December 13, 2011

Office Depot, Domino's or Disneyland workers? More about the roles of teachers and students in learning. Part 2

In my last post I was trying to get at the idea of what I believe should be at the very centre of our attention in the classroom (or wherever we are with students). It is the concepts themselves that we need to bring to life for students through a variety of imaginative lessons. The "how" we teach becomes a significant focus then. Furthermore, teachers become much more involved in supporting students' investigations and attempts to look at these concepts from a number of different perspectives, including their cultural backgrounds. This necessitates some risk in approaching topics in an innovative way, and consequently it requires teachers to allow for many more possibilities in how students express what they have understood. This is my growing view on what "personalized learning" in the 21st century really means. 

In the previous post I talked about the teacher as mediator as a way to begin to describe the role of the teacher in this new model. Continuing this thread, I would like to dissect that second "sphere of influence" where the students and teacher collaborate around the core concepts. This is the space where concepts are challenged, discussed, manipulated, named, played with, tested, and the "learning" takes place. What familiar terms could we use to describe the role of the teacher in this model exactly? Observer? Facilitator? Architect? 

Joe Kincheloe (2005) has a vision for teachers as scholars and curriculum developers, which he writes about in his book: Classroom Teaching. He proposes a new view of education which he refers to as "re-conceptualized" and contrasts it with the old "reductionist" system for education - one that has lingering effects unfortunately. I have summarized the distinction between the 2 systems below:

   Reductionist                                      Re-conceptualized

~ standardized                              ~ democratic
~ over critical                                ~ promotes questioning
~ performance driven                     ~ process directed
~ results matter                            ~ deeper understanding matters
~ rote memorization is pathway       ~ multiple pathways are possible
~ disconnected subject matter         ~ connected ideas & experiences
~ isolated learning                         ~ collaborative learning
~ pretend experiences                    ~ experiences based on real life

I really love his view of teachers as having a significant influence into the development of curriculum. He says that teachers need to be self-directed professionals, critical thinkers, raising questions about what is happening in schools. I take this to mean that the "how" and the "what" we teach are equally important. But teachers should not be so limited to thinking that their students are not ready for certain concepts as we have been led to believe. Kincheloe says, " reforms have no basis for evaluating more sophisticated dimensions of learning, thinking and teaching." In my own teaching I am trying to look at how knowledge is constructed from a human historical view. Moreover by researching a little about the philosophy behind many "new programs", I am finding that my understanding of the curriculum is growing. As a result this has made a significant impact on how I plan my lessons and units. Kincheloe gives some great analogies to describe what the role of teacher (and students) should and should not look like. I have adapted them slightly:

1. Office Depot worker: "Filing cabinet", facts only.

The mind should not be seen simply as a filing cabinet where facts are filed, stored, and retrieved when needed. Students should not work through a set of data to be memorized and regurgitated for standardized assessments. Watch out FSAs! And so teaching is not merely a low-level skill of just supplying the facts. This is such a limited view of the mind!

2. Domino's pizza delivery person: "Dumbed-down", no thinking required.

This is the unskilled labourer who doesn't think about the messages being given. They are simply a messenger who transfers knowledge passed on to them by someone else (who also doesn't really think about its meaningfulness). No true methodology is needed, simply follow the pathways on the "map" and deliver the goods. Where there is a delivery error the message is, "Hey don't blame me, I just take the orders, I don't make them". We need educated and reflective teachers!

3. Disneyland employee: "It's a small world after-all", don't challenge or question anything.

This is the fairytale land where we don't deal with real life situations. Everyone learns the same things, in the same ways, at the same time, day after day, year after year. It's all about maintaining standards of the status quo and everyone will be satisfied and live happily ever after! Don't worry if Pluto isn't a planet anymore (or is it?), I'm sure those old worksheets will be fine! Teaching requires constant learning because our world is constantly changing!

In the re-conceptualized view of education, teachers create a curriculum that involves the emotions and expression of the unique needs of their students. Knowledge is developed with others and through many viewpoints. This "critical curriculum" views human beings, society, the physical world, and the pedagogical process as interconnected features of a deeper order. According to Kincheloe, "The only learning that really matters is a learning that engages understanding and is critically investigated".

Getting back to the idea of personalized learning not being student-centered; I want to explain that this re-conceptualized system is not about making the curriculum simply relevant to the immediate interests of the students. This is why I like the work of Vygotsky and Egan, who promote deep learning which is led by scientific, abstract concepts; as opposed to the spontaneous, concrete and immediate experiences of children. And rather than giving students "material" to memorize, practice and repeat to sheer mind-numbingness; teachers will confront their students with diverse perspectives and conflicting interpretations to create a more meaningful learning experience that goes well beyond the surface facts. Likewise this means that our assessments of students' "work" will look very different. Could the "end of unit test" be a thing of the past? 

I recently ended my Math (Place Value) unit with a project that I designed rather than a "pre-done" test review. Since I was the one who created the unit, why not create the assessments too?! What I wanted to do was engage my students again about the size of numbers and understand that when the numbers are "put together" they become quite big. I used this binary (small / big) throughout the unit, and I wanted to have them look at the concept in a fun way. So students had to compile what I called "An Extremely Unreasonable Christmas List". They had to find up to 20 items of any insane amount that they could find in the newspaper flyers, with all those lovely $199.99 type prices. Then they had to round (estimate) those numbers to make sense of them. So $199.99 becomes $200, 1499.97 becomes $1500, etc... They had to add up the rounded numbers to see how much their items would cost in total. Then I had them write a cheque for the total, made payable to themselves. The best part - Santa was covering the bill! The criteria was clearly described to the students for the display of their projects, and I was easily and quickly able to assess their understanding of reading, writing, estimating and adding numbers to 100 000 (which is the PLO). 
student example

I don't need a hundred questions repeated over and over, just one very meaningful activity. Using this unusual approach in math I am sure was very different to what my students had experience before, especially when I told them this was the "end of unit test" (however I am sure most of them have put together a Christmas list before, just not one that big). This is but one small example of the teacher as scholar and curriculum developer, continually re-examining "old units" and trying new things.

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