Tinkering (What should we teach, Part ii)

I had planned to write this post about the value of out-of-class education, but Pete Westwood, in his blog ‘A Wandering Mind’ (http://awanderingminddotcom.wordpress.com/) has posted a link, Tinkering School, which I highly recommend and which ties in with my theme of ‘What we should teach’.  In this TED talk the founder of the school, Gene Tulley, shows what can be achieved by young children if they are given the opportunity to use materials, tools and their own imagination if they are freed of the constraints of a formal curriculum or adult-defined goals.

As Pete writes, this sort of ‘tinkering’ is now a rare pastime for most children.   I suspect that this is largely because the increasing technological sophistication of our everyday lives has meant that most adults now spend little time ‘tinkering’ ourselves.  Many of our parents considered it normal to service the car, repair a bicycle, or build a woodshed, and we had the opportunity to watch and ‘help’, whereas today each of these things is more likely to be done professionally.  When modern technology fails it is not designed to be taken apart and fiddled with, but to be ditched and replaced.

Fortunately, if technology has created this problem, it also offers the solution.  Schools used to be the source of information and knowledge in a child’s life;  it was widely regarded as boring because there was no way of knowing which information or knowledge might be needed, so it all had to be learned.  The fun stuff happened outside of school.

However, just as technology has made possible the ‘just-in-time’ delivery chain used by modern industry, so it has also made it possible for information and knowledge to be accessed whenever and wherever needed.  This, potentially, frees up the school curriculum to focus more on those skills that we now know are at the heart of ‘real’ learning – the fun stuff that no longer happens at home!

The irony of this shown by the Waldkinder programme found in some schools around the world.  The details vary from place to place, but the key element remains the same:  Kindergarten children get to spend all or part of the school day in the woods and fields exploring and investigating the world around them.  This is just what four- and five-year-olds might have done in the past instead of going to school, but the important difference is the presence of a teacher who knows how to channel their curiosity and imagination into effective learning.

We live in an era when any one of us, including our students, can access any piece of information instantaneously on our ‘phone, so why do we still talk about traditional, content-heavy subjects as the ‘core’, as though subject content remained the most important element of education?  The need is no longer to know subject content, but to know how to find, select, modify, assemble and use that content to achieve a desired goal – exactly what students learn at Gene Tulley’s school.

Is Maths the new Latin? (What should we teach, Part i)

Maths may not be as important as we think.

Consider the following claims that were made for the study of Latin when I was at school (yes, as recently as that!):

  • ‘It’s an essential part of a proper education.’
  • ‘It’s a requirement for university entry.’
  • ‘It’s a difficult subject, and is a good indicator of overall student ability’.
  • ‘It’s the perfect tool for learning logic thought and intellectual rigour.’
  • ‘Even though it is of no use in everyday life, it forms the basis of all the Romance languages, and so lays the necessary foundations for other studies’.

However, coincident with (and possibly caused by) the rise of comprehensive schools, these ‘truths’ were questioned and the Roman emperor was seen to be without a toga.  The study of Latin then underwent a precipitous decline.  Though still a viable subject studied for its inherent interest by those with an affinity for it, few would now promote making Latin compulsory for all students.

Now consider the position of Maths in our curriculum.  A 2008 report for the British government, ‘The Value of Maths’, proclaimed that Maths ‘develops the fundamental skills of logical and critical reasoning, training the mind to be highly analytical and to deal with complex problems. It provides the basic language, structures and theories for understanding the world around us.’ These are precisely the claims that were made for Latin when ‘Greats’ (i.e. Classical Languages and Ancient History) was the most prestigious (and lucrative) degree at Oxford, supposedly equipping a steady supply of colonial masters with the structures and theories for not only understanding the world around them, but for ruling it!

Each of the claims made for Latin is now made about Maths, except that instead of being ‘the basis of all the Romance languages’ it is ‘the basis of all of the sciences’.  Indeed, Maths is held in such esteem that it is largely on the basis of Maths scores in international tests that national school systems are judged.  Of course, only a hopeless cynic (such as me) would suggest that this is because Maths tests are relatively easy to ‘standardise’ across languages and cultures, simply because they do not measure anything that requires the complex judgements that shape, and depend upon, our social structures.

Elementary Maths does have a key role in early education.  In recent years the teaching of Maths in Primary schools has been transformed for the better by our increased understanding of how children learn.  An increased use of manipulative equipment, the recognition of different learning styles, and an emphasis on providing children with the experience of success and satisfaction rather than failure and stress has been shown to result in a better grasp of the underlying concepts of number and space.  Nevertheless, even where such strategies are successfully implemented the take up of Maths at the secondary level has continued to decline, and the majority of students drop it when they can.  Furthermore, many of those who do choose to continue with Maths do so only as a required qualification, rather than  because the subject itself is attractive. Even where Maths is compulsory, the most popular choices tend to be the most basic options.  Could this possibly indicate that, beyond numeracy skills and spatial awareness, more advanced mathematical concepts have little natural relevance for most people?  When did you last solve a quadratic equation or perform vector addition?

If success in international Maths tests really measures something more meaningful than how closely each educational system correlates with the tests, why is there no correlation between the ranking of the participating countries and the economic and social health of those countries?  Finland, the current international poster child for its performance on the tests, faces criticism at home for large classes, short hours, and a failure to respond to the socialisation and language needs of an increasingly multi-ethnic population.  Hungary, which consistently ranks at or near the top, is hardly a beacon of economic dynamism or social stability, and Singapore (another shining example of high Maths scores) is rarely suggested as a model of democracy and human rights.

