We’re all familiar with a depressing litany of complaints about education today–disaffected students, parents abandoning the public system, teacher burn-out and turnover, poor test scores, failure to keep up with technological changes, unjust schools more than 50 years after the Brown decision, inadequate and unequal funding, and lack of relevancy to either the current life of students or their future as citizens and workers. One might add the tendency to blame all other problems–crime, drugs, economic decline, moral failure, poor health, and more–on the schools.
There are many issues related to even this incomplete list of complaints, with neither a single cause nor an easy cure. But one issue that demands more attention is how we conceive the very process of teaching and learning. We all have a tendency to expect education to follow the pattern we experienced as students in formal settings, while ignoring what we’ve learned as participants in life. We assume that conventional pedagogy is the natural order of things, perhaps the only possible order.
While there is great variation across age levels, subject areas, and organizations, we all know the routine of conventional pedagogy. It includes elements such as:
- The learning objectives include content delivery and skills development. There is at least an implicit scope and sequence, meaning that these objectives can be specified in advance, have a well-defined sequence, and clear boundaries, as in “this course covers British, but not American, literature.” The questions underlying the outlined study are usually implicit.
- The identification of learning objectives allows the use of pre-set methods and materials. These may be realized in a syllabus, a textbook, curriculum guides, or increasingly, online learning modules.
- Response modes for the students are limited, defined by structured classroom discussion, specific assignments, and tests.
- Discussion is teacher-driven, as in the familiar initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) interaction.
- The pedagogy relies on external evaluation of learning, by the teacher rather than the student, or more often the case, by standardized testing procedures.
When learning activities are divorced from ordinary experience, fragmented into short blocks of time, and framed within narrowly-defined disciplines, the learner is unlikely to engage, remember, or apply the knowledge supposedly conveyed. Teaching becomes a chore, and schooling becomes irrelevant to the actual life of the students, much less to the needs of the larger society. It is difficult in that situation to foster the development of critical, socially-engaged intelligence, one that might in turn be able to transform schools and the society they reflect.
But there are philosophical blinders, institutional pressures, and practical challenges which constrain learning in exactly those ways. How can we provide learning opportunities that are connected to the learner’s needs and interests, relevant to life both within and beyond schooling, challenging and engaging? How can we conceive disciplines in a way that enlarges learning rather than limits it? How can we make the best use of texts, multimedia, computers, field experiences, dialogues, and all the other media for learning?
Bruce, Bertram C. (2009). Must we obsess about student testing?
Illich, Ivan (1973). Why we must disestablish school. In Ivan Illich, Deschooling society. London: Marion Boyars.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006, April 9). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. American Educational Research Association presidential address, San Francisco.
School of Barbiana (1969). Letter to a Teacher. Tuscany, Italy.