A school that’s all about achievement and performance is a school that’s not really about discovery and understanding. — Alfie Kohn, Schooling Beyond Measure
We expect government to be accountable . Therefore, the menu of offerings in education must be presented to the taxpayer and their universal delivery must be verified. Thus, measures of student success have been created. There are three main challenges that result.
1. What are Public Education’s Objectives?
Public education everywhere has several objectives. The core goal is usually knowledge acquisition, quite simply that students will have learned the prescribed material and be able to demonstrate their new knowledge and skills.
In the Cégep system, courses in Humanities, Physical Education, First and Second Languages are compulsory for all students. This suggests an additional set of expectations: that students be critical thinkers with a broad world view, be able to design healthy lifestyles for themselves, converse in two official languages and appreciate the contributions to culture that these languages have made . This generally defines a goal that could be called “good citizen”.
Cégep education is tuition-free. The condition, however, is that students be enrolled in a program. The program will either lead to immediate employment or to a university program with the same ultimate destination. In other words, the government wants graduates to be employable.
While there may be other expectations of public education these three are normally the main ones.
2. How to Measure Them
Of the three goals mentioned above, institutions generally choose knowledge acquisition as the one they can measure.
Unfortunately, while trying to be scientific in their measurements of student success in knowledge acquisition, they are anything but.
While the gold standard in scientific investigation is the double-blind, controlled experiment, in public education there is no control group. Furthermore, the teacher applies a treatment to a class of students and then determines its results in the form of grades.
In addition, teachers are sometimes encouraged to raise or lower their grades. The fact that this is even possible confirms that grades cannot be relied upon to measure the success of the learning experience. No self-respecting scientist would believe otherwise.
Success rates (pass rates) are direct derivatives of grades. Not only are these subject to the inherent inadequacies of grades but setting an acceptable success rate is usually arbitrary.
3. The Cost of False Acceptance
When educators do not acknowledge the underlying weakness of grades as a measure of student success, they become complicit in a deception. Continuing to do so dis-empowers them. The value of their sincere efforts and personal integrity to the institution are then diminished.
A first step in looking for a better measure of student success is to identify the full set of goals that are actually intended. Three have been mentioned above; there may be others. The process of actually defining them can be a positive experience for the institution.
An alternative approach to measurement would shift the evaluation focus from outputs to inputs. Instead of looking at grades, which are an outcome of the education process, it makes more sense to consider the elements of the process which are essential to its successful functioning.
Inputs might include: well qualified teachers, professional development, inviting spaces, useful equipment, supplies, and technology, various out-of-class support services, and effective leadership.
Inputs can be evaluated in two ways: they are either present or absent, and if present, could they be improved? Even those who insist on analyzing outputs would have to turn to the inputs to solve any apparent shortcomings they had discovered.
Governments will continue to insist on assurances of student success. In response, the institution should begin by identifying the complete set of learning goals it is trying to meet.
The second step is to define the inputs necessary to achieve those goals.
Thirdly, the institution should regularly assess the presence or absence and the quality of these inputs. Discussing inputs goes right to the question of what needs attention. It doesn’t depend on false interpretations of grades or metrics that are hard to interpret.
It also acknowledges that institutions do not control the success of their students. Clearly the students themselves are the key determiners of their own success as learners.
This shift requires honesty about grades in particular. But this honesty will liberate educators from complicity in false measures that have never served education well.
Pedagogical days, in the college environment, have historically been an occasion to supplement college teachers’ classroom experience with emerging pedagogical knowledge and teaching strategies.
It has shown itself to have limited effect on changing teaching practices because it does not resonate with most faculty members. There are two reasons. First, most college teachers are hired without any pedagogical certification or expertise. They are content specialists whose most recent educational experiences have been as students in a university environment. There, teaching practices of long standing are rarely enriched by pedagogical theory.
The second reason is that, without realizing that pedagogical knowledge is central to teaching, some teachers resent experts telling them how to teach.
Ped Days are rare occasions where the entire college community can be together. A Ped Day is therefore an opportunity to build the College’s real teaching platform, the Champlain community.
There are three underlying principles that can make this goal a reality.
We are not overstaffed at the College. This means that everyone here is essential to the mission. All groups within the College should feel welcome and find activities of specific and mutual interest.
