Lately, it’s become mainstream to state that we should focus on students’ learning. By saying that we account for the obvious expected outcome of a teaching / learning environment – students’ learning. Currently, with all the debate on the impact of technology in the lives of children everywhere, it’s pretty obvious that we’re more likely to read and witness the promotion of change in education by the advent of technology. If used properly, it allows us to put students’ on the driver’s seat of their learning. We can get them to actually do things instead of just passively absorb content from the teacher or their course books.
There is also the idea of multiple intelligences and how it can be applied in the classroom given that we’re able to cater for different learning styles much more easily now that we’ve got access to the wonders of the myriad gadgets that are now part and parcel of a number of students’ school materials. Finally, criticism to tests as a means of assessment abound, and the notion that tests don’t teach is widespread. The main problem with this is that it seems to make a lot of sense. But why would this be a problem?
To begin with, in education we are dealing with the brain – something we don’t really know much about. In a recent National Geographic article about the brain, Professor Lichtman of Harvard University makes clear how little we have advanced in brain research by telling us that he usually introduces his course about the brain by asking students, “if understanding everything we need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked?” The answer? 3 inches. When we think about how little we know, and we take into account the idea of intuitive heuristics, whose essence is described by Daniel Kahneman in the following very short sentence:
When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. (Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow)
It might just be that the difficult question we’re facing these days is exactly the one that Sir Ken Robinson asked in one of his TED Talks. “How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century given that we can’t anticipate the economy will look like at the end of next week?” Whether you like it or not, school and its purpose has to go through some serious revision. Another highly acclaimed advocate for change in education, Professor Sugata Mitra, tells us a story of where present day schooling comes from and what its early-day purposes were. He’s got a very strong opinion when he states that schools are outdated in the world we currently live in and the urgent need for change. And I don’t think we can argue against this point – the current system of education doesn’t suit the world we live in anymore. Hence, our need for change.
This might be exactly the difficult question we have to answer: how do we change our current educational system to cater for the needs of our present day society? The truth is that there’s no simple answer, but I’d argue that a lot of it involves a better understanding of how we learn. If we are unable to proper answer this question, very little will actually change. On the bright side, many qualified people have something to say about it, and not only about where we should be headed, but also a couple of things in relation to all the changes we’ve been experiencing as a society, with connectedness all around us. However, all that glitters is not gold, and before we actually buy into this or that idea, we should investigate further. It is likely that we may be supporting something that has little evidence of being true.
If we’re going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers. Let’s also admit that while we have plenty of beliefs, dogma, and rhetoric about how to prepare students for the future, we have little solid information about how to do this successfully. We have no idea about whether to limit or encourage their access to social networking, computer games, television and other forms of media. In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist. The bottom line is that we don’t know if these activities are hurting their cognitive and interpersonal development or better preparing them for the world ahead. (Louis Cozolino – The Social Neuroscience of Education)
Let’s have a closer look at this sentence: “In the absence of real data, teachers and administrators rely on popular books by nonscientists who generally misinterpret the little data that do exist.” The truth is that we, as human beings, have a natural tendency to rely on our intuition rather than analyze a problem and give it as much time and effort as it deserves, as Daniel Kahneman states in his book (Thinking Fast and Slow). This is why we end up going with the flow and failing to further look into a point and give it the consideration it deserves. For instance, how many teachers blindly accept the theory of multiple intelligences as being true without actually having read about it? Is it just because the way that people sell it makes sense? Is it because it helps us with the self-esteem of learners who struggle at school? How about delving into this issue by reading this article, which starts by saying that:
This article reviews evidence for multiple intelligences theory, the Mozart effect theory, and emotional intelligence theory and argues that despite their wide currency in education these theories lack adequate empirical support and should not be the basis for educational practice. Each theory is compared to theory counterparts in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuro- science that have better empirical support. The article considers possible reasons for the appeal of these 3 theories and concludes with a brief rationale for examining theories of cognition in the light of cognitive neuroscience research findings. (Lynn Waterhouse – Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review)
Or perhaps this passage from this other article (which leads you to the article shared above) might also be of interest:
It is fair to say that among academic scholars who study intelligence there is very little acceptance of Gardner’s theory due to a lack of empirical evidence for it. A critical review of the topic by Lynn Waterhouse in 2006 found no published studies at all that supported the validity of the theory. Even though Gardner first made his theory public in 1983, the first empirical study to test the theory was not published until 23 years later (Visser, et al., 2006a) and the results were not supportive. Multiple intelligences theory can hardly be described as scientifically generative. (Scott McGreal – The illusory theory of multiple intelligences)
What we should take into account in order to move forward is that all that we currently know about our practice may be proven wrong in the near future as research into how we learn develops. What we should understand as educators is that there’s no simple or single answer (at least not yet) to how we learn best. This is the reason why we must never cease to learn. This is why we should take things that might seem to make sense with a pinch of salt and consider that we might as well be trying really hard to validate an opinion. What if Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences makes sense because we strive to make better connections with our learners? This is a major factor of motivation for us, humans, and this could be what leads to improvement when we claim to make use of activities that cater for different intelligences. What if this all happens when we hold conversations with our learners and, owing to this, we’re able to boost their attention and interest, thus making learning more effective? The bottom line, though, is that it doesn’t really matter. If the theory, as the articles suggest is not valid, or only good on paper, or if it is really true and valid, makes little difference at the end of the day for practical purposes.
It is only by trying to learn more about how we learn that we can adapt our teaching and ensure that we’re able to focus on our students’ learning. We don’t focus on students’ learning by playing games with them; we play games with them because we may have learned somewhere that this fosters their learning. The same end result, but with a different starting point. It is only by focussing on our teaching that we will be able to come up with strategies that will facilitate learning. In order to focus on their students’ learning, teachers must first and foremost focus on their teaching – but do so in the right way. Focussing on your teaching means understanding that learning is the expected outcome of each and every little thing you do in class. It doesn’t matter if you do so by using summative or formative assessment. What matters is whether or not you have mastered the tools you have chosen to use so as to enable learning to take place. Tests, for example, can be effective, as this study has demonstrated, but it’s all a matter of how you deal with them. The key difference in any learning setting is the teacher, and teaching isn’t simply being able to provide information to your students.
In my view, the best way to focus on your students’ learning is coming to terms with the fact that we still know very little about how we really learn something – what we’ve learnt to do is constantly reflect on our practices and experiences. This is what truly makes the difference. We must always keep an open eye for new theories, research and practice. We should be able to critically reflect on these and reach a conclusion so that we can focus on learning. Yet, we ought to understand that we cannot control someone else’s actions and thoughts. We can only control our own actions, and this is why we have to focus on what we do if we hope to help our learners. If you want to focus on your students’ learning, how about really focussing on your teaching first? Let’s talk a bit about a teacher’s accountability, shall we? Maybe a possible continuation for this post.