Thinking Out Loud About Students

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:06 pm

This post started from a conversation with Alex the other day, and I have to admit that I’m still thinking my way through it. Not that my blog posts are ever the epitome of fully-worked-out thinking – because thinking things through is kind of the point of this kind of writing for me – but this one may be even less so than usual.

We were talking about how it would be nice to conduct a conversational, dialectical, interactive class about life, politics, philosophy and ideas with a class of highly motivated and engaged students. I fantasised about the possibility of having a class that is so popular that students have to interview to be able to participate, and make a case for what they will be able to contribute to the discussion.

In my own thinking that then led on to reflecting that progressive approaches to education tend to assume that students are like this – engaged, interested, taking responsibility for their own learning. Some students are – and more students could be, if schooling and structures and tests didn’t beat it out of them.

There are some students who are not, though: who want the teacher to be responsible for their learning, who are happy to be passive participants rather than active.

I don’t think we can just assume that students are ‘naturally’ like that and use it as an excuse not to challenge them to take responsibility for their own learning – after all, they won’t be at school forever, and if they are to be lifelong learners they will have to.

But for those disengaged students, it may be that older, more ‘conservative’ teaching approaches are actually more effective, in the sense of leading to enhanced student learning. There are questions about what counts as ‘learning’, of course, but maybe we make more of those than we need to.

I don’t think it’s necessarily fair or reasonable to require and expect that teachers engage all students, given the wide range of factors that can lead to disengagement, and given the (not inevitable) class sizes and structures of schooling. So it may be that, for some students in some subjects at some stages of their learning, adding, say, rote learning or lecturing or other ‘old school’ teaching strategies might be effective.

Part of what is not well thought through yet is how things like wealth, social class, ethnicity and so on play into this. Of course it would be inequitable if students were much more probable to be identified as ‘disengaged’ if they are poor…

It’s not about creating over- and under-classes, or dividing education, and efforts to engage students are, of course, always essential. It’s simply about thinking through the assumptions underlying our choices… and being willing to consider when and whether they are invalid.

3 responses to “Thinking Out Loud About Students”

  1. Carl says:

    Interesting. My first response is that it *is* about over and under education, but like all the other things we do as educators we don’t create it, we are just expected to solve it. It is, however progressive, reductionist to believe we control all/most of the factors that determine engagement, but it is fatalist to assume we control none.

    I disagree, passionately (as expected) with the suggestions that ‘traditional’ approaches are better in any way shape or form. Unless you are measuring ‘better’ as creating the illusion of education by making the appearance of compliance easier. The idea of ‘supply and demand’ based education is relevant, but it ignores the persuasive power of ideas, change and performing tasks as a group. These factors can be addressed/should be addressed within the context of the child/community/school that is educating the child.

    Your blog addresses one of the extremes we are looking at in education at the moment, First = education in countries/context with limited resources Second = education in countries/context with limited inclination. There is a geopolitical correlation between each.

    The biggest problem with education is the massive lack of momentum – because a “school” is so easy to copy: Box + Desks + Chairs + adult + students = education, anything the challenges any part of that = difficult to change. Your Blog acknowledges the locus of control that sits with the student who wishes things to be ‘given’ rather than ‘negotiated’ but it places greater faith in the teacher/system to know how to appropriately challenge or determine that in the first place. Teacher centered education IS easier for everybody and has been successful, but it only gives us a copy of what we have. “Traditional” education is doing what we have always done.

    As a meta-aside “traditional” is not a useful term, imho, to address education. There should not be a easily described tradition that appears in contemporary education. If a group of learners takes advantage of a social/digital/intellectual technology to achieve learning that is negotiated. What it looks like in terms of the details does not make it traditional or contemporary, it just makes it an expression of how they are learning. Caveat: any pedagogy needs more than one arrow in the quiver.

  2. Dawn says:

    What you are suggesting sounds like the ‘Socratic Method’ of teaching and is something my kids were able to participate in while taking on-line courses through our school board. There is also a college in California that focuses on that type of education but I am not engaged enough (got stuff to do) to google it and get more info at the moment, just know of some people who attended. Even with the students in the courses my girls took, there were those who talked much, and used big words losing some of the students (sounds like me being lost when I read some of your things 😉 ), and there were some who would say the odd things and then the ones who wouldn’t say anything because they were shy/uncomfortable/didn’t know what to say (you might guess one of those). Those who don’t speak gain as well as those who speak to solve the problem. It is the conversations that make the thoughts move and the instructor is the mediator, asking the questions to lead to the conclusions. There are people who parent this way and the children are the ones likely to engage even in thought and there are parents who tell their children all they need to do and know (to a certain extent) and those are more likely to be the ones that just want it handed to them to memorize. But there are those who just want to get the job done and don’t want to go through the conversation. ‘Just tell me how to do it; I will do it, and learn it in the least amount of time possible and get on with other engaging stuff’. Pretty hard to find a balance in a big class of students with diverse learning styles, interests and backgrounds. But keep thinking and keeping the conversation going; it is how some of us learn 🙂 .

  3. Bravus says:

    Excellent points, both of you. See, one of the benefits of a blog is that not-thought-through ideas can be crowd-sourced to smarter people! 😉

    I do think it’s one of the benefits of homeschooling done right – it takes away the artificial 30-1 ration (unless the parents are *really* Quiver-full!) It also means the teacher *really* knows the students, including how they were parented. 😉

    Carl, I think I was probably just saying, again, in more words, that learning to teach is all about repertoire. Not only *having* a broad range of strategies and approaches available, but developing the craft knowledge of when and how to use them, and *caring* enough to employ that knowledge.

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