Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The "Education Pendulum" is Really a Ball at the Bottom of a Hill

Angie Hodge sent a nice article to me a week ago.  (Thanks Angie!)  On October 11th, Marion Brady published in the Washington Post How long one teacher took to become great.

The article hits on several topics.  It hits on the notion of the dashing stereotype of "good teacher," how effective teaching is when the instruction is student-centered, open, and collaborative, and then onto the difficulty of quantifying what good teaching really is.

Also of note from the article, and the point of this post, is about changing the system:
Because, when it comes to change, you can’t do just one thing. Switching from passive to active learning — which is what that 1960s effort was all about — had, at the very least, implications for classroom furniture, textbook use, length of class period, student interaction, teacher understanding, learner-teacher relationships, methods of evaluation, administrator attitudes, parental and public expectations, bureaucratic forms and procedures. -- Marion Brady
I hear about the pendulum in education frequently from various teachers, parents, educators, random people.  Education goes in one direction, and then there's a switch back the other way.  It feels like that when you're in the middle of it and observe from behind the desk or podium.  From a broader perspective, we are actually NOT on an pendulum.  What I think is a more appropriate model for our failed attempts at changing the system is that we are trying to roll a ball up a hill.  Before we get the ball all the way to the top, however, we give up (one way or another) and the ball rolls back down to the bottom of the hill.  It's definitely a periodic phenomena just like a pendulum, but there's a difference.

We've been talking about education reform for a long, long time.  W. Colburn wrote in 1830
By the old system the learner was presented with a rule, which told [the student] how to perform certain operations on figures, and when they were done [the student] would have the proper result. But no reason was given for a single step... And when [the learner] had got through and obtained the result, [the student] understood neither what it was nor the use of it. Neither did [the student] know that it was the proper result, but was obliged to rely wholly on the book, or more frequently on the teacher. As [the student] began in the dark, so [the student] continued; and the results of [the student's] calculations seemed to be obtained by some magical operation rather than by the inductions of reason. -- W. Colburn, 1830
John Dewey in 1899:
"I may have exaggerated somewhat in order to make plain the typical points of the old education: its passivity of attitude, its mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of curriculum and method. It may be summed up by stating that the centre of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself. On that basis there is not much to be said about the life of the child.  A good deal might be said about the studying of the child, but the school is not the place where the child lives. Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the centre of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical centre shifted from the earth to the sun.  In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the centre about which they are organized."
Then there was the New Math, there's IMP, CMP, CPM, reform calculus, etc.  The curriculum out there is good, meaningful, and amendable to IBL or hybrid IBL.  We've tried to change the system, but have failed in the past, for the reasons that we try one or two changes, but not all the necessary changes.    So we try a few good ideas, but not enough and the ball rolls back down the hill.

Hope vs. Despair:  The pendulum also represents at least to some degree a sense of futility in the enterprise of systemic change.  For sure, if we continue the one-thing-at-a-time approach we keep going back and forth.  Roll the ball a bit, and it rolls back.  However, if we actually view the ball and the hill model for what it is, then perhaps there's a chance that we'll muster the courage to get enough force behind the ball and move it over the hill. It means tackling more than one thing at a time, and doing a lot of hard work on several fronts.  

Easy? No.
Doable? Yes.

Classroom: For instructors there are implications to your everyday life.  Just changing from lecture to students doing group work or presentations at the board isn't a full switch to IBL.  The interaction of IBL content, managing student interactions with each other and with the material, assessment, coverage, getting students to buy-in, etc.  There are several components that need to be addressed for effective IBL instruction.  While this may seem daunting, all the skills are learnable and doable.  Taking your time or taking small steps is a reasonable strategy, but if you change to little or only in minimal ways, the gains will also be minimal.

The upshot for the classroom instructor is to make teaching changes that are systemic changes.  Doing cute activities are nice and useful, but it's better of the course has at least some minor systemic changes.  If you structure your course so that you regularly incorporate inquiry, plan content and instruction for inquiry, and assess (at least minimally) inquiry practices, then those changes, even if small, add up to a lot.

Teaching is system.  Roll the personal ball up to the next level, and you change your the system.  That helps all of us change the big system.

Upward and onward!