In the past month or so I have been reading and thinking a lot about a few things that to me, even after more than 15 years of teaching, still sound like issues I struggle with so I would like to understand how others work them out.
I don’t think engagement is the real issue – there are many ways to engage students, especially now with so much tech available. I think deep thinking, true reflection and long-term motivation for learning are more critical.
There are two points I want to make here.
1. I have seen many educators who use numerous tech resources with their students and that is a good thing. However, most of them did not engage them in deeper thinking, in making crosscurricular connections, in doubting their own knowledge, synthesizing knowledge in new, creative ways. To boost engagement is not enough – kids are always drawn towards new devices and apps. But to what purpose? Is there any evidence of inquiry, questioning, development in thinking afterwards?
2. Engagement can be really misleading as it can often be nothing but busyness. Keeping kids “engaged” every minute of the day is not necessarily the path to building deeper understandings. Here come the 1) time and the 2) independent thinking time factors. Why? Because students are multitasking anyway – just think of how many subjects they learn daily, from language arts to math and chemistry. We need to go for “less is more” and allow for processing time individually.
Tension: between time constraints and authentic learning, collaboration and individual work
As I said in a tweet, children are naturally curious. Don’t mistake that with naturally good thinkers – not even all adults are. It takes modeling and practice.
Again, creating a “wonder” environment is not that hard in my experience – kids like to learn many things every time. Our brain is designed as such (another reason we tweet, blog and read a lot in the space of social media nowadays). What is harder though is to keep them focused on a thread of thought, to make them resilient to obstacles, to make them persevere in finding solutions, to inquire deeper in a certain area. Because thinking is hard and it requires both knowledge and skills, critical thinking skills. To me, in vain we “engage” students unless we enable them to think, unless we model thinking strategies and use them constantly in our lessons. Product-focused or solely task-based learning is not enough for learning. The thinking processes are critical.
Tension: between our need for variety/play and rigor in intellectual pursuits
“The simple fact that a learning achievement is measurable doesn’t make it relevant.” – Lex Hupe
I agree on this but again, how do we know what is relevant? What criteria inform your choices? I always find that the obvious is rarely questioned and hence we keep building confidence that we are always doing the right thing.
Those who advocate for strictly real-life based tasks and learning experiences hit a target but miss a point. Me thinks. Literature and the arts, for instance, are completely “unproductive” in the real world but it is through them that we understand, develop, contribute to and share our humanity. A child is often unlikely to talk about Shel Silverstein’s poems or the law of inertia outside school because s/he engages in different types of learning – social and emotional mostly. Does that mean we have to take away from their education these bits of wonder and encounters with the humanities/sciences just because they are not built within a “real-life” context?
The other extreme – keeping the subjects strictly on an academic level – is as damaging. Unfamiliar experiences, both in time and space as well as emotional, become a wall in the process of internalizing information.
Tension: between real-life experiences and what education offers
Empowerment vs. Accommodation
I still find it hard to draw the line between the two. It is obvious, from brain research as well, that we need challenging tasks so we can actually learn – we need moments of confusion so we can step back and reevaluate our knowledge in a new light. But how challenging should “challenging” be? Or how easy should “easy” be? How do I know, with each and every student, that I respond to his/her needs but still push them forward? How do I know I only accommodate instead of empower? Pretty tricky for me as I teach a class of second-language learners who not only vary in terms of age (from 7 to 10) but also have strengths in so many diverse areas.
Tension: between needs and goals
Other dichotomies – tech vs. analog, knowledge vs. skills etc – are simply false and I won’t bother mentioning them. My intentions are to reflect more on the issues presented above and find some answers in the future. It is, eventually, a balancing act and that is where expertise and art combine.
What are your takes? Do you have any of these questions in the back of your mind when you teach? I would love to hear others’ input.
*Photo: MorgueFile.com – I edited it as it requires no attribution and it allows for remixing work.
*I hate it when Posterous changes quotation marks and hyphens into squiggly things.