Thursday, 16 September 2010

Dangerous Myths #1: “Rote learning stinks.”

This boy is participating in a workshop photography at my school. He knows how to upload a photograph on the internet, but does he know how to use this wonderful digital tool to communicate meaningful content?

It wasn’t that long ago that rote learning, and the regurgitative mimickery that is its most common form of expression, was the educational model under which students laboured during their primary and secondary years. They were expected to behave like inert intellectual vessels into which a series of teachers would dump ever-more complex packets of information and ideas, like computers receiving their regular software upgrades. But with the rise of the Google-powered universe and the ability to locate information about anything, any time and (almost) anywhere, the need to remember the dates of the Hundred Years War or the name of Canada’s fourth Prime Minister has become an academic skill nearly as quaint – and irrelevant – as using an abacus or perfecting one’s ability to write in script.
Such a text drives me crazy. It mocks traditional schooling by describing a caricature, and it reduces academic knowledge to mere storage of unrelated meaningless facts. I bought my first computer in 1986, how could I possibly have treated my students as computers in which to dump software before that moment? The use of the metaphor reveals that the writer lives in the here and now without any idea of even the recent past. He lacks rote learning of history. I can tell you, treating students as "inert vessels" was asking for trouble thirty years ago, as it is now.
I challenge everyone to point at any relevant human achievement that came without rote learning, repetitious training of memory and mind.

Nothing comes for free

Even learning the mother tongue comes with thousands and thousands hours of immersion in the language in a native environment and numberless try and error situations and this at a young age when the brain is highly susceptible. It takes the toddler two years to come up with a sentence. Becoming an expert in your native language, being able to express subtle emotions and complex thought takes up to ten years, just as in any other province of human achievement. Ten thousand hours of practice over a period of ten years that's the rule of thumb if you really want to be good at something.
Learning to speak seems to come naturally and with ease. It's hard work though, and we must admire those little kids that go out of their way to communicate with us, don't laugh at their stupid mistakes, they are learning!
When it comes to schooling: there is no way to escape the dilemma that school has to educate the students in subjects which to a large extent are meaningless to them. As teachers we have to put our pupils in the vanguard of the battle of our existence, they must master the knowledge base which has been created in our culture over a period of thousands of years. This can't be done without boring repetition. Creativity is based on broad and deep knowledge, stored in the long term memory.

21st Century Skills???

As for the 21st Century Skills: I haven't met Whizz Kids at my school during the last ten years. They did exist though, back in the eighties and nineties. Those students taught themselves to work with challenging computers, Commodore 64, Apple II or IBM desktops. Those machines didn't have an easy interface, one had to type in command lines. These kids, always boys, wrote computer software in Pascal or Basic, they saved the results on floppy discs, the hard disk didn't exist in the first years , nor the mouse, for that matter. They worked their tails off, doing their stint of ten thousand hours. They were knowledgeable, I learned a lot from them. The likes of those students of mine invented the hard disk, the mouse and the interactive interface, thereby facilitating the next generation.
I am sorry, but when it comes to handling computers, the Internet, and the digital camera, I am the most versed person in my classroom nowadays. Note that I am a crochety old man, 61 years old now. I used to teach first formers basic html in a couple of hours, but it can't be done any more. My younger students don't feel any need to learn how to customise a site on a basic level, such a skill isn't cool as they know they can publish on the internet without doing any effort. That's the crux: the 21st century doesn't require special skills. Anyone can do it.

An example: photography

I am so glad that all my students can make a picture easily with their mobiles and store the images on their hard disks or compile them at No need to go over the chemical processing of film rolls and paper. I don't even need to teach them how to compress a picture to an acceptable file size to send it over the internet, that's taken care of by all those wonderful environments in which you can upload your photograph.
One problem is left though. Teaching how to make good pictures is just as difficult now as it was in those old days, attractive pictures that convey artistic beauty, that have a documentary value. Actually that hasn't changed a bit, I didn't need to change my didactics at all. So far for old schooling.

