The value of schooling

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Shifting perceptions of what learning looks like

In the previous post I argued that the shift to online learning during the Covid-19 lockdown revealed where the faults lie in the education system. It made me question once again the value of schooling. Effective learning will only take place when students are engaged with and curious about the teaching on offer. To achieve this teachers need to fulfill a number of requirements. They need to 1. design learning opportunities that are relevant and invite engagement, 2. reflect on how well the learning is happening, and 3. modify the learning programme based on the evidence – connect the teaching with the learning. And on top of that, it all needs to happen for all students of all abilities and all dispositions.

Unfortunately, this way of teaching is far from the current reality and I see little evidence of any significant progress of making this a reality.

So rather than being despondent and disempowered about the current state of education, I recommend that individuals become better informed about what good learning looks like and, learn how to navigate the system. It is possible that some parents have potential to play a bigger role in their child’s education than they realise. For that to happen, they need to identify the core aspects of effective learning and child development. With that knowledge it will be possible to identify the value that schooling is offering and contribute in the areas that are not being fulfilled. Here are some key considerations that could be useful.

How do I help my child learn?

The good news is that the average child’s learning will grow as they mature. This will happen without any input by you. But by exposing them to a range of positive and constructive life experiences and interactions you will improve that learning growth. And those experiences are readily available and within your reach. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. If you are looking for guidance, it may help to recall the key learning moments in your life – that internalised feeling of success and steps towards independence.

That is what you are trying to replicate for your child. Learning is the residue of thinking and manipulating and testing and problem solving. Learning can happen anywhere. Life doesn’t operate in a silo and neither should education. Make it known to your child that learning is all around us. Numeracy and literacy are practical applications not abstract concepts. “Hot housing” your child is unlikely to bring long term benefits to your child’s well-being or success.

What should my child be learning?

The NZ curriculum is a thin and non-prescriptive document and is accessible to anyone. It covers all subjects and all levels – from new entrant to the end of secondary school. It describes the content to be covered in general terms. It doesn’t prescribe how this content should be taught. It also has a “key competencies” section that advocates for social and emotional learning.

To help you decide what your child should be learning, look forward into the future and think of the knowledge and learning opportunities that will help your child to get to that future and be successful in life. Focus on the skills and knowledge that are transferable. But keep in mind that we are adults for a long time. The best learning takes time and is not forced. The kind of learning being described here and the “traditional” school experience (of getting good grades in order to enter university) do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Choose learning opportunities that provoke your child’s curiosity and invite exploration. Provide the essential knowledge that feeds that curiosity rather than force feed it. Trust them. Think back to how you learned best when you were at school. What would you like for your child to achieve and be able to do as an adult? What social and emotional competencies do you value?

How do I know if my child is learning?

Schools can provide standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy that they can share with you. But the best assessments are informal and achieved through interactions. Listen to your child. Get accustomed to finding out what is important to them. Develop a culture of honesty in which they feel invited to share the things they care about. Encourage them to open up. This may take time because they will be so used to feeling the need to respond to the prevailing expectations of education.

It is possible that the culture of learning that they have experienced is one based on fear of failure and motivated by threats and punishment. Provoke and observe how they respond and where their enthusiasm lies. The process is more important than the product. Encourage talking out loud rather than quiet reproduction. You will know your child is learning when you observe them growing in confidence, independence and curiosity.

How do I help my child enjoy learning?

You may need to free your child from the shackles of the schooling system slowly. So keep the learning time short. Or at least, ensure the time you spend transmitting knowledge is kept short. You may want to teach numeracy facts, spelling words and abstract problem solving, but keep it short and positive. Better still, connect that knowledge based learning with a practical activity. A positive learning relationship is an essential foundation of effective learning. You may need to manage behaviour by using rewards but if direct instruction time is short and positive, this may not be necessary.

