Saturday, April 25, 2015

A view from the plane we are building...while flying it!

"Building an airplane while flying it"? 

MLE, MLP, SOLE, PBL - all acronyms for the hottest trend in education since...well, I don't know when.

Student agency! Collaboration! Innovation! Creativity! These are the hash tags you will see trumpeting the virtues of said acronyms all across the interweb.

But why the big fuss? Why the rush to tear down walls, push multiple teachers into a shared teaching space, and put students in the driver's seat for learning? Haven't we been here before?

Time to lay my cards on the table. I am a natural born skeptic. My guiding principle in all matters is, 'show me the evidence'. You won't find me sculling litres of organic kale and elderberry juice while rubbing the soles of my feet with garlic and ginger in an effort to 'detox' my system. My personal detox system came ready-installed, thank you. It's called my liver.

When it comes to educational theories,  we teachers have been subjected to more than our fair share of snake-oil peddling over the years. Brain gym, anyone? Learning styles? All roundly denounced as 'neuro-myths' by the people who should know shonky 'research' when they see it - neuroscientists.

So what about this 'modern learning environment' malarkey? Is it merely another over-hyped  but under-researched theory? For the conspiracy theorists out there, is it driven  (as some suggest) by some nefarious political agenda? 

At this stage, I'm not sure of anything. No, that's not accurate, I am pretty sure of one thing. The 'E' part. The physical environment (what we used to call the classroom) is not what this is about. Sure, acoustic panels (oh, yes please!), break out(!) rooms, bean bags and other accoutrements make for a pleasant space, but alone, they do not represent the ethos of a 'modern learning environment'. (Though that being said, working in a three-way open plan with none of the noise reducing technology, can be, ah, 'challenging' at times.)

I have spent much of last term, and most of the holidays reading, watching videos and discussing/debating the merits of this approach to teaching and learning. I was trying to ascertain the driving force behind it, the efficacy of it, and how to actually pull it off!

Two things struck me immediately. First, this movement toward student-directed learning seems in no small part, to be a backlash against the onerous high-stakes testing regimes that blight education in the USA and UK. This is the industrial model of education in all its crumbling glory. Students are merely ciphers in a system. Units of production. An aggregation of results.  A generalisation, granted, but not an inaccurate representation of the system as a whole. The much-vaunted' no child left behind' initiative being regarded as a dismal failure.

Blogs and articles written by teachers in the US in particular, make for depressing reading. They yearn for the freedoms we in NZ take for granted, such as having the flexibility to interpret the curriculum in ways that are meaningful to our students. (Even a cursory glance at the new teacher Facebook page  (Primary Teaching (NZ)) reveals high levels of creativity, innovation - and excitement - in our approach to teaching.)

As an antidote to all this high stress, high stakes teaching and testing, some educators decided that it was time to put the joy back in learning - and not just for the children either! Thus was born the 'tinker movement', 'unschooling' and the variants of project-based learning, where students could embark on projects that sparked their curiosity and gave them a purpose for learning. Levels of engagement increased dramatically, and so it is said, academic achievement.

Of course there is more to this approach than the above examples. Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra and others have been talking about harnessing creativity/'agency' through student driven learning for some time now. All advance compelling arguments for embracing this approach to learning.

This last point brings me to the second thing that struck me: an apparent dearth of quality evaluative research on the merits of the approach. There is much anecdotal evidence, but at this stage in my investigation, I have yet to see solid evidence.  By this, I am referring to longitudinal comparative studies published in peer reviewed journals.  I put the question to both the Primary Teachers, and the MLE and Collaborative Teaching Facebook pages, but all I have received is zealous anecdotal far.

There is much to this approach that fits me like a glove - the tinkering, the project-based learning, the capturing of students' interests/curiosity to guide learning. I get the notion of collaboration  as a vital ingredient to the enterprise - assuming you get to collaborate with colleagues who share a passion for the job, who are creative, and of course, who are willing and able to share ideas/resources etc.
I know only too well that when students get to collaborate on a project, they can have learning conversations at a level that a teacher simply cannot touch.

No argument from me on any of the above. No, at the very great risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, some of my concerns relate to the emphemeral nature of teaching: the relationship you have with your class, and individual students.

 If you are not seeing the child negotiate their way through their learning in most contexts, how well can you say you know them? We all have students who are, for example, maths geniuses, but who can't form a complex sentence to save themselves. What about the student who struggles in all academic subjects, yet reveals an extraordinary ability in chess? What about the level of trust that is developed by that comprehensive daily contact? I have been told to not think about my students as MY students, but OUR students. Noble aspiration, but how does this depth of understanding/trust translate with 75+ students? 

I am not saying this an insurmountable issue, I am just wondering how we protect and preserve these relationships. Does having several teachers overseeing each student actually enhance the development of a full understanding of a child?

Last, my concerns relate to logistics/systems. If students are creating their own timetables, how do we ensure they are getting the learning they need? Surely the work-avoidance ninjas have more scope for invisibility if not closely monitored.  Does tracking student movement/work out-put add another level of complexity to the endeavour? (Yes, if work is completed in Hapara, tracking of output/achievement is made easier. But what about non-digital work? I have seen some examples of how teachers are doing this at other schools, but my uncertainty remains.)

The whole idea is predicated on the notion that when students have clear goals, they will earnestly set about achieving them. In fact, its said that they will actively seek the learning required to meet them.  Now, I see how this could work if we are truly letting the students pursue an area of interest, and they encounter an aspect of their project that requires some just-in-time learning. The motivation to ace that skill will be high. Even if it means finally nailing those fundamental maths strategies so that they can do more advanced calculations.

However, this assumes that all children have a burning passion they want to pursue. From my experience, by the time children get to 9 or 10 years of age, that relentless curiosity about the world that characterises their earlier years, diminishes (for a variety of reasons...) in some children. Re-igniting that spark can be difficult. Sometimes it is simply a matter of kids not knowing what they don't know. It takes lots of exposure to new and interesting ideas to pique their curiosity. I am only too happy to provide this - I have always done it. 
Before the internet was a ubiquitous force in all classrooms, I used to bring in gadgets, wasp nests, photographs, and all manner of curios for my students to explore. This usually inspired students to bring their treasures in too...I still do this, but now I also show video clips, graphics and such - apropos of nothing but the pleasure in finding things out.  Whole days were often given over to this if it captured their hearts and minds.
 My hero, the physicist Richard Feynman, explains this beautifully:
So if we do not have a 'class', and we are timetabled up the wazoo, where do we find the time to share and investigate these incidental, but deeply engaging and inspiring ideas/items?

But possibly more importantly, what about our ESOL students? What about students on the autism spectrum? Those with ADHD? Dyslexia? These children require much more structure, support and understanding than most. What about the introverts for whom noise and collaboration are kryptonite to their learning processes? (And I'm not just talking about the students. I have seen recent research about the negative effect of open-plan office spaces on individuals who need solitude and quiet to be effective at their job. As an introvert - not an oxymoron, there are many introverted teachers - we just come alive with our class/people we know, this is something that resonates deeply with me. While I enjoy my colleagues greatly, I really miss the option of shutting the door, battening down the hatches with my class and enjoying some quality quiet time.)

Finally, and this may be an outmoded notion, how do we achieve the holy grail of curriculum 'coverage'? To say nothing of National Standards...

So where does all this leave me? Still wary, still skeptical, but nonetheless hopeful that this could be the way forward. 

I concede that there is a very real possibility that I am missing something. I hope that by putting my concerns out there and opening them up to scrutiny, someone, some day soon, will lay my doubts to rest with the answers I seek.

I may be skeptical, but I remain open-minded, awaiting evidence that will give me the compass bearings I need to fly this airplane while building it in the sky.