28 May 2011

Education Wars

Justin Hamilton (quoted in Powerful Learning Practice) recently challenged people in education not merely to oppose practices but to advocate for what they would like to begin to see more of. This struck a chord with me, for I have recently been part of many online discussions that tended to be more about how the school system prevents education than how it can encourage it (or even specific ways it can be changed to encourage learning). I realise that many people discern many things about administrative policy and classroom practice that hinder students from learning, and I appreciate their discussion of what to avoid and bring to an end; it helps me learn what I need to stay away from as an educator. However, at some point, we have to decide what we will do and not merely what we will stop. Hamilton's reminder that we need to focus upon "specific policies" we want to continue or begin in school is a helpful change of focus away from what is wrong to what we would like to see flourish in education.

In an earlier post, I stated my general view that reading, writing, and numeracy are skills that should be the focus of elementary education, while critical thinking/information literacy, ethnography, and integration should be the focus of more advanced studies. School systems need to be organised around opportunities for students to practice these skills and to continue them through life. I believe that such schools would flourish and would produce learned and learning students who themselves would be excited to continue to learn, not only in school, but for the rest of their lives.

It is also true that schools could (and should) be organised into places where people collaborate in learning, and don't just hoard knowledge. Rather than to have a class full of students all competing to learn the one thing (for today) that the teacher understands about the world, it would be better for each student to be able to find out something about the world and to share that thing with the others, so that all could enjoy the understanding. This would increase the efficiency of the school.

If schools were organised to maximize collaboration, it would also make sense for classrooms to include more and less advanced students together: If students are already sharing their understanding with each other, more advanced students could explain what they know to less experienced students (and since experience doesn’t always equal the amount of class time students have had, less experienced students could also share in some specific areas where they have more understanding than those whose academic records place them further along).

At the university (Thompson Rivers) and the discipline (communications) where I teach, students in my courses have a range of skills they are competent in, and they have a variety of educational experience. In such an environment, writing practice, collaboration, and peer-teaching are all easy to incorporate. The ready availability of technology in the form of laptops, netbooks, tablets, and smaller mobile communications devices enhance this practice in the classes. Teachers in other courses may find it hard to incorporate such approaches in their curricula. I believe that those who can see a way should try to make the necessary changes; those who cannot see how should seek out colleagues for suggestions.

On a completely different topic, I came across the following quote recently and thought I’d pass it on. Fulghum’s vision is a pretty clear ideal for a truly civilised society:

"It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber." — Robert Fulghum

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