Saturday, March 15, 2014

Learning is a Fire

The Alberta government is currently proposing a massive overhaul of K-12 education curriculum called Inspiring Education. The focus of this change is - quite obviously - increasing student engagement and inspiration. Meanwhile, a coalition of parents led by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies is proposing a back-to-basics approach to math. Which of these two philosophies is right?

Both.

Early in my career I stumbled upon a Latin quotation from Plutarch: Non enim ut vas, ita mens quoque impleri opus habet: fed fomitem tum et alimentum (ficut materia incendia). "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." I have found this to be wholly correct. Learning is much like a fire. Sometimes it rages like an all-consuming inferno; at other times it quietly is snuffed out. During my first teaching job in Northern Alberta I taught young Air Cadets survival skills. We learned that every fire requires three elements: Fuel, Air, and Spark. You cannot start a fire without all three. Likewise, learning requires three elements: Knowledge, Skills, and Motivation. You cannot learn without all three.

Alberta Ed is emphasizing the importance of the spark (fun and inspiration), while the back-to-basics cadre is emphasizing the importance of the fuel (core knowledge). There should be a place for both philosophies in every classroom. Over the past year I have heard more and more educators argue that they know the "right" approach and I'm forced to wonder how that approach can work for all of their students. A quick trip down memory lane serves to provide me with two examples from my own life where I learned best under different circumstances. In grade 9, I was a math superstar. I learned math quickly and easily, and couldn't wait to apply abstract concepts to real-world problems. My teacher provided me with inquiry-based problems to work with as enrichment while my peers focused on the basics of polynomials and geometry. In contrast, I struggled as a writer. I was a voracious reader, but despite the fact that I had written several essays that year, I needed a teacher to explicitly tell me how to improve my writing.

As my school's Inclusion Coach, my role involves helping teachers differentiate for their students. The most difficult students to teach often have ADHD, a learning disability, or some variety of behavioural disorder. In most of these cases, students require their classroom to be logical, orderly, and sequential. The key strategy for their long-term learning is practice or time-on-task. The learning environment that I am describing is not one typified by Alberta Ed's Inspiring Education ideology. It is a teacher-centred construct in which the teacher carefully filters the information for students so that it can be learned in the simplest manner possible. Many students require this type of teaching to be successful. If they are dropped into a Discovery Learning classroom they will sink to the bottom.

Gifted students are different. They quickly master the required knowledge and develop the needed skills with ease. In a teacher-centred classroom these students will be bored, as they wait for their peers to struggle with a concept they found easy. Student-centred learning is a sound teaching strategy for these students. In addition, it is a sound strategy for any student who has mastered the essential concepts and is ready to apply their knowledge. Many progressive teachers are jumping into student-centred learning because they were the students who would have benefited from this style of teaching. Some parents and students support it because they hope to alleviate classroom boredom. In contrast, struggling students (and their parents) often hate inquiry based learning. The teacher facilitates rather than filters, and this makes the world of learning much more complex.

As a teacher, I have tried to reach a balance. We begin most units learning the key knowledge and practicing the needed skills. As students master a concept they begin one of several projects which will force them to expand on the basic ideas we have learned. (Some students do not delve deeply into the project stage). At the end of each unit I have a traditional test which I compare to student projects. I am not an educational trailblazer. Many teachers (including my own) have taught this way for years. It is not a fad. It is a balanced approach to education.

I appreciate Alberta Ed's attempt to pare down curriculum to a manageable level. I just hope that they look out of the ivory windows and remember that many students struggle to learn, and that prescriptively making learning more rich and complex will serve to demotivate these students. We all don't learn the same way. We all shouldn't teach the same way. The mind is not a vessel to be filled, nor will it spontaneously ignite. It is a fire which needs a thoughtful teacher to carefully apply the right amount of fuel and air, at the right time, to nourish the spark of learning.