The case for options

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I was reading a post about student-centred learning and it occurred to me just how far away from each other the two sides of the education debate often are.

It’s tempting to be taken in by the idea that teachers are pragmatists who all use a range of different approaches. Yet here was Richard Wells, a deputy principal from New Zealand writing a sincere and sophisticated account of a teaching programme that I simply don’t endorse. Not only are the project-based methods at odds with my view that explicit instruction is more effective, Richard and I don’t even share the same aims. 

I want students to develop a deep understanding of important ideas whereas Richard hardly mentions content at all. I’m not sure from his account whether students are intended to discover it all for themselves through research or whether any of it is intentionally taught and this is because content is not Richard’s focus. He sees his aim as developing a set of transferable skills or strategies that students will be able to use in the future to learn and work. His focus is on the steps taken towards producing complex performances. The content of these performances is pretty irrelevant. 

I don’t think generic skills can really be developed in this way, aside from a few useful heuristics and by providing the opportunity for a bit of personality growth (see this paper). This objective certainly does not need a dedicated curriculum. Instead, it is better to focus on teaching powerful content. But I might be wrong.

I am nervous about models of school choice because of my fear that sharp-elbowed middle-class parents will end up with their children dominating the good schools. Yet I wonder whether choice is the way out.

In Australia we have the Australian Curriculum where, supposedly, schools are meant to do everything i.e. teach agreed content and develop these generic skills. The content is not rigorous or powerful enough for me and I suspect that the skills don’t go far enough for the Richard’s of this world. 

So we could offer a choice. We could have different schools pursuing different agendas. What of my fears? Well, it doesn’t seem as if Free Schools in the U.K. have become bastions of privilege although I’m interested in research on this issue. And I think there are just as many switched-on parents who will be convinced by the 21st century skills argument as would be convinced by mine. 

Over time, it’s likely that one model will prove to be better than the others and the centre of gravity will shift. Or perhaps we will end up with a mixed economy where different types of schools serve different needs. Either way, it offers the hope of a resolution that seems pretty distant if we carry on the way we’re going.


10 thoughts on “The case for options

  1. Be nice to see the day when parents demand their children are taught by methods supported by our understandings of cognitive science and quality research in education. Trouble is the knowledge-privileged children of the middle and upper classes succeed well enough in the current system that there is no pressure for change.

  2. You’re right Greg. It is very worrying when some people are fixated by an “either/or” approach. I am. It sure there is any ‘right way’ in teaching and learning but rather it involves a composite of the best of a number of approaches, all of which have positives. It’s about ‘and’ rather than ‘or’. Mind you when I said this on a ‘Tweet’, I was cut off by an eminent blogger and author.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this and student centred learning/teaching. An excellent mix of sensible practice underpinned by theory.

  3. Reading parent forums, it appears there is the same divide among parents. For example, between those who want homework in primary schools and those who don’t. Or those who object to a strong behavior policy, and those who are angry about low level disruption. Schools get pressured in both directions. Like you, I’ve begun to think that the only way to resolve this is to offer different models.

  4. I’ve come to Twitter after becoming exhausted by the ‘everything works’ approach to education we seem to be taking in Australia.

    Ultimately, it seems we need to agree on the purpose of schooling. Personally, I believe it is to pass on the knowledge of generations, an enculturation if you like. Not only does this seem at odds with my colleagues (I work in a government high school), but I’m not sure they even understand my point of view.

    Unfortunately, this seems to be the current predicament of those who believe the scientific method offers us the best approximation of the truth of the world (I’m an English teacher by the way!). I’m very interested in why people are unwilling to cede ground to reliable, valid and replicated science. I think the best answer is that our way of life simply doesn’t value truth anymore – the insidiousness of the market and desperate egomania seems to have created a culture where immediate gratification is necessary to even further a point.

    In six weeks of applying what I’ve learned about the science of education this year, I’ve seen incredible results. I’ve also been less stressed (focusing on strict management and curriculum, rather than student-centred approaches to both).

    I guess all we can keep doing is promoting a scientific approach and hopefully the results start to get some attention.

  5. Hi Greg–when I read your convos on Twitter, everything seems to break down when you ask for evidence or try to get someone to clearly define what you mean (the one yesterday where the person was making a distinction between “pretending” and “make-believe” was truly absurd). But then, if you look in ERIC, and type any of the evidence-free things in, there is a swarm of entries–even on learning styles–that might reaffirm a true believer. Then it becomes your facts vs. their facts, and nothing good ever comes from that (see US politics).

    This is why I’m a fan of Deans for Impact–I may not 100% agree with their work product, but they are making a serious effort to push out evidence-based concepts in ed. That they are doing so from ed schools is important too–maybe their faculty will stop promulgating nonsense.

    Meanwhile, my school has a consultant coming in totell us about “student-centered brain based pedagogies”…

  6. The daily frustration I feel regarding my children’s education is extreme. I fear that I can not wait for the day when the educators “wake up”.

    I think the child-centred, inquiry/skills based push is far to ingrained to be replaced any time soon. Many reasonable, intelligent people seem to sing its praises regardless of the lack of evidence or the seemingly dodgy-sounding theories. It stuns me. Therefore I would advocate for school choice. I’m tired of being the teacher at home and my kids are sick of having to try to teach themselves and the silly projects they are expected to do for assessment.

  7. School choice is great for kids whose parents will make the right ones. But look at alternative/fake medicine for how badly a large number of people will choose when given the option.

    Any rear monopoly has the problems school systems do. There is little in the way of forces to correct mistakes that don’t actually kill people. But the bad ideas in education are not so bad that we don’t get a new batch of people entering university to become doctors every year. So yes the near monopoly does hurt.

    I am a big fan of choice but if people think teachers don’t all pick the best options now think how badly it could go if parents are making the choices. Some will do really well and others will fall for the next salesman selling a brain gym.

    1. Because

      1. For the most part people are not paying for this out of their pocket.
      2. People making the choices are not the ones who suffer all the consequences.

      These are two good reasons to have society in the form of the government make decisions for people or at least restrict their choices.

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