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.