Monday, 2 August 2010

Guided instruction versus Independent Learning 2

A four-leaved clover only will be found when knowing what to look for

Mr Teacher commented on my last post about “Guided Instruction versus Independent Learning":

Without going in to specific details, surely the best option is an appropriate balance between the two?

Spot on! But what is being balanced?
The content of the lesson cannot be left to the students' inventiveness, as followers of constructivist learning theories all too often will have it.

A politician's ideology

In the Netherlands teachers have been harassed by a fierce lobby for constructivist learning theories during the last decades. This has lead to a thorough refurbishment of our secondary education, aiming at independent learning, the “Studiehuis,” in which supposedly the teacher's role shifts towards coaching students instead of directing students. This is epitomised by “De Nieuwste School,” a school whose curriculum is integrally constituted by students' questions.


I have been an ardent follower of these ideas, and I am backpedalling.

Firstly, I have become disappointed too often with the results of learning arrangements in which students have to study more independently.
Most students cannot come up with relevant questions or topics that lead into effective research, or interesting art work, for that matter. Questions are the result of perception. You have to see that something weird is happening before asking yourself what is going on. Wonder about the relation between phenomena is impossible without actually experiencing these. Alas, perception is the result of learning and training.

Another fundamental problem is that questions can't be answered properly without a method of inquiry. Methods are related to disciplines, scientific systems, artistic disciplines, or professional procedures. The subjects traditionally taught at school offer training in these methods. Students' questions often tend to spring the boundaries of these subjects, which may be very interesting. However, these questions do not lead to a coherent learning process in which students really have to think deeply. Especially when expertise pertaining to the question is not available at school the research is bound to be shallow. I am fed up with copy cat answers from the internet, as I am with cliché art work.

Constructivist theories are being outmoded by neuroscience

Secondly, recent research has contradicted shallow constructivist ideas about learning independently. This was mentioned in my post.

Lastly, it has been made clear that the brain is developing at least until the age of twenty. Young students cannot cope with adult learning strategies, planning as adults do. Learning at secondary level cannot mirror the university system. Young students cannot plan their studies. they must be guided.

Between a rock and a hard place

So, what is being balanced? I am not going to ask my students what they want to learn. I know what they need being taught. The content of the lesson is my province, and I aim at the exam programs that run in my country. They need their diploma. That certificate guarantees a certain level of attainment. I may not agree with it completely but I have to comply with it and so must my students.

This content must be balanced with my didactics. Aiming for an exam program not necessarily means teaching to the test. By the way, the program is not that simple, as mentioned, it even asks for proofs of independent learning. At all cost I must prevent these students being bored by education. I need their rapt attention, which means that I have to fulfil their needs, I must give them ample opportunity to express themselves, to wonder, to ask any question. I need all my expedience to guide them cleverly by showing them where to go. Otherwise they get lost in meaninglessness.

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