Kafka's world

I can't help feeling wary about my students and myself. We are being disenfranchised by Google, Microsoft and Apple, firms that give us easy tools to express ourselves, seemingly for free, just to gauge our behaviour for merchandising. Actually no thinking is needed for using these tools. Big Brother is here and he is watching our every move. The brainy kids are being entertained now with stupid games.
We must teach our students to free themselves. If there is such a thing as a 21st century skill, we must teach them to build and use free software, devised and maintained by volunteers. Especially gaming could be used to transfer meaningful knowledge, as it is the quintessential rote learning. If not this century will head towards an ant heap in which individuality will have dissipated while building a Matrix which rules all behaviour for a common good no one has anticipated. I believe good old fashioned basic rote learning can prevent such a disaster.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Education Buzz #4

Choose your table at Bellringer's Education Buzz #4 lunch room! She certainly does us proud. A lot of interesting talk to be heard there. While seated at table 4 I overheard a conversation at table 1 and, being an art teacher, I got dewy-eyed at Curmudgeon's eloquent and rational rebuttal of any attempt to relate teacher salaries to the want for subject skills in the economy. Note that Curmudgeon teaches maths! Thou art my brother!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Why educational formats are bound to falter

The school has adapted a new approach to learning. A young expert enthuses the colleagues invoking a Can Do message. The classrooms are refurbished to meet the demands of the new system
Recently ground-breaking research has shed light on the way the brain processes information while learning. I recommend reading Daniel T. Willingham on this topic. I wonder what would happen if the same attention would go to teaching.

The working memory of the teacher

My homespun philosophy tells me that teaching entails a continuous overload of the working memory. A teacher in a classroom perceives student behaviour, and has to to react to it. He offers subject matter, in which he has to be infallible and flaunt his mastery. He transfers his knowledge in an attractive way so as to keep the students' attention. Next to that he keeps track of progress of the group of students as a whole, and of all the individuals in the group if any possible and adjusts his teaching accordingly. On top of that he notices absentees, notes down grades and merits and complies with all other data processing school organisation demands.
During a lesson the teacher retrieves loads of data, names, faces, subject matter, appointments, procedures, agreements, from his long term memory, processes these in his working memory and stores such data into long term memory in an ongoing process. One eye always is on the clock.

The Zen of Teaching

Being a coach of newcomers I have observed a lot of lessons of fellow teachers. To me it is clear that the solution to the problem of the teacher's overloaded work memory is to offload it. It is impossible to rev up the brain to a preternatural speed for meeting all the demands of the job. How a teacher reduces the data stream that besets his working memory draws on his personal aptitude and experience. In a sense teaching is a study of zen: the master is an expert in not-doing. Which is not meant to say that he is doing nothing.


The expert teacher is a master in Wu Wei. He knows when to act and when not to act.
The expert teacher focuses his perception. He only perceives student behaviour which thwarts the lesson, or gives a clue about progress, other data are skimmed only to be thrown away immediately. He neglects havoc that will peter out without any fuss but he responds fiercely to seemingly minor nuisance which he knows can grow into something bad.
The experienced teacher is fully aware of his personal flaws and qualities. Some of his tools are based on innate qualities. If he is a good story teller he will exploit his skill in wonderfully presented lectures to a rapt audience, for example. He likes storytelling so his work will be effortless in such a lesson: sheer joy. Other didactic forms may be more difficult to realise, only to be achieved by hard work at the edge of what the working memory can do, but he has learned how to implement these formats when needed for his aim: having students think deeply to store information in their long term memory for future use. He is an old cunning fox with a plethora of tricks at hand. Some class room situations however he will circumvent, having learnt that those settings take too much of his mind and cause him to lose track of content or students' behaviour or progress, no matter how enthused fellow teachers may be about such a didactic approach, or the administration, for that matter.

