There are so many vested interests in education. This isn’t at all surprising considering that 1) every single person in the western world has benefitted from the effects of education and 2) all other sectors of society rely on its quality. Without a good level of education for its population, a country’s productivity would inevitably fall apart. A moral and just society relies on the quality of education too, for the ability to evaluate the happenings in the world at a subjective level requires a baseline level of knowledge. The economy and society would fall apart without education; it is the bedrock from which everything else is built. Hence, everyone is interested in education.
This interest isn’t necessarily a good thing though. This is because not everyone agrees on what education should look like for our young people, which inevitably leads to a wide variety of ideas for how we could improve the experience they receive, and not all of them are good. TED talks are a great source for discussing the grand ideas everyone has for education. Ken Robinson would like to see a ‘paradigm shift’ where schools would change forever, focussing more on the innate personal qualities of the individual above all else. We also have Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, who also has a great idea for how to better education. He urges teachers to ‘flip the classroom’. Allow students to watch videos at home and talk about them the next day in class, he says. This then could also revolutionise what we do in the classroom. And then there is Sugata Mitra who envisages the future of learning up in the cloud through Self Organised Learning Environments. Why do students need a teacher telling them things anyway? We’ve got the internet for that. The internet changes everything, and so too school should change too! Geoff Ulgan also has an idea for a ‘new kind of school’. His studio schools will ensure bored teenagers fall in love with learning again and grumpy employers receive kids who are ‘work ready’. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Everyone has a great idea.
Grand ideas like these are not uncommon and they are intuitively appealing. Robinson’s ideas are especially so. Focusing on the individual sounds like a beautiful idea. After all, what child doesn’t deserve all the attention in the world? And many have fallen to the intuitive appeal of Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environments. It is self-paced learning in the new technological age of the 21st century. Why wouldn’t we want to look to the future and start to ensure our students are ready for it? But who, exactly, should we believe? All of these ideas and all the other ideas thrown at educators all sound great but how do we know if they will have an impact on what we want to achieve in the classroom? Our core purpose is to ensure students meet a certain threshold of competence in their learning. We cannot adopt all ideas in education to help see this come to fruition. The sheer amount of ideas are all filtered into a bottleneck, all fighting one another to enter the small opening into the classroom. Which ideas we adopt and which ideas we reject are big choices.
The sheer amount of ideas is somewhat overwhelming. The TED talks are only the tip of the iceberg. It is for this very reason teachers need to be highly sceptical when they encounter a new idea – there are just so manyand not all of them are good ideas. The first thing teachers should do when they encounter a new idea is ask themselves what sort of impact the idea will have on student learning and at what cost. How will this idea make a difference to student learning and what burden will this place on teachers? Unfortunately, this question is rarely asked. We have seen bad ideas seep through the idea-bottleneck into the classroom before. Braingym is your classic example of an idea that found popularity but had zero impact on student learning. De Bono’s Thinking Hats are another classic case (as if coloured hats were ever going to have an impact on student learning). There are many ideas like these that have served only to waste teachers’ and students’ time with pretty much zero (or even negative) impact on learning. If teachers would’ve simply asked – simply thought critically about the idea before adopting it – time would not have been lost on these fads.
We have seen the zero to negative impact fads, disguised as good ideas, have had in the past. Teachers should have been sceptical and the need for teachers to be sceptical is only increasing with grander and grander ideas approaching the ideas bottleneck. It is important we work out which ones are fads and which ones are genuine ideas. Schools have started to adopt the ideas of Robinson, Khan, Mitra and Ulgan, amongst others. For example, tonight’s AussieEd chat is devoted to flipped learning, the idea pushed by Khan in his TED talk. The reality is flipped learning could just be another brain gym – zero impact and high burden. There is no way of knowing unless we adopt a sceptical mindset and study its impact. Teachers should be looking for evidence that the idea will have a high impact, low burden ratio. Luckily, there is research on what good instruction looks like and what limits the capacity to learn. These lessons from research, amongst others, can guide teachers when making choices about what to adopt and what to reject. This is the only way to filter out the good and bad ideas. If we don’t do this, then we risk going round and round in circles, constantly adopting bad ideas and then abandoning them only to take up the next one. The solution is to be a little sceptical, ask good questions, look for evidence and only adopt that which we know will likely have a high impact and low burden.