This week saw a new aspect of my professional journey expand to include the first unit in a Master of Research degree. This Educational Psychology unit has already stimulated my interest, and my fear that perhaps I will begin questioning a lot of things I do as a teacher and that schools do as the castles of education we hope that they are.
Reading the blog posts and paper in preparation for Week 2, my thoughts surfed the waves of research and history to explore the ways in which education has been influenced by psychology over the past 100 years. The blogs A Brief History of Education and Educational Psychology – History, Contemporary Views of Learning and Motivation, Issues and Controversies narrated the ways in which education has grown, evolved and changed – especially due to the impact of psychological research. Thinkers and researchers such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Thorndike, Binet and Piaget all appeared, as my brain dusted off their mental statues that had sat in my memory since first year uni.
Peter Gray’s article, A Brief History of Education, challenged me to think about several key areas and assumptions that we have about education and schooling.
One of the key themes throughout the article is that every age moulds education to their own standards and values. It’s a symbiotic but often one-sided relationship, where social, political and economic needs of the present determine the experience students have in the near future. Rather than merely identifying timeless, human skills and knowledge that young people need and seeking to deploy professional and empathetic educators to engage students in such, it seems that – even from the Agricultural revolution so many thousands of years ago – those in power have sought to use education as a values delivery system. Perhaps this was the right or entitlement of groups and individuals in power, but is it still the case? And if so, is it a truth that can’t be challenged?
If looking at the history of education and education systems tells us that we morph and mutate the educational experience to suit the times, then are there in fact any universal truths about education and schooling? Are there any elements of what we do and how we do it that are true no matter what year or country or system we are currently in? In a “post-modern” age, can we even accept the theory that argues there is no single truth?
Another element of Gray’s article was that there has always been a tension not just between those in power and those under their social command, but also a tension between those who have the best intentions (there’s a saying about that isn’t there?) and those who have a sadistic passion for punishing students either directly through violence or indirectly through the structures put in place around the learner. I would like to think that in an age of transparency and professionalism that we are smarter and more creative in our ability to motivate students, but even within ‘motivation’ is a plethora of theories about what works and what doesn’t. If you are interested in motivation and want something to inspire you to look further – check out this video by Dan Pink at TED 2009. The key question is: who is winning the battle between what society and bureaucracy believes should happen in schools and what is best for the learner? (I know – ideally they are the same)
In keeping with this idea of relevance and timeliness, how much time do our current learners spend in school learning? There are obvious benefits to non-academic pursuits such as sports, extracurricular activities, pastoral and spiritual activities (if the school is inclined that way). Even if it is just for the student to decide what they are not interested in pursuing. The key difference for a student in 2013 compared to even a student in 2003, and of course dramatically more so than 1963 or 1903, is that the access to learning opportunities no longer resides only behind the parapets of our castles of education. Walls – whether physical, mental or cultural – prove no defence against the individualisation, consumerisation and globalisation of traditional learning: ‘concrete’ knowledge and basic skills. Are our castles crumbling because of a little device in students hands? What, then is school for if they used to be for the transference of knowledge, skills and values but now exist in a world of fluid knowledge, rapidly changing skill-set requirements and shifting and competing values?
Finally, another theme to sprout from Gray’s article is the idea of power in education. Power has always been in the hands of adults – and not all adults, just a chosen few – who dictate how other adults and then the students in their care are to learn: what, when, how and why. This is made official through institutions and policies that seek not just to document what goes on in a school (an important and useful process, so long as it is not cumbersome) but to make schools do so in a way suitable to those institutions and structures. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. How many work hours now go into compliance and accreditation compared with 20, 30, 50 years ago? Is this necessary? Perhaps. Is it valuable to education? Perhaps. As a New Scheme Teacher in the New South Wales system, I can easily say that going through the process of accreditation does not make me a better teacher – the reflection and mentoring that can go on in the context of accreditation can be, so long as the school has the funds to support that – and the idea that because I am accredited makes me a good teacher is a false argument.
The second post relating to educational psychology explored the ways particular theorists and researchers have influenced what goes on in schools. As a history teacher it’s always interesting for me to read the path taken to the present.
The idea that stood out for me is the constructivist theory of cognitive apprenticeships. There are apparently many models that I will now have to go off and learn about, but basically the aim of the process is that students become more independent (but not isolated) learners who take responsibility for the application of what they have learned. This translates to what the Cognition and Technology group at Venderbilt University call ‘anchored instruction’ – I would argue that this reflects the ‘flipped classroom’ approach to learning that so many teachers are now deploying as part of their pedagogical framework in technology-rich environments.
As I want to explore the nature and value of technology use for teaching and learning, there seems to be much to learn from educational psychologists.
So as I gaze out from my castle of education this week I think my mind will not just be focused on the day to day tasks of promoting effective use of ICT in the classroom. My mind’s eye will be regularly glancing at the horizon to see what is possible and maybe, just maybe, how the castle(s) should change so that the truth is simple and timeless: learning happens here.