The best learning is self generated. There is no need for a child to be working at levels above their chronological age. If your child is acing the numeracy tests, use it as a cue to go broader and deeper. Don’t be surprised that your child can achieve sufficient learning in a much shorter time frame than the typical six hour school day. Unfortunately, the reality of the typical classroom means that the amount of actual teaching time can be counted in minutes on one hand. Seriously.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the links below for some personal experiences of how people managed the education of their children under lockdown and how it exposed the flaws in how we currently perceive “best education practice”.

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The teaching and learning disconnect

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Signs of learning?

The words teaching and learning are used interchangeably. They convey the idea of going to school, or some kind of educational institution and, getting an education. Being taught. Learning something. But in order to critique the education system effectively it is necessary to see that, despite the appearance of the words teaching and learning conveying the same meaning, the reality can be quite different.

It’s possible that while teaching is taking place, learning may or not be happening as intended. It is possible that a correlation between the two does not actually exist despite the expectation or intention that it should. This reality has been previously referred to on this site in a variety of different ways. Phrases such as “evidence-based teaching”, “learning growth” and “know your impact” come to mind. It is the desire to determine and measure this correlation that drives the possibility of improvement in learning outcomes for students.

For me, evidence of the disconnection between teaching and learning became more pronounced during the Covid-19 lockdown. All learning institutions, including schools and universities were required to be closed for an extended period. Education was forced to go online. Technology became the medium. Of course, for online learning to be successful all students need to have access to a device, an internet connection, the school may need a suitable system in place and the users need to be familiar with how it works. Those financial and technical barriers automatically exclude many from even participating.

But even for those who were able to connect online, it was a tough sell getting those students to engage. The teaching and learning disconnect that I describe above is a hidden barrier. To learn, you need to be prepared to engage with the teaching that is on offer. What is on offer needs to be relevant and engaging. And it’s fair to say that if a student is not engaged in the teaching on offer while in the classroom, it is unlikely that said student will be jumping out of bed in the morning to complete the day’s online teaching. No amount of cajoling will be sufficient.

Students voted with their feet during the lockdown, in a way they can’t do when they are face to face with a teacher in the classroom. Only the curious, the most capable, the motivated, the ones aspiring to enter tertiary study or with specific career aspirations will make a successful transition to online learning. When lessons moved online, teachers no longer had the “stick” with which to motivate students. This reveals the problem with the system we have. It relies on threats and punishment to motivate. That is contradictory to what the science tells us about motivation.

This would suggest that universities fared the best during the lockdown. Universities have been offering access to lectures via online means for some time already. University students are used to not attending lectures face to face. And, university students typically fit the student profiles listed above. The engagement factor is not so critical for university students. Study is optional. University students want to be there. If they don’t, they drop out. These students have aced the school system. They are smart and motivated. To those students, their chosen course of study will be relevant and engaging for them or they have sufficient academic capacity to pass the course regardless.

The problem is that this teaching model, the one that works at tertiary level, is generally the same model being applied in all education settings. Achieving effective learning is about more than delivery of content regardless of whether it is taking place online or face to face. As well as having sufficient content knowledge, teachers need to be able to design learning that promotes engagement and motivation. Teachers need to understand that providing content to students is not a guarantee that learning is taking place. They need to be adept at capturing and measuring the impact their teaching is having on student learning. They need to be invited to experiment with this process and share their findings. For effective learning to be happening, there needs to be more dialogue than monologue. A dialogue that is responsive and in which the student is fully engaged with.

The failure of the prevailing education model falls most heavily on those on the outside; the poor and the non-compliant. It is a model that lacks responsiveness to the actual needs of the bulk of students and fails to engage with them effectively to promote learning. This model may not be perfect for university students either but at least the consequences of failure for those at that end of the education spectrum has less impact.

Can the Covid-19 crisis be an opportunity for reimagining and remaking of the education system? It is through observing the impact of this pandemic on education and how schools and institutions have responded that we can get a real sense of where the faults lie within the system. The lessons are there for us to learn, but will we? Systems are entrenched and are difficult to budge.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.