Input and participation are essential elements. This is where the collective responsibilities for civility and the development of a healthy workplace can be addressed.
Food and hospitality are a key part of the Quebec tradition and provide an initial opportunity to connect with others. Just meeting new people helps us to create a sense of belonging to a talented team doing great work.
As an employee community of 300 people it is inevitable we will have a wide range of interests. If we free ourselves from the obligation to appear “pedagogical” we can address diverse subjects using varied formats and activities.
This certainly includes addressing pedagogical issues, both theoretical and practical. We have an evolving group of pedagogues. Supporting them is the best mechanism we have for improving the quality of teaching in our College.
Offering choice will boost enthusiasm for Ped Days and can make them events not to be missed.
We can treat people as their role or as their person. Teaching English is a role but the person who teaches it may also be a mother of three young children. Many of our colleagues have kids, some have grandchildren. Others just have dogs. 🙂
Each day their preoccupations include their work, their home, and the larger environment. Many parents worry about their children’s future in the face of a menacing climate crisis. Their own health and that of those around them is an eventual focus in everyone’ s life.
There are two issues we must address in acknowledging each other’s humanity, wellness and the environment.
We become more informed day-by-day about human wellness. Yet the workplace continues to demand more in terms of good health.
Stress is implicated in many medical and psychological problems. It also reduces people’s effectiveness. New technology actually increases the amount of work we do and ties us more closely to the workplace for longer hours.
Sitting for long periods of time, particularly in front of a computer screen, presents its own threats to health.
We must confront environmental issues, local and global. It is essential that we move beyond simple admonitions of environmental responsibility and begin to dig deeper into the details of carbon and plastic pollution. We are in the knowledge business and nowhere is knowledge more needed than in these two areas. As a community, we need to join with our students in making a deeper dive into the facts we will need in order to be a part of the solution.
Regarding the recent Ped day activities, I wanted to mention that I found them to be exceptional; kudos to all of the members who took the time to organize and present their interest in the varying workshops. It is apparent that the college is wanting and willing to listen to all, care about our health, wellness, and future at the college, and demonstrate an openness for change for the betterment of not only students, but for us as well. The only downfall was that many teachers and other members of the college were not there to benefit from the exercises. If that many people do not participate in sharing and understanding the ‘community’ efforts, then we cannot speak the same language (so to speak), understand one another’s views, and know in what direction we are heading. A real shame. I am hoping we can have more of these types of workshops, perhaps one or two main focal points to have more time to share and plot concrete findings, and have all on board.
A big THANK YOU for the time and effort made, and cheers to all who were quite innovative, worked hard with their findings while keeping us engaged, and definitely well-fed by the staff in the cafeteria who were courteous and attentive!
Designing great learning experiences is what great teachers do. Educators have much to gain, and to offer, when they define their roles as creative work. Teachers, in particular, can keep their practice motivating by choosing an energizing definition of teaching— designing learning experiences for learners.
With time, experienced teachers can begin to feel that their work has lost its appeal. They may find it has become repetitive or that their students seem less motivated than they used to be. When teachers feel bored or frustrated they may be headed toward burnout. To assure that their teaching practice remains vital teachers need to start with a good definition of teaching.
Many people believe that teaching is about the “transfer of information”. This traditional model makes teaching a static, repetitive process in which the teacher is simply the pipeline between the sources of knowledge and the student destination. This belief can lead teachers to design learning experiences which are boring. As a result students may be unwilling to apply serious effort to the learning.
Designing Learning Experiences
Most teachers create lessons. These range from highly teacher-centered to highly student-centered depending upon what students are asked to do. If they are asked to listen and take notes the lesson is a lecture. Alternatively, teachers can design problem-solving activities which engage students in finding solutions. And there are many variations in between.
From a student perspective lessons are experiences. It’s time to think of lesson planning as designing learning experiences. It will change what you do.
There are two sets of principles you can draw on in becoming a learning experience designer. The first are pedagogical principles.
Pedagogical Principles for Designing Great Educational Experiences
The work of researchers like Jean Piaget suggests that learning is an act of construction. Learners have an existing base of knowledge. When they learn, they build new knowledge onto this base. It is a bit like building an addition onto a house.
