also true that implicit educators have cornered some names that are hard to argue against. Who, for instance, could oppose ‘balanced literacy’? What kind of contrarian is against balance? And what does it make you if you disapprove of ‘child-centred’ education? Do you hate children or something?

So here’s a thought. Let’s rename explicit instruction as ‘learning-focused education’. It’s a pretty accurate description and, well, who could possibly be opposed to learning?

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8 Comments on “Learning-focused education”

  1. chrismwparsons says:

    I like much of what you say here Greg. My only reservation is that – having read Tim’s blog, which I think drew valid distinctions – and also having visited a full-on Mantle of the Expert school, I do wince at the characterisations of it as flogging the ‘Expert’ label (Daisy also fell down with this in 7 Myths…). I think personally a better label for it would be “Mantle of Responsibility”, as it appears to function on driving children through the experience of what it would take to have to BECOME the expert in something (obviously with age appropriate limitations)

    • Greg Ashman says:

      This is what Tim writes in his blog:

      “Mantle of the Expert involves the children taking on the responsibilities of people with expertise (this is the mantle), in much the same way as when they take on the role of a character in a game of imaginary play. This is a form of make-believe where they imagine they are someone other than themselves and are endowed with abilities and powers beyond those they really possess.”

      Link: http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/2017/01/the-paradox-of-mantle-of-the-expert-how-can-children-be-experts/

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Yes – I do acknowledge that description – but what happens in practice is that children then have to ‘draw down’ areas of knowledge which they would need in order to make decisions at each level of the process. Of course they couldn’t possibly draw down all the knowledge which people would really need to be the experts in these areas, but then they are working with simplified scenarios in a simplified world. It’s the aspect of being thrust into the (suprisingly persuasive) fiction of being in responsibility, and what the impact of that is for what they might really need to know in order to make responsible decisions, which is the intriguing and compelling part ….from what I’ve observed. Children certainly start to look at the world around them in a different way, and they also learn to appreciate the value of context and domain specific knowledge.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        Interesting. How do they ‘draw down’ this knowledge?

      • chrismwparsons says:

        Research. A drawn-out process of course! 😁 I’m not saying that I could ever properly teach that way, but it did definitely appear an engrossing way of systematically involving hearts and minds in the process of learning, and with the teacher stage-managing and remaining in overall control. Thanks for indulging my comments Greg.

  2. Tara Houle says:

    This blog entry comes at a good time Greg, thank you. I will send this along to the educator who wrote a rebuttal to my recent column here http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-balanced-approach-needed-to-teach-numeracy-1.11451548. Throughout our advocacy there has never been one criticism ever launched against teachers, rather we criticize the failed methods that the educationists insist that teachers should use. However many, like her, like to twist that fact, and turn us into teacher bashers for suggesting kids are struggling with basic math.

    Given your message here, I am sure she will thank me for sending it along.

  3. […] was reading this blog post by Greg Ashman and I had a bit of an […]

  4. Advert – The Wolf was on the end of your post. Thought it a clever metaphor only to realise it was an advert!


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