Trust The Children

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I May Have Found It

I had a wonderful interview with the Assistant Dean of the Huntsman School of business today. He is assisting me in some research I am doing and a short paper I am writing. One idea that came out of the discussion has stuck with me all day.

I am not sure why it is, but as home educators we often say, and I have said, that there are as many approaches to educating at home as there are children. At the same time we make that statement, we are kind of also saying, that any method of instruction will do. So you choose your way and I will choose mine and since our children are different the whole world is at peace. You don't criticize my choice and I won't criticize yours. Mutually assured educational choice. Peace in tension.

I will always respect educational choice, personal choice, freedom to choose. More and more, however, the consequences of those choices are becoming more clear. In other words, the method of instruction does make a difference. I just read tonight the following written by educational theorists, Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter in their article, "Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities". (The title of the article obscures the focus of their theory so don't be too put off by that.)

They said: "Although schools are devoted to teaching useful cognitive skills and formal knowledge, they are not designed to foster the progressive problem solving that generates the vast informal knowledge that has been found to characterize expert competence...." (Scardamalia-Bereiter 1994)

Without going into the details of the article, they contend that there are visible forms of knowledge, that are stressed in most of the efforts to educate children. Such visible forms of knowledge are acknowledged largely because they ARE visible and obvious to both teachers and parents. This kind of obvious knowledge also fits neatly into accepted forms of testing and evaluation, as well as being easily observed, measured and compared. Traditional methods of education support and encourage this visible knowledge.

However, what is not easily seen, appreciated, evaluated or easily assessed are the other important individual capacities that are the result of fostering, "the progressive problem solving that generates the vast informal knowledge that has been found to characterize expert competence." (Scardamalia-Bereiter 1994) The capacities I am talking about, such as judgment, discernment, application of knowledge outside the learning context, synthesis, adaptation, etc. are all too often quietly and effectively swept aside. As Clyde Freeman Herreid put it,

"What does our current teaching method produce? Answer: A cadre of students who if they remember anything about science it is facts, facts and more facts that can be used to answer questions on "Jeopardy," "The Wheel of Fortune," and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" We produce people who can't see any reason to understand mitosis or the Second Law of Thermodynamics because they know deep in their hearts they will never need to know this. What good is this information? We clearly fail to convince them. It's not that they try to forget this information, it just never gets into their long-term memory banks.

We faculty just don't get it. Even though we passed through the same mