Dichotomies: Round 1 | #28daysofwriting Day 6

Boxing matchA few things swirling around the head today, largely as a result of chat on Twitter and elsewhere with folks in the UK, tapping back into some of the shifts in systems and structure over there in the last few years. There were one or two interesting tweets about how some folk saw trendy ‘rubbish’ – 21st Century learning et al – coming out of Australia and NZ when once it had emerged from the US.

What bubbled to the surface in various conversations was a central theme around whether education is in the ‘knowledge to be imparted’ camp or is in the ‘help students discover it for themselves’ camp.

And, to my mind, in this short 28 min first cut of what I hope will be a longer post, is where the argument falls down.

In the red corner, we have the ‘traditional’ view of learners as vessels to be filled, of a ‘set’ foundational knowledge defined by a curriculum (and defined back in the day when we were preparing students for officer class or the factory) that must be transferred from teacher expert to students who need to be broadened in intellect and skill. For example, the paper by University of Auckland’s Elizabeth Rata in 2012, awarded a prize at the British Educational Journal paper of the year sums up this paradigm neatly:

“Knowledge is actual content, as philosopher Karl Popper reminded us, a lesson forgotten at our peril. We need to learn it from those who know the content. Good teachers are knowledgeable teachers. When we remember this we will value them again. But it is a status that must be earned. A teacher who says “I co-inquire with my students”, “I learn from them”, “we construct knowledge together” does not deserve that status. If we are to value teachers again, we must first value what teachers have (or should have). This is the academic knowledge found in school subjects that most parents don’t have at home.”

In the blue corner, we have the ‘student-led inquiry’ camp, which defines modern education as a space in which the learner must have agency and control over the pathways through knowledge – and that knowledge can be explored in a myriad of different ways. Some students may experience different knowledge to others. The ‘knowledge wave’ work of Jane Gilbert, the New Pedagogies movement championed by Michael Fullan, and the current favouring of learner-centred pedagogies (founded on the socio-constructivist principles) as we see in the NZ Curriculum.

But dichotomies are not helpful. And we can have our cake and eat it, too.

There are sound bodies of knowledge that are generally indisputable – think mathematical and scientific concepts, historical facts – that are the foundational building blocks that help all of us make sense of the world. But the way in which we can explore and relate to these concepts can – should? –  be done within a paradigm that builds on learners’ backgrounds, prior knowledge and contexts. A great starting point here is Bransford et al.’s How People Learn.

Not either/or but and/and.

At the heart of this apparent dichotomy should lie such questions as:

  • Who defines what ‘knowledge’ is important?
  • How does this knowledge relate to one’s own culture?
  • What knowledge is foundational for broader learning experiences?
  • How far can learners have agency over their learning in ways that reflect current understandings about how the brain processes new knowledge?
  • Which learners might be excluded by a dominant set of concepts/knowledge base? Which learners are favoured?

What is most interesting to me is that the prevalence and volume of voices in NZ around ‘21st century’ modes of learning, so much so that it is unusual to hear current teachers publicly calling themselves traditionalists. It’s not a concept that is much discussed publicly and I feel it is vital to understand why different educators see their roles in such stark terms – and how this relates to what we want for our young people.

Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national day when we recognise the coming together of European and Māori peoples around the signing of the Treaty. This event, a coming together, not always very comfortably at times, of two different camps of ideas highlights, I think, how it is better to look for the commonality across complex issues such as educational paradigms, and take the most effective of them, rather than look to polarised extremes.

Image source: Boxing Match (1923), via Alexander Turnbull Museum (via Digital NZ)

3 thoughts on “Dichotomies: Round 1 | #28daysofwriting Day 6

  1. Really enjoyed this post Karen. It makes me think of the quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

    I had an interesting conversation with Rata after her visit to HPSS where she commented on the emphasis of specialist knowledge. In a school like HPSS! The major thing I learnt from taking one of her uni papers though was that the idea of ‘knowledge’ is not as consistent as we like to think. Knowledge is not necessarily rote learning the capital cities of the world, but rather, it might be specialist knowledge to assist in solving complex problems. Perhaps rather than shying away from knowledge, it’s about personalising the knowledge. Which in a fast moving, information over load world is necessary. It seems that the polar end of either argument struggles by itself.

    And on that note, I’ll stop writing. Before I get to a 28 minute comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “What is most interesting to me is that the prevalence and volume of voices in NZ around ‘21st century’ modes of learning, so much so that it is unusual to hear current teachers publicly calling themselves traditionalists.”

    It was the same here for years. People assumed that their careers would be over if they challenged the progressive orthodoxy and most new teachers were led to believe there was no debate. We blogged and tweeted anonymously, we argued our case, we wrote about the pressure we were under to conform, and eventually it reached the point where we had politicians, journalists and thousands of colleagues listening to us. We reached the point where the high priests of the old order had to denounce us or acknowledge us.

    It’s tragic if that debate isn’t happening in New Zealand. It certainly isn’t because nobody in New Zealand ever disagreed with progressive orthodoxy. It’s because progressives have always known that it is better to suppress or deny the debate than in engage in it. Progressive experiments are invariably short-lived failures, that’s why they always have to be spun as a response to something new rather than a repeat of an old ideology. No doubt that will also be the fate of the various attempts to repackage 1960s ideology as 21st century thinking in New Zealand.

    Liked by 1 person

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