Saturday, 31 July 2010

Guided instruction versus independent learning

The image on the left was made by a thirteen year old student after being introduced to surrealist method, epitomised by Max Ernst's painting on the right

Do we have to tell the students what to do, or should invite them to discover what can be done? Recent scientific publications shed new light on this dilemma.

I teach visual art. Generally art is considered to be completely different from science. I am not too sure about that when it comes to teaching.

Art is a discipline, as science is. The methods of art and science may be completely different but both disciplines embody a relation with reality which has developed over centuries within a cultural context . The aims of research may be vastly different, almost opposite, as art strives for a profoundly subjective representation and communicating of meaning on a personal level, where as science seeks objective description and universal truth. Nevertheless, in both subjects there are methods that can be taught, content-related vocabulary that must be learnt, and results that can be compared and evaluated. The dilemma of teaching is the same. Are you in your lesson of maths going to explain Pythagoras' theorem, or are you providing your students with just enough information to have them reinvent the theorem by themselves? Am I as an art teacher to direct the students' perception of their visual environment by giving them precisely defined tasks, or should I give them leeway in an open setting to find their own interesting modes of seeing? In all subjects taught in secondary education each teacher faces the same problem: prescribing these youngsters precisely what to do makes boring lessons, independent learning strategies may enthuse students but they are time consuming and less effective. Especially in the field of art it is poignant that students seldom come up with creative work when given too many options or too vague directions.

Previously I found confirmation of my intuitive experience-based ideas on this dilemma in Daniel T. Willingham's wonderful book “Why don't students like school.” Now I have found an other source: Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, Richard E. Clark, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.”, EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 41(2), 75–86, for download here

The misconceptions underlying independent learning strategies are falsified by results of scientific research as described in these publications. Summarized:

  1. Problem solving draws heavily upon knowledge of facts and experience of methods previously stored in long term memory
  2. Methods of problem solving on an expert level cannot be transferred to the level of novices.

As a teacher I must introduce old ideas and proven procedures leading to predictable results and wrap these in exciting adventures to have students store the lesson in their long term memory, thereby enabling them to use this knowledge on an expert level in the future.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

About national identity and literacy

During vacation one catches up with interesting topics that have been neglected for some time. So I delved into the family history a brother of mine sent me. Some results of his research pertain to my job as a teacher.

Firstly, whenever some issue arises in my classroom about immigrant students or national identity, I will be proud to tell the students that “basically, I am not Dutch, I am German.” Ten generations ago, in the Dutch “Golden Age”, my ancestors, Jacobus Graaff and Engen Zeismuss, married in Stolberg, Germany, and produced a numerous offspring from which I descend. The family entered into The Netherlands not before the nineteenth century.

Secondly, my family definitely doesn't belong to the peerage. No upper class marriages what so ever. I knew this already, of course, but it is quite poignant that mostly those skilled workers, brewers, copper workers, hatters and brushmakers could not sign their names on the deeds of the municipal administration. They are just mentioned with their names in various spellings, Graff, Graaff, de Graaff, de Graaf, by the town's secretary, who put down down in beautiful handwriting “Comparanten hier hebben getekend, verklarende nooit te hebben leren lezen of schrijven, na gedane voorlezing”, the parties signed here, after having heard the content of the deed, declaring never having learned to read nor write, which was followed by a simple cross in ink.

Now that's something we can be proud of, as the teachers we are. We did it, in the nineteenth and twentieth century. All our students can read and write. They can put their signature on a document.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Academy schools?

Dutch students at Ulenhofcollege , a Dutch comprehensive state funded school for secondary education, flaunt their caps as a sign of attainment in bi-lingual education. Their formal clothing and the caps are a tongue in cheek imitation of Anglo-Saxon educational folklore.

To me, looking from across the Channel, the British educational system seems unduly awkward. A recent initiative, academy schools, which was piloted under Tony Blair, and is now strongly advocated by the new education secretary, Michael Goves, seems to make an already unwieldy system even more complicated.

All Dutch schools are state funded

Independent schools are virtually non-existent in Dutch education. All Dutch schools are state funded, school education is free until the age of sixteen. A school like Durham School couldn't possibly exist in the Netherlands, as no parent feels that the quality of education at such an institution justifies paying through the nose a fee of £11,022 for a day pupil, or £21,414 for a full boarder. Farming out the raising of children to a boarding school doesn't fit in the Dutch mindset, for that matter. Dutch parents send their children to a school of their own choice in the near distance. Dutch students ride to school on their bikes which means that every school within a distance of twenty kilometres can be reached. The school may charge possibly a couple of hundred Euros annually for extracurricular activities. Even this fee is not mandatory, no school can go to court when a parent refuses to pay.

A constitutional right

This does not imply that all Dutch schools are state or community schools. Starting a school of your own is possible, however one must comply with national law which is quite strict about housing, the basic curriculum, and teacher qualifications. When you pass muster you will be state funded.

This educational freedom (“Vrijheid van onderwijs”) has been invoked by religious communities to start Protestant-Christian or Roman-Catholic schools in the past, recently a lot of Islamic schools were initiated. Also parents' associations have built schools with an ideological stance towards education, based on the ideas of, for example, Maria Montessori, Helen Parkhurst or Rudolf Steiner. So parents do have choices. Homeschooling is not an option though.

Standards in education

The quality of education at the various schools is checked by national inspectors annually. Schools that fail to meet the standard will lose their funding or even will be forced to close. This was incurred by an Islamic school half a year ago.

The results for national exams gauge the quality of all schools in implementing the basic curriculum. These results and the inspection reports are published in national newspapers and are available on the internet. Next to that schools are vying for students by choosing for a clear educational profile, thereby distinguishing themselves from other schools in their catchment area. So parents do have choices.