This means that the learner is in complete control of the learning. A student can choose to learn or not and there is no way to override this decision. Consequently, any definition of teaching must include the teacher’s role as an indirect influence on students’ learning. Teachers lead the planned learning experiences but their influence on actual learning is always indirect.
The Professional Teacher
It is important to note that a student’s unwillingness to learn doesn’t exempt the teacher from a professional commitment to teach well. Teaching professionals are always looking for the best way. Teaching, therefore, is a continuous process of design, testing, and improving learning experiences.
The Active Learning model hinges on engagement and is a reaction to traditional lecture methods. Students are intellectually active when they engage with the subject matter. Supporters of AL are fond of saying, “Talking is not teaching and listening is not learning.”
Learners must actively probe the subject under study in order to arrive at a deep and lasting understanding. This does not occur when students simply take lecture notes and then feed information back in tests or papers.
In addition, Active Learning activities should address the “real world”. This means that learning experiences should connect to issues outside the classroom rather than revolve around memorizing and doing exercises.
Benjamin Bloom’s ranking of intellectual activities is one of the most fundamental tools available to teachers at all levels.
Using this updated version of the taxonomy, educators generally accept the principal that teachers should design learning experiences at various levels of intellectual challenge. They should emphasize, where possible, the higher ones.
We can imagine a course whose activities are designed exclusively at the Remember level. Students constrained to memorizing facts and figures would find their course incredibly boring. Nor would they have an opportunity to deepen their understanding of important concepts.
Many teachers still find it challenging to engage students at the Create level. This may be because they still see learning as depending on the interaction between teacher and student and not on the relationship of the student to the knowledge they are acquiring.
All Professionals are Designers
Professional teachers learn from their practice. Each change they bring to the learning experiences they design produces new evidence about what works and what does not. This process of constant experimentation is clearly a creative one. This is what provides the motivation that drives other professionals, all of whom are engaged in design.
Physicians design and revise programs of diagnosis and treatment for their patients. Lawyers design legal strategies to help their clients. Accountants create financial plans and revise them to meet their clients’ changing needs. Architects design living and working spaces for various uses by people.
The professional teacher is a designer as well.
Designing Great Educational Experiences—Some Ingredients of Great Experiences
The second set of principles designing teachers can apply are experiential. These come from what we know about ourselves.
Elementary school teachers all seem to know how important the classroom environment is in creating effective learning experiences for their young students.
Through high school and college the physical learning space generally gets less attention. Teachers prioritize intellectual activities in the design of learning experiences. Nonetheless, older students do respond to the physical environment they learn in. Fortunately, the popularity of Active Learning has encouraged designers to produce new classroom furniture which invites students into a more engaging learning experience.
Unfortunately, at the university level both the physical context and often pedagogical design, have lower priority. In this context teachers revert to the traditional role of information presenter.
Here are some questions to consider.
What does it feel like to enter the location in which you teach?
Are there alternative spaces that could be used? Sometimes this includes the outdoors.
Can you enhance the space in any way? Could it be made more comfortable? Can you adjust the lighting or the seating or otherwise improve the comfort of the space?
Does it feel like a place for learning?
Is the space cared for?
A learner’s personal experiences and their experiencing of world events can change their level of engagement in learning activities. Good design allows room for flexibility and spontaneous changes of plans. If there has been a significant event in the community, whether disturbing or exciting, it may deserve some attention. This acknowledges that the participants in the lesson are people, not just students. Students have bad days too.
People are context. Every class has its unique character and it can change from day to day.
Responsibility for these contextual elements falls overwhelmingly on the teacher. Concern for these elements is part of the design process for learning experiences. Sometimes, of course, the unexpected will necessitate a spontaneous change of plans. Interestingly, this kind of change often produces surprisingly satisfying results.
Here are some questions to consider.
Is there an opportunity to get acquainted with other participants, to discover their strengths and talents? Do these opportunities continue?
Is there time to ease into the lesson, gathering scattered minds together and acknowledging any elephants in the room?
Is there a civility which allows free, unintimidated sharing of ideas?
Does respect prevail?
Is there an atmosphere of inquiry?
Engaging the Senses
We are an eye-dominant species. Nonetheless, our other senses enhance our ability to understand and appreciate objects, ideas, and concepts. Many people develop other senses as compensation when, for example, they are visually impaired.
