Let them Learn …

young boy lying on a wall by a river
Just thinking…

How is it that when you can’t sleep at night , and I struggled last night because I am full of cold and couldn’t breathe, you can write a whole blog post, plan lessons and work out how to fit all the things you need to do in the time you need to do it, but that when you come to do all those things the next day, your mind is a complete blank? I reckon we need some sort of app that records your thoughts in that half-life of “nearly sleep” so that you can access them when you need them.

Anyway, this may or may not be what I thought of last night but here goes!

I read this article the other day about how brainstorming to engender new ideas doesn’t work in a managed situation like a meeting or even a classroom.  It makes complete sense.  My ideas usually come to me when I am on a long walk, or reading a book, gardening or, like last night when I am in bed. In short, when I am relaxed and am not being put on the spot.

“Google quite famously encourage their staff to set aside their day-to-day work every Friday to explore new ideas, new technologies.” http://newlearnings.posterous.com/google-friday.   When we have time to think we tend to come up with ideas that we can then explore and deeper learning takes place.

Sugata Mitra, in his recent TEDtalk talks about how people will learn all by themselves if they are given the opportunity.  He says “It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen.”

He asks if, “Knowing is obsolete”? If we can search the internet for an answer to a question when we need it, what is the point of filling our students’ heads with “knowledge”?  He questions the current educational system – not that it is broken, just that it is out of date.  He says that “We take our children, we shut their brains down, and then we say “perform”!  We need to shift the balance back from threat to pleasure.”  He proposes a “Self Organised Learning Environment” in which we adopt the “Grandmother Method” of asking questions, standing back, giving encouragement and allowing learners to work it out themselves.

Image that has SOLE written at the top with a definition of it below - a symbole denoting broadband plus another indicating collaboration and a third to represent encouragement and admiration.

I think this idea has huge potential and a lot of merit.  However, it is going to take a huge mindshift amongst the teaching profession to enable it.  We are used to being the providers or the gatekeepers of knowledge, doling out spoon-sized portions of knowledge on a need to know, just in case basis.

But today, the content is massive.  How can we possibly provide everything we think that the learners of today might need tomorrow?  We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information so maybe SOLE is the only way that we, as teachers, will be able to cope.   We shift from being providers of knowledge to enablers of learning.   We need to provide space, physical and emotional, for our students to explore and learn for themselves and from each other.

I have one question, though. How do we create a mindshift amongst parents and the students themselves?  Mitra suggests that “examinations and punishment are seen as threats”.  I agree; in many schools they are.  But in high performing schools, in high decile areas, where the children come from backgrounds where examination results are given high status, the students often see examination results as the only motivator.  I am saddened when I hear students say when I ask them to engage in a task “How many credits is it worth?” and when they find that there are no credits attached to it they become disengaged and don’t take the task seriously.

I have remembered now what I thought of last night!

As part of a team leading Professional Development in my school, whose focus for the next couple of years is “Blended Learning”, we are meeting some resistance.  Don’t get me wrong, most of the staff are very engaged, and positive about the adaptations they are making to the way that they teach.  But the resistance comes in the form of, “Well, we already get excellent results, our girls are generally well-motivated and if we try something different and we fail (i.e. examination results go down) how will the parents and students react?  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Our students, and there are many like them around the school, have an expectation of a good education, an expectation that the teacher is there to teach them (spoonfeed them) and that they will get good results.  They don’t actually, really want to have to think!  They just want content poured into them so that they regurgitate it when the time is right for the examiners to process and grade. Where has their desire to simply learn and inquire gone? As Sugata Mitra suggests, an outdated education system, as effective and robust as it once was for the purpose for which it was created, shuts down minds in a world where creativity, inventiveness and flexibility are increasingly necessary. In NZ we have a fantastic forward thinking curriculum but, as yet, the examination system has not quite caught up.  It is getting there and there are opportunities within it for creativity, self-organised learning and a wider range of assessment types.  It is still content heavy though, and it is still being taught by a generation of teachers who are afraid to take risks just in case results suffer.  And in the world of league tables, comparison charts and the threat of performance pay why would they?

So back to the idea of SOLE.  I think I have tried to use this method for a few years now. I certainly favour a task-based approach which encourages students to find things out for themselves.  However, it is only recently that I have adopted it as an approach with all my classes.  In the 1990s when I had groups of low ability, highly disengaged students who really couldn’t have cared less about examination results, and were only at school because they had to be, for my own sanity I needed to find a way to motivate them to want to learn. Embedding learning through authentic tasks, like designing and creating a French style garden in the grounds of the school and creating a mural, with a few carrots dangled and a heap of encouragement, those students started to enjoy coming to lessons and learning things.  I never really tried it with the “bright” kids – they already seemed engaged and I didn’t need to “survive” those lessons and they passed exams anyway.

Maybe it works with the children in India because they don’t have access to formal education, they want to learn because they cannot? (whereas our students perversely don’t want to learn because they can!) They value the opportunities to learn, they still have the ability to inquire, a system has not pummelled it out of them.

I don’t have any answers but I have lots of questions.  I desperately want to engender a desire to learn just to learn, out of interest for a subject in my students and my own children, but I wonder if they just have too much.  They take learning for granted, they don’t really need to learn, they just need knowledge!  Well that is what they think, anyway, and that is what their parents think and that is what a society built on an outmoded edcuation and results-driven examination system requires of them.  Until we achieve that paradigm shift it’s not going to change!

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