A 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.