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.

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