The Headmaster's Fancy

There is a rash of theories on students' learning, Constructivism, Structured Co-operative Learning, Thinking Skills, Learning Styles etc. To me it seems awkward trying to find a common denominator in twenty-odd young participants while neglecting the key figure in the classroom. The onus is on the teacher to implement these theoretical suppositions in everyday graft, isn't it?
Of course it is equally difficult to find a common denominator between all those different teacher personalities as it is between students.
Politicians, ideologists and administrators trying to solve the conundrum of a perceived deterioration of education buffet teachers with theoretically based formats to implement in the classroom, even to the outrageous foolishness of prescribing the setting of furniture in the classroom.

Gung-ho versus Wu Wei

The new format your headmaster fancies, which supposedly will give new impetus to learning at your school is not going to work at all, for the simple reason that teaching has nothing to do with implementing a certain format. Effective teaching involves changing formats all the time, taking into account the subject, the current topic, the special needs of this group of students, group dynamics, the stage in the learning process, availability of materials and all the other intricate patterns underlying learning at school. It is infinitely more complex than just implementing one format for all. Which format is chosen for a particular lesson must be decided by the teacher, based on his expertise, his evaluation of his group of students, within the capacity of his monitoring. What students need in the first place is an equably balanced leader in the classroom. It is on the teacher to decide how to keep up an impeccable peace of mind while at work, not as an act of selfishness but on behalf of his students.

The royal route

I believe there is one route only to excellent education: furthering excellency in teachers. This can be done by raising the entrance level to the profession, no teacher, whether in kindergarten, primary or secondary education, should be allowed to teach without a university degree. Ample time must be allocated within the teacher's annual task to further and ongoing development of knowledge and skills. The teacher should epitomise the life long learner as an example for all. Theories on education should be developed in the classroom where they can be falsified immediately.
This is an extremely expensive route, and that is why politicians will never wade into it. Only one country has really taken steps into this direction: Finland, and that's why Finnish education stands out in international comparisons.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Classroom settings

The Coach

The Circle

In Dutch secondary education teachers and students are bundled through the building by the timetable, changing rooms frequently.
At my school three classroom settings are to be found: the “Coach”, the “Circle” and the “Islands” setting, to be seen in the pictures on the left. Some rooms are a mixture of these settings, the art rooms, in which I work mostly, combine the Islands setting with the Circle. I can change by moving the students without moving the desks. Most rooms are smaller and do not allow so easy a transformation.
The “Coach” is the quintessential lecture hall. It encourages working in pairs though. The “Circle” suggests a meeting of all and is suitable for lecturing and working in pairs. The “Islands” setting is meant for group work, in foursomes. Working in pairs is possible, lecturing is virtually impossible.
Tests require the rigid Grid, a Coach with separated desks.
Most classrooms have a Coach setting. In fact the Coach has always been the norm. Students have informed me that my lectures are boring and I have often infuriated a colleague by refurbishing a Coach into the Circle or Islands, without restoring the situation in which I found the room before leaving.
It has often struck me as highly idiosyncratic that teachers, when having a meeting in a classroom, wish to communicate with all face to face, so they immediately shove the furniture into the Circle. After the meeting they always rebuild the Coach co-operatively. Apparently they prefer lecturing but hate being lectured.
Now the administration has issued a diktat that in our new wing for younger students the Islands setting is the norm. Structured Co-operative Learning (SCL) is all the rage now.
Our administration is not too bad. A couple of years ago colleagues of a school nearby found the tables welded together in an Islands setting when returning after vacation.
This is going to be a hilarious show. I'll keep you informed.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Education Buzz #3

Visit Life's a Carnival–the Education Buzz #3 to read about the troubles and the delights of your fellow teachers across the globe. Some of these posts make me realise how fortunate I am, enjoying my job here in the sticks in a backwater of The Netherlands, amidst woods and fields. All those nice kids riding to school on their bikes. The true heroes of our profession are to be found elsewhere, in sordid urban districts.