Though the complaint about deteriorating education is a perennial phenomenon in the Netherlands, just as it is in the United Kingdom, this hasn't been vindicated yet by international comparison. Pisa results of Dutch education have outstripped the UK's results so far. On the other hand the Dutch can't preen themselves on having an illustrious institution like Eton to provide for eloquent prime ministers. Also the UK is doing far better in the number of Nobel prize laureates per million inhabitants which possibly may be the result of outstanding education at university level in the UK.

Social segregation

As seen through Dutch eyes, English education is utterly class defined. The idea of academy schools is meant to solve the problem of poor attainments of pupils in inner cities and backward rural areas. Most peculiarly, schools have to raise £2m to become an academy - from private organisations such as business, faith or voluntary groups. Quite predictably the academy school will deepen class distinctions in education as middle class parents will seize the opportunities while lower classes will fail to do so:

But a leading academic at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London, found that even in Sweden — one of the world's most egalitarian countries — free schools increased segregation. The schools are predominantly based in rich, urban areas and middle-class parents take their children out of community schools to attend them, Dr Susanne Wiborg found.

When it comes to raising the level of education for all, including the lower classes, it would be better to aim for egalitarian free education for all. The Dutch example shows this can be done. The figure on the left makes clear that it doesn't even take more spending in primary and secondary education. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are both spending below the average of the European Union in percentage of their Gross Domestic Product. Both are doing better on the Pisa tests than Denmark, which allocates most to education.

Albeit, the Dutch can learn from the British how to achieve excellency with gifted students. We definitely need eloquent prime ministers, but only if the politicians' verbosity does not whitewash the state's failure in providing the means to escape the vicious circle of culturally deprived background, unhealthy food habits, poor education and unemployment too many kids are in.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Pack

"While it is true that animals are not humans, it is equally true that humans are animals"
Frans de Waal

Just out of the den

In young adolescents the veneer of civilisation is extremely thin. They are urged by bodily changes towards dangerous adventures. Actually they are not aware of risks at all. Their inner clock is running wild, they act on the spur of the moment. Their natural habitat has recently been changed from the family at home in which their place was well defined into the peer group in which they constantly have to fight for their place in the pecking order.

I believe order in the class room should be dealt with on a down to earth level. It is not about rules, decency, tests and marks, mobile phones, expletives or whatever you can come up with to describe what happens in the classroom on the level of human behaviour. Order in the class room is about the pack.

My Habitat

I work in most fortunate conditions. My school is embedded in a rural environment in which strong family bonds still exist. Parents are ashamed when the school invites them for a showdown. The school is very well organised, there is a clear behaviour policy. Teachers are adequately supported by the management in case of trouble. Young teachers are systematically coached by experienced colleagues.

Even in this best of all worlds it happens once in a while that a class runs amok. Suddenly a group of neat young kids finds themselves in a situation in which they cruelly destroy the teacher's ego in a concerted effort. It happened in a tutor group of mine a couple of years ago, they crushed a cover teacher for Latin. It took only one lesson, the colleague was in tears. Individually all those amiable gifted children expressed afterwards that they were embarrassed and utterly ashamed of themselves. It just started, and then they could not stop it any more. They had turned into a pack of wolves.

Theoretical ruminations

Now what branch of science describes this type of behaviour best? I take it to be ethology. Especially the studies by Frans de Waal shed light on the order in the class room. De Waal's work describes the order in groups of chimpanzees as an intricate pattern of political bonds maintained meticulously by the alpha-male and his allies within the group.

What had happened in my tutor class was that the newly appointed cover teacher failed to show plain alpha-person signs in his first lesson, which confused the class so much as to follow their own pecking order. The queen bee of the girls took the lead. She manipulated the complete group into destructive behaviour, just for the fun of it, and to establish her reign. One of the creative rumbustious boys was ushered into the role of hatchet man and he found out what really would be extremely offensive against this weak adult. So the seat of the teacher was covered with maggots collected during an experiment in biology class the hour before. It clearly was a deliberately contrived act by the whole group. Only one student objected, but she was forced to comply with the others.

The event reminds me of De Waal's description of a bunch of young male chimpanzees that foray into the territory of an other group to find themselves some one to kill. A film on Youtube depicts such a gruesome event

Are you the alpha-person?

So order in the class room is about only one issue: are you as a teacher the alpha-person in the class room, or are you not? This is not a simplification, it makes it more complicated.

For example: young teachers often have a mindset which does not allow them to take command of the group. They prefer co-operative amiable behaviour. They are just nice guys or girls. They have never been a leader anywhere. But a teacher must aspire leadership to become the alpha-person in the class room.

Next to that it is not enough just to act bullishly. Bullish teachers challenge bullish students, you don't want to fight every minute in all lessons, do you. Just your appearance in the class room should suffice to calm down the young rebels. De Waal's observations show that the alpha-person is a master in political bonding. He has a deep knowledge of all the relations in the group, and knows perfectly when to bully a young rascal, when to show affection, and he knows how to dole out favours to win loyalty.

The Perfect Class Room

So my metaphor for the perfect class room is a group of monkeys on the rock. Everyone is relaxed and enjoys the day, grooming and flea-picking, communicating and playing. The old monkey on top of the rock sometimes is teased by the youngsters. They pull his leg for fun, not too seriously, as they know that when he comes down, hell breaks loose. He seems to be dozing. But he knows what's going on down there, all the time. He sees to that. He must, if he loses control, they will tear him apart.


Frans de Waal's quote: Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, How Morality Evolved;Princeton University Press, 2006, Appendix A pg 65.