There is considerable evidence that people who are blind or deaf acquire enhanced abilities in other areas, largely due to brain plasticity. Although learners are capable of contacting the world in several different ways we tend to rely heavily on printed texts in teaching. This is at the expense of providing other ways of understanding and appreciating our reality. These other modes of contact are what we often use outside the learning environment. It makes little sense for our teaching to exclude them.
Here are some questions to consider.
Will sound play a role in your teaching?
Are there things to touch?
Will participants move around in the space?
Building a community revolves around respect and respect engenders trust. This allows learners to let down the guard they use to protect themselves against being attacked, embarrassed, humiliated, or otherwise made to feel inferior. There are several reasons why creating a sense of community in the learning space is essential.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is included in most teacher training programs. It is a longstanding theory that explains the priorities of the various kinds of needs human beings have.
Self-actualization – desire to become the most that one can be
The theory suggests that we cannot have our needs met at some level if the needs at lower levels are not met first . We will always be preoccupied with having the lower-ranking needs met. For example, learning, which is an example of self-actualization, will be blocked if a student is hungry, fearful, or unconnected to those around her.
Feeling part of a community in the learning space can help a learner meet these needs and then be able to address learning.
Active Learning and other popular learning strategies encourage teachers to have students work in groups to solve problems, to collaborate.
When students work together they can encounter the same challenges faced by any group. When a sense of community has been established among students they are better prepared to deal with the task of working effectively in groups.
Overwriting Bad History
Students arrive in the learning space with a variety of past experiences. If they have struggled with unmet needs in their past educational experiences or in their home life a positive community experience can support a successful re-orientation toward learning.
Here are some questions to consider.
Will participants appear to be having a good time causing others to want to join in?
Do you use ice breakers to create comfort among participants?
Is there an established climate of respect?
Rewarding the Relationship
Students are solicited for attention constantly in an electronic age. Social media compete particularly for the attention of young people. In fact, attention has become a commodity which has a dollar value in the ubiquitous world of Social Media.
Business models now guide the evolution of Social Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and others. Among the negative consequences of business motives is the addictive behavior that it deliberately generates, particularly in young people. It is important for teachers to understand Social Media’s success. These sites compete for our limited attention by creating engaging experiences.
In order to attract attention Social Media platforms trade on our craving for social approval: feeling connected, validated, and liked. Attention turns out to be a commodity with a high value to product and service marketers.
The SM platforms invoke Psychology in their mission. “Likes” and other shows of approval give us random rewards which are very effective in creating a fleeting feeling of pleasure. These random rewards keep us coming back for more in much the same way a slot machine does. Some platforms even build in deliberate delays between screen updates to heighten the intensity of expectation.
SM members who read a message and know that the sender has been notified may feel obliged to reply. And the original sender may linger online awaiting that likely response. Net effect: more attention to the platform, more attention to sell to marketers.
One site uses “streaks”, advancing red lines to display the number of days since two users interacted. This can create anxiety if the streak gets too long. Some SM users conscript others to babysit their streaks while on holiday, keeping the streak alive.
Many web sites encourage visitors to become members or subscribers. In addition, the new member is advised to allow “alerts” or push notifications. When these messages arrive the member is likely to interrupt whatever she is doing and thereby be subject to frequent distraction.
The compulsive practice of seeking a reward by responding to Social Media’s prompts means building one’s life around avoiding discomfort instead of focusing on things that give joy.
The random psychological rewards provided by Social Media work very well in grabbing large amounts of attention, particularly from young people. With this as background teachers have to seriously address the question, “Am I also trying to attract my students’ attention?” And if so, “What rewards can students expect in return for their attention?”
The rewards of educational success are generally deferred: career and income, for example. What are the immediate rewards of a lesson? This is an important question. Is there something that brings a class to a rewarding conclusion? Has the time spent (the attention given) led to some satisfying insight or some newly acquired capacity? Has there been a feeling of having accomplished something challenging, either individually or as a group? In short, was the value of the learning experience equal to the value of the attention demanded? Were the rewards immediately felt?
Unfortunately, some teachers dismiss this question by putting all responsibility for student engagement on the student. Learning experience designers, on the other hand, start with the belief that the experiences they design should reward student attention.
Feeling empowered is a strong reward. So the designer’s challenge becomes aiding learners to feel that they have accomplished something significant.
Here are some questions to consider.
Will students experience a reward for their attention?
Do you feel that it is not your responsibility to ensure these rewards are present?
In thinking about the specific content you teach, does it contain something you find rewarding?
Babies learn quickly that, in order to get what they want, it would be very useful to do two things. If they could talk they could tell the grownups what they want. If they could walk they could just go and get it.
For many years we have sent young children to school where their newly acquired skills are devalued in favor of sitting still and being quiet. Students who struggle with these restrictions are sometimes drugged into complying. Students who make it to high school without taming their desire to speak and move about often drop out in frustration.
The Natural Movement of the Body and Frequent Changes of Position
Research is now suggesting that the body has a need to move spontaneously throughout the day in order to preserve health and enable concentration.
“The standard day at work or school is spent sitting and the amount of time we spend sitting has increased enormously over the last 35 years compared to what is healthy for the human body. One obvious result of this lack of activity is that the muscles throughout our body do not get enough use. Spontaneous and regular muscle contractions throughout the whole body are an important part of the circulation system and furnish the brain with the oxygen, proteins and hormones it requires for concentration.
To meet these supply requirements, the brain subconsciously sends signals to the muscles to move. The rigid furniture and environments that we find in office environments and schools today hinder this self-organized movement.” —Aquest Design
The importance of spontaneous physical movement is now more generally recognized for younger students. Nonetheless, at higher levels of schooling we are quick to assume that the need has disappeared. Students in higher education, particularly, are expected to sit in rigid seating for prolonged periods of time. The challenges for success in higher education should derive from the work itself and not from the conditions under which it is done.
Our need for spontaneous movement includes the opportunity to express states of happiness and joy.
Is there a learning narrative that starts somewhere and goes somewhere? Did students arrive at a new destination by the end of the lesson? When designing a lesson it is helpful to think about the “journey” students will make during the experience. Will they leave your class feeling they have moved forward in understanding, skill, or appreciation?
It is difficult to know how well students integrated the material explored during a lesson. Do you ever ask? A five-minute survey at the end of a class can:
reveal, for you and for them, the degree of understanding that was achieved
encourage students to reflect on what they learned
let students know that their learning success is important to you
The “Ah-Ha!” Moment
In designing an activity it is also useful to think about Ah-Ha! moments. Does your learning experience contain some surprising revelations or concepts that suddenly become clear? Will participants get the main point of the activity? By the end will they have discovered something important?
Most lessons go right to the main topic without setting any context. By setting context first you create reasons for learning and can place the main idea as the prize worth waiting for.
Here is an example from Nursing:
In interaction with students explore the meaning of “pressure”. Where do we encounter “pressure”? (In many different contexts.) How would you define it? How is pressure increased or reduced? Now let’s talk about high blood pressure.
High blood pressure is a relevant topic in a Nursing program. But the underlying concept, “pressure”, is universal and has enormous importance. Having understood this context students will be able to predict many of the main issues associated with hypertension. Enabling learners to generate the key knowledge elements themselves rather than receiving them from a textbook or the teacher engages them. It also creates a narrative in which the destination (high blood pressure) is eventually revealed. Ah-Ha!
What photographs or other memorabilia will they end up with at the end of a lesson?
Having students listen to a lecture and try to write coherent notes has been shown to be an ineffective approach to teaching and learning. If not lecture notes, what will be the physical take-away of a lesson be?
Many students now use their cell phone cameras to record board work and other reminders of the lesson. Could there be other reminders that they could take from a lesson? Perhaps they could leave with a card with an acronym, or a reminder of some important process that was explored? And of course photographs of board notes and drawings, preferably their own board work and drawings.
One of the fine points of teaching involves “keeping it simple”. This is important on two levels. First, does the key focus of the lesson stand out above everything else? Sometimes teachers devote too much time to the administrative details associated with all lessons: organizing for activities, collecting and returning assignments, explaining rules and grading, for example. While these are important we should not allow them to dominate the learning experience. Keep it simple.
At another level when studying a particular idea it is important to know when to stop developing additional connections, digging into more detail, or adding more examples. The key concepts need to stand out. At the end of the lesson would your students be able to easily identify its key purpose?
End on a High Note
Assuring the learning experience ends on a high note requires, first of all, that you are attentive to time. The class will not end on a high note if you run out of time and don’t make it to the rewarding conclusion you planned.
Is there time at the end for a quiet word or a loud cheer? It is an excellent idea to get some feedback on how things went.
Creating a Platform
Each learning experience you design contributes to the building of a learning platform. This platform supports students in taking on greater learning challenges. Their learning experiences should lead them to the creation of unique expressions of their expanding fields of understanding.
We treasure what we create. Our creations help to define us. Experiences at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy prepare a student to reach the top level and become a creator. The entire set of learning experiences you create are the platform from which students can develop and express their unique perspectives. This is also a reward for efforts in learning and will encourage them to continue learning forever.
“The total 2018-2019 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is $46,340 for tuition and $67,580 for tuition, room, board, and fees combined”.
The result is that many students accumulate insurmountable levels of debt.
“Americans owe $1.5 trillion in higher education debt, a burden that weighs down their dreams and the U.S. economy. The Federal Reserve says millennials are now less likely to buy homes than young people were in 2005, and even senior citizens find themselves still making payments on their student loans.”
Many European countries offer free or low-cost university education, often in English. Mexico, Brazil, and even economic rival, China offer competitive educational opportunities. One would expect that the US would want to make its higher education more accessible to its own citizens in a bid to maintain its economic dominance, trading on the strong reputations of it universities.
Income-Sharing Agreement (ISA)
But no. Why solve the problem when you can invent something more insidious? American investors are turning students with debt into investments.
In return for an investment in their education students promise to pay investors a percentage of their future earnings. For example, one graduate of Purdue University, presently earning $50,000, pays her investor $279 per month, and this for eight and a half years. This could go up or down as her salary changes. It could go to zero if she becomes unemployed.
This exploitation of American students necessarily adds a layer of discrimination to a system already overwhelmed by different forms of it. Not all students are of equal risk and so, often, the university is involved in rating a student’s investment attractiveness.
The following table shows how different educational specializations are rated for investment consideration.
Share of Income Owned
Term, in years
Young People In America
As with Health Care solutions, the American psyche seems to require the intervention of some corporate interest. Education in the 21st century is clearly of top importance in all nations of the world. Yet many Americans can’t proceed directly from the needs of its own citizens (in this case mainly young people) to some of sort of aid or solution to the important problems the group faces. There must be some opportunity for capital investors to score profits, usually substantial.
The ISA is abhorrent as it views university students as immediate sources of profit and not as human beings, people who can contribute much to their country. The fact that many universities are complicit is scandalous.
Wake up America! Taken alongside recent experiences with un-redressed school shootings, limp objection to the separation of parents and children at the southern border, and the already untenable financial demands on US college students young people must be wondering how well loved they are in their own land.
Interest may be one of the most fundamental, most important concepts in education.
When we scramble from one strategy to another in our pursuit of a modern, successful education system we miss the importance of interest. It is interest that drives discovery in the evolution of human understanding.
Student success, one of our most central educational goals eventually leads to a discussion of what motivates students to learn. The answer is interest.
But teachers will claim that not everything they are obliged to teach is interesting. Then they fall back into a debate about ways to motivate students. What tricks can teachers learn to make the subject seem more interesting? When students drop out of the education system prematurely we once again point to the failure to make learning interesting to them.
But the pleasure of learning new things is inherent in our human nature. Just watch young children. Adding games or play to the learning environment, while often completely legitimate, is at other times a poor deception which tries to fool students into learning. This often results in a dumbing-down of challenging concepts and skills. It also produces a host of gimmicks.
Among the greatest deceptions is the marketing of technology as an essential tool for motivating students. Teachers have been told to “integrate technology into teaching” because that’s what young people like. However, this form of pandering is no more likely to motivate students than the use of chalk and blackboards.
Some educators transfer the responsibility for motivation to the student. They would say, “You can lead students to water but you can’t make them drink”. While it is true that learners do control their own motivation, leaving them solely responsible for it is an abdication of professional teaching responsibility.
Motivation is about interest. Young children, for example, are always interested in something. Starting school is often the beginning of a process aimed at focusing their attention on things that are important to others. This is a process that can overlook the importance of genuine interest. Getting students to perform at grade level becomes the reason for them learning anything. This has little motivational value for young learners.
Any attempt to understand the motivation to learn comes back to interest. This is a very important word. It defines not only a state of curiosity but also something of value, as in “I have a vested interest in the future of the planet.” It also represents a reward for investing, as in “interest income”.
This raises the obvious question, “Where does interest come from?” Can we affect another person’s level of interest? When a child, or anyone, is truly interested they will invest considerable effort in understanding and doing. In a typical educational program, spanning several years, there are many different things to study. Is it possible for a learner to be genuinely interested in all, or even most, of them?
The Latin word interest means “it is important” and the prefix inter implies a connection between things. This suggests that connection is central to the interest something can create in us.
Most systems of education presume that proper sequencing is essential to connecting concepts and skills. Hence the lock-step advancement through grades or levels — in learning arithmetic, for example, before higher mathematics. But good sequencing is surely no guarantee of student interest.
Learning might be enhanced if the subject being studied was connected to the learner’s personal experience. However, through decades of public education large scale customization has been largely unattainable. (It is comforting to note that there is now a discussion of “personalized medicine“. One might hope that it will spill over into education.)
Is there a universal kind of connection that can link any subject of study to something important for any learner? That would be the solution to the problem, if it exists.
Children are surrounded by adults who are able to do interesting things. For children the main goal is to become an adult with all the rights, privileges, and possibilities. Everything they learn brings them closer to that goal. They need to speak the languages of their parents and of their peers in order to demand the things they want and to communicate with those who can help them. They need to be able to walk in order to approach things that are attractive.
As children near adulthood their learning priorities shift. What is interesting to them has changed but it is still interest that is driving them. In structured public education we seem intent on trying to interest learners in what interests us. We invent the programs and curricula and set the markers that show progress. We should not be surprised then when learner interest is lacking and we are running off to a conference on how to motivate students.
This kind of experience leads teachers to become disconnected from the very subjects that once attracted them. They now define themselves as the expert who must create the motivation for their students’ learning or, in the worst case, simply throw the responsibility for motivation back on the student.
This widespread failure is largely a result of being focused on the outputs of the educational process, at the expense of the inputs. The outputs are the grades and success rates that are contrived to measure progress, but which often measure very little. The inputs are the inventory of elements provided by the educational system. The list varies but might include qualified teachers, solid pedagogy, physical environment, class size, and numerous other elements. More on this.
The more education authorities aspire to meet the educational needs of their changing world the more they risk losing touch with the genuine interests of their clientele. Learners live in the same world as educational decision makers. Allowing educational experiences to build upon genuine learner interest doesn’t seem like a great risk to take and will likely lead to real student success.
In the twenty-first century defining public education is the first and most important step in assuring its relevance and effectiveness.
In some places schools use standard tests to measure their success. These tests only measure knowledge acquisition. By not defining other learning objectives schools may under- or over-rate their success. They may also fail to see ways to improve their results.
Debate about the goals of public education, in North America at least, focuses only on knowledge acquisition. This is the core goal of almost any such system. All public educators hope that students have learned something they were intended to learn. This is usually in the well known disciplines (Science, Math, Social Studies, Literature, for example). In defining public education more accurately educators must at least include goals in employability and in social stability.
Public education always has additional key aims. Graduates are expected to be employable. Many countries see a key role for education in ensuring that their citizens can participate in the global economy. A growing call for more STEM1 education across the world reflects this drive.
The fees for educational programs are normally only paid by governments when there is a clear employment destination.
The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; its’ that they know so many things that just aren’t so. —Mark Twain
Social stability is another goal of most education systems. Developing countries often face social or political upheaval. At this date Argentina struggles with corruption, electoral fraud, inflation, default on international debt, and recession. Venezuela adds food shortages, inflation (as high as 700% in 2016), dictatorship, and a large-scale exodus from the country. Social and political unrest in the Middle East and Africa yield tragic levels of violence and destruction.
The root causes of these problems are complex. Political reform requires citizens who can apply critical thinking in order to see through misleading rhetoric and outright deception.
Until the nineteenth century, women everywhere were denied schooling . In underdeveloped countries millions of women are still denied access to education. Defining education as a basic right is part of any modern reformer’s platform.
Educators in developed countries now view education as a lifelong process. It does not stop at adulthood.
Changing economies, politics, and technologies require new literacies. Many public education systems add more specific skills to their list of learning goals. These include problem-solving, creative thinking, local and long-distance collaboration, and effective communication. Physical and psychological fitness and the ability to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle are often goals as well.
Unfortunately many attempts to design and assess public education systems are short-sighted. They do not recognize the full range of learning needs to be met.
Identifying all the desired outcomes would be a useful exercise for all public educators. Measuring only knowledge acquisition may unfairly condemn a system which succeeds in other areas, or praise it for its only success.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss clinical psychologist known for his pioneering work in child development. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called “genetic epistemology”. —Wikipedia
Real teachers cherish the expertise they have acquired, and are still acquiring. The excitement of education derives, in part, from the never-ending streams of new insights that flow in from other disciplines. Perhaps the most exciting of these are the revelations of neuroscience, a new and fast-paced outpouring of research that is upsetting many of our former beliefs.
For example, we now know that human brains do develop and produce new neurons after the age of two. In fact brain modification takes place throughout life.
We even know something about how the brain actually works. The brain uses a vast array of neuron cells to represent information. The meaning attributed to them is in the particular configuration of the neurons and in the intensity of their signals.
In infants the brain begins to shape itself in response to whatever stimuli are presented to it. This has negative consequences, for example, when noise from a variety of external and internal sources corrupts the sound patterns a child hears. The results are often linguistic impairment or even autism.
Neuroplasticity is the name given to the way the brain changes itself systematically. In the Adult Plasticity phase the brain has begun to take strategic control of its own construction in response to stimuli or behaviors that have acquired some importance to the individual. Individuals who read Braille, for example, have an enhance brain segment which maps the sensations of the hand.
It can be said that the “self” emerges on the way to adulthood as the brain constructs itself in response to the experiences that are unique to each individual. Each person is, in fact, a unique specialist.
In short the brain changes every time we learn a new skill.
The brain can change itself in three ways:
Chemically, by increasing or decreasing the chemicals which help transmit neural signals. This can increase short-term performance but does not lead to long-term results.
By altering its structure, re configuring its networks to provide longer-term effectiveness.
By altering its function, moving functions to different parts of the brain. This is often important when parts of the brain are damaged. The affected function can be moved to another set of neurons.
It is behavior that drives changes in the brain. There is no shortcut to activating plasticity. Changes are a response to behavior. This explains why learning new skills requires practice. It has been observed, furthermore, that greater struggle produces better results. According to the research each learner has to do the work that her brain requires.
Understanding brain plasticity must lead educators to wonder about our public education system. Based on an industrial model of just-in-time manufacturing students are expected to be ready for the next step as they move from Kindergarten to PhD. It is a cohort-based education that is always frustrated when students are not functioning at the prescribed level.
Brain science is telling us that intellectual diversity is the norm as brains shape themselves to meet the needs that are important to each individual. This is certainly a plea for some form of personalized education and for students to be metacognitively responsible. According to brain science we each have greater success when we repeat the behaviors that work for us, strengthening already established neuronal patterns.
We have long been told, and ignored the fact, that students have individual learning styles. Brain science suggests that the problem goes much deeper. In fact, our brains have been self-designed to meet our individual needs, not always aligned with the requirements of a cohort education.
Furthermore, the ongoing development of a brain is an active process, an adaptation to each behavior we undertake. This fact has a certain gravity since the behaviors involved can also be of a negative character. For example, drug addiction. Our brains can get good at it if necessary.
The classroom implication is that we need to think carefully about the behaviors and skills we want students to acquire. If we require them to learn simply by listening there will likely be insufficient behavior to stimulate a healthy brain development. We risk having them become good at alternatives to boredom and unwilling to engage in significant learning behaviors because the activities are not truly relevant.
Brain science is generating massive amounts of new insight at a phenomenal rate. Among those poised to benefit are educators. But one wonders whether, after two thousand years of “chalk and talk” we are ready to pick up the pace.