Of course Maths should be taught schools, and taught well, but it should not be regarded as more important than other areas of learning, and the goal must be to enable students to achieve their potential and become balanced, fulfilled individuals.

In the Middle Ages the study of Latin met a very practical need by providing the means of communication for scholars throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, i.e. most of Europe and beyond.  Its status as the mark of an educated person became so entrenched, however, that it outlived its actual usefulness.  Are we now witnessing the same phenomenon in the case of Maths?  In an age when the sum total of human knowledge has become accessible on a mobile telephone, and when there is likely to be an ‘app’ available to carry out any desired manipulation of that knowledge, is it really wise to seek to restore an earlier educational emphasis on academic Maths, rather than questioning how to equip the next generation in terms of values and judgement, rather than with skills that most will never have a use for?

(By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I was a Maths teacher.)

The Big Picture

Exactly one year ago my wife and I took up permanent residence on the edge of Desolation Sound.  Our house is surrounded by forest and looks out on an ocean inlet, but has limited internet connectivity, no TV reception, and picking up mail involves a 10 km round trip.  When we retired here I feared that I would lose touch with the field of education in which I had been thoroughly immersed for the previous forty years, particularly as the turnover of issues and ideas is supposedly so rapid in today’s high-tech, fast-response world.

However, over the past year I have come to realise that the underlying issues and ideas actually remain fairly constant.   The environment of education is certainly evolving rapidly;  schools and colleges must adjust to the arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the best use of smart phones and social media create more and more challenges for school policy makers, and brain research continues to extend our understanding of the physiology of learning.  Nevertheless, the major debate remains the same, and can be condensed down to the problem of how to reconcile three groups:

  • Educators, who by research, training and practice know that learning is a natural process, best accomplished in a supportive, stimulating, stress-free and non-competitive environment.  Assessment is important to determine the optimal teaching & learning strategy, but doesn’t work either as motivation or selection tool.
  • Parents, who want the best outcome for their own children, and whose concept of a ‘good’ education is usually shaped by their own school experience.   They are aware that resources such as college places and jobs are in short supply, and would prefer a curriculum that focuses on successful university entry over one that aims to produce compassionate, reflective and responsible citizens.
  • Politicians, for whom education is a pragmatic matter of cost/benefit, with the costs being measured in money and the benefits in votes.

All we have to do, of course, is to persuade the second group (parents) that the first group (educators) really do have expertise in how children learn, at which point the third group (politicians) will want to court the votes of the second group (parents) by meeting the needs of the first group (educators).  Got that?  Easy!!!

If anything, my year away from the day-to-day challenge of working in a school has given me a broader perspective and an unobstructed view of what is important.  I can only hope that, in the years to come, this blog will contribute to the debate.

‘Instead of a gun in every classroom, let’s put a teacher in every gunshop.’

I came across this gem on Facebook while I was still spluttering over the crass statement by Wayne LaPierre, the Vice-President of the NRA, that ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ The NRA advocates putting armed guards in every school as the way to prevent further mass shootings such as the pre-Christmas massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut. (It probably also recommends keeping buckets of gasoline in the house in case of fire.)

I was delighted by the image of every potential gunshop customer being challenged at the point of sale to reflect upon, explain and justify their reasoning in deciding that they needed a gun. The teacher would, of course, only accept properly thought-through answers, would pick up on any logical inconsistencies, and would use astute questioning to guide the ‘learner’ to a proper understanding of the implications of his or her actions. Imagine the effect on sales! (Perhaps others shared this same image, which is why the share price of both Smith & Wesson and Remington plummeted.)

This set me to pondering on just how much expertise teachers bring to their profession. Inexplicably, the public view of teaching seems to be more in line with George Bernard Shaw’s jibe: ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’ or Woody Allen’s modification ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.’

I would argue the opposite.

Teaching a concept or skill actually requires a far more profound understanding than simply using it, which is why ‘peer-teaching’ is such an effective classroom strategy. Nor does the ability to teach arise automatically from mastery of the subject – witness how the most capable students can flounder when asked to ‘peer-teach’ an item. Naturally gifted mathematicians or linguists do not necessarily make the best teachers of Maths or Languages – quite the opposite. It is often the struggle for mastery, including the analysis of the skills needed, reflection on the difficulties, and the development of strategies for overcoming them, that builds the framework of understanding of the learning process and empathy for the learner that makes for effective teaching. This can be observed very well in sports. The number of top coaches who a) did not reach the highest levels as players in their sport and b) were teachers before they became coaches is far too high to be a coincidence. In international rugby alone the list includes Graham Henry (NZ All Blacks), Declan Kidney (Ireland), Stuart Lancaster (England), Brian Ashton (England), Eddie O’Sullivan (Australia) and Bill Dickinson (Scotland). From soccer can be added Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid), Roy Hodgson (England) and Rafael Benitez (Chelsea). Dig into your own favourite sport and you will find many more. In Shaw’s words, they could not do, so they taught, and I would suggest that it was the skills they learned while qualifying and practising as teachers, combined with the insights gained by having to think about their chosen sport (rather than rely on natural genius or instinct) that enabled them to become such effective communicators and transmitters of skills.

Outstanding teachers are as rare as outstanding ‘doers’. They are also far more valuable, given the number of lives that they help shape. As Shaw and Allen might have said if they had gone for accuracy rather than wit:

Those who can teach make it possible for others to learn how to do (and that applies to gym teachers as well!)