Interesting Times

From an educational perspective these are certainly interesting times.  In New Zealand and indeed around the world the ‘traditional ‘approach to how we learn in schools is being challenged, rethought and, in many cases, re imagined. The question that has to be asked is ‘why?’ If the ‘traditional’ system has worked for 150 years then why change it?

Asking the flowing questions may help us arrive at an answer to this question;

  1. Does the way we have structured our educational system to recently actually reflect how we learn?
  2. Is the ‘traditional’ approach still relevant in the modern world?

Looking at the second question first. We have to realise that our current system of schooling with subjects split into separate entities, where teachers deliver information to students who learn it in order to pass tests and assessments was developed largely to produce a compliant work force who could do routine and repetitive tasks efficiently and accurately. Put simply, the education system that most of us went through was designed to create a compliant worker because this is what the industrial age demanded, it was developed over 100 years ago to fulfill this need and so it delivered repeatable, predictable, homogeneous bundles of knowledge that could be easily assessed. Knowledge was compartmentalized into subjects where the teacher presented information for students to learn and repeat with very little concern about whether the knowledge was retained beyond the exam room.

Children in their natural state are curious, they play and experiment and through doing they solve problems and with guidance they learn. From play comes passion which leads to progress. Think of the Maori concept of Ako where the concept of teacher and learner is fluid, where a child will learn by watching and working alongside an expert. Similar in many ways to how an apprenticeship works. In a non school environment do we learn by listening or do we learn by interacting, experimenting, questioning and coming up with problems to solve? It could be said that rather than moving in a new direction much of what is referred to as modern learning is in reality a return to the natural way we learn and that the school system of the last 150 years was something of an aberration.

We have a unique opportunity here at Rolleston, we have the opportunity to re imagine not only what learning looks like in a New Zealand secondary school but, more importantly, what it should look like. We have a clean page [or screen] to work with and we need to seize this opportunity with relish.

This does not mean that we ignore or discard what has occurred previously, far from it. We will be informed by the past but not restricted by it. So much of what has happened in ‘traditional’ schools is wonderful and we want to keep that but we can also improve and develop aspects that are no longer totally relevant to creating the leaders of the future.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the ‘U Learn’ educational conference in Auckland. The opening key note speaker, Grant Lichtman from the USA captured in his presentation the essence of why we need to change our approach to learning and indeed how we should do this. I encourage you to have a look.

The way we learn has to change because the world has changed. Through technology knowledge is now available to everyone all the time, the challenge for schools is no longer just to deliver knowledge but to do that and also to develop the skills of how to use that knowledge. We need to develop the critical skills necessary to analyse and select to adapt and problem solve.

As Lichtman described it we need an education system that is;

1.  Dynamic  [where learners are actively involved not compliant receivers of information.]

2.  Adaptive [Interdisciplinary and not restricted to a situation where a learner has to turn on their Science ‘brain’ for a 50 minute lesson and then switch on their English ‘brain’ for the next 50 minutes.]

3.  Permeable [where schooling is part of and connected to the community.]

4.  Creative [where learning is centered on the learner and involves problem solving and finding solutions.]

This is not experimental, it is not even that new, John Dewy has been one of the most influential theorists in Educational theory for over 100 years he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning. It could be that we are just starting to enact his vision that has always been seen as the ideal but rarely relaised or implemented.

The big question is how do we achieve this?

Well we have to design a curriculum that delivers not only knowledge but develops essential critical skills  that are necessary to enable an individual to use that knowledge.

We need to question the value and relevance of having one class with one teacher for one hour delivering one lesson in one way with one desired outcome. We need to develop a learning environment of problem posing and problem solving.

Why hasn’t this taken place in the past?

Change is risky and change is scary so we often tend not to change and remain anchored to and restricted by what we have always done. No progress though is ever made without taking a risk.If we do nothing though we run an even greater risk, that if not preparing our children for the futures they will face, not realising their potential and not giving them the chance to feel real joy as part of their learning experience.

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