There is no good place to start this week’s column. The beginning goes back to the first time someone sat down, or stood up, in front of a crowd of an eager group of folks that eventually became known as students, and set out to dispense the known wisdom of the world. Aristotle had it easy. He could leave out the Big Bang Theory, or anything to do with rocket science, molecular biology or computers. His charges didn’t need to learn all the Canadian Prime Ministers, which mountains were the tallest, or how to conserve cod stocks, though in reality, some things, like conserving cod stocks, are arguably covered under the topic of common sense. And, I’m fairly confident, those early educators did it at their own pace. It makes me wonder: How did they manage to do that and not be members of a Union?
Fast forward to 2012, in Newfoundland, or anywhere for that matter, and think about how we teach, who we teach, and what we teach. It’s not only more complicated since Aristotle’s days, it’s more complicated since I left the classroom in 1994. How complicated is it? That puts me back to where I started, which is, not knowing where to start.
During the few years I taught, the most highly technical tool at my disposal up to that point was a chalk holder. It’s likely Aristotle never had an issue with chalk dust. What he and I did have in common was that we were both out of the classroom before the placement of classroom computers. Computers are a game-changer all by themselves. If you factor in a rapidly growing trend to hire teachers for very short teaching segments, such as half a unit, or less, you might want to start questioning why we insist on trying to maintain schools on a 14th century model that just doesn’t make sense anymore.
This topic came up recently with a teacher friend from town. Her Board is advertising for at least six temporary positions for next school year, ranging from a three-quarter time position, to a point-two position, or a one-fifth time.
Are they nuts?
Who would work one-fifth of a position? It may be an example of how specialization in education has led to the insane inability to offer one or two full-time positions to people capable of more than one discipline, rather than six part-time positions to six different people, each with a different expertise. Maybe they should just teach from home.
Then, I came across this. It’s a concept called the “flipped classroom.” A 35-year old, on-line teacher has developed a comprehensive series of YouTube video lectures available to students who, he says should not be divided into grades by age. According to the story of Salmon Khan in the July 9th issue of TIME magazine, students would use the evenings to view video lessons as introductory concepts, then spend the next day in class to demonstrate what they learned. Teacher time would be utilized to assist students who may need it, while other students are free to move on to the next lesson, at their own pace. The lecturing classroom teacher would disappear, much like I did in 1994 with chalk dust-free fingers. And not a moment too soon.
The article confirms what a lot of us frustrated teachers experienced with the coming of computers. The technology didn’t change the basic method of teaching to the average student, mainly because there is no such thing as an average student. Even before computers, most lessons were boring to the middle high achievers, and of little use to a low achieving student who is dragged along to the next lesson before they fully grasped the last one. Most of that process comes from artificial outcomes long relied upon as markers of success, proposed by, mainly, over-educated learners who expect all students to achieve scholastic success the way they experienced it. Not gonna happen.
We can’t expect that technology is going to create real progress if we insist on applying that technology to some process we know isn’t working, and as argued above, is only getting more ridiculous. You might see now why I didn’t know where to begin. We’re stuck in the middle. Getting unstuck is job one.