Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wiping Clean the Labels

Language is a powerful tool. The labels we give things reveal our preconceptions, our opinions of and our value of them. When these labels are passed down to our children and their children we are passing on our values and opinions too.

This idea is not just the basis for a lot of our study in senior English classrooms, it's something which bugs me in education. Talking with a staff member recently I realised one of the hurdles to revolutionising education are the labels and the preconceptions associated with these.

Let's have a look at some examples:

The label "classroom". Society expects a classroom to have:
  • 30 desks and chairs,
  • a teachers desk,
  • a whiteboard (or blackboard when I was in school)
  • four walls
  • it is assumed that all desks will face the front (or will at least have the whiteboard within easy sight).

This has been the expected definition of "classroom" for years, and even though many of us find it challenging, restrictive and limiting in terms of Creating, Collaborating and Connecting our society has this deeply ingrained expectation that this is what classrooms will look like.

The label "teacher". Society expects a teacher to have:
  • a University degree (the more years spent studying, the more valued they should be - especially if there's a Masters degree in there),
  • be experts in their field (English teachers, for example, are expected to have a nearly perfect understanding of spelling, grammar and punctuation rules and be able to regurgitate this information at the drop of a hat) who magnamiously pass on their knowledge to their students

How does this definition allow for true collaboration? According to this social defintion the teacher is the expert and there seems to be little room for students to connect, collaborate and create beyond what the teacher permits.

The label "learning" (learn, learned). Society expects that learning can be:

  • Something you do in a 'formal' education setting (as opposed to what you learn away from school)
  • comparable between individuals, districts, states and even countries
  • measurable against a predefined set of criteria
  • displayed in set ways

So long as we are measuring a student's learning in predetermined ways are we really allowing for personalised learning, how are we recognising "informal" learning which students may bring to the formal learning location.

At times I struggle with these labels and I think maybe they're part of what is holding education back from change. Change is a big scarey thing for many people and at present, so long as we keep the labels we've always had, education is something which doesn't change, it's a constant in a world of variables.

I am not saying I think this is a good thing!

I am wondering though if maybe we need to change some of the labels we use if we want to really change the system. Maybe instead of classroom we need to use "Learning Environment" and instead of teacher we need to use "Facilitator". Changes to our understanding of learning though will be harder, especially as we move towards a more uniform and consistent National Curriculum.

I worry that so long as our society measures learning based on isolated "tests" we're devauling some of our best learning and for the life of me I don't know how to change that attitude. I can change how my learning environment looks and feels, I can change the way people think about me, but I don't have any power to stop or change the mandated requirements to have students' learning valued and validated.

To instigate this kind of change we need a whole lot more people on board - we need to change the community's expectation and understanding of the labels associated with education. How do we do that?

Yes, we need to change the understandings of the people on the ground, the teachers - but what about the parents, how are we changing their understanding? What about the university lecturers who are preparing the next group of teachers, have their understandings changed in the last 30+ years? What about the policy makers, what are we doing to change their understandings?

I think we need to stop looking just at getting teachers on board with a collaborative, creative and connected education system we've got to wipe clean the labels and go beyond the school gates.

1 comment:

Shane Roberts said...

Deep thoughts, and noble. One wonders how any industry could go through such a fundamental change in perception and practice. There are already university degrees in learning management and learning facilitation, however my experience with students of these is that they are woefully under-prepared for work as a teacher / manager / facilitator. And then the thought of not using student performance data - if only that were possible. Even international comparisons of "quality" education are restricted by this data.

But there is also the thought that if the data is not there, then neither is entry into a tertiary course of study. Or even worse there is no differentiation of quality in entrants or graduates. Yeesh, the mind boggles.

Obviously you have been thinking long on this and there is a certain element of reflection on your predicament of (lack of) pedagogical shift at your place of work. Don't doubt your influence though, it spreads beyond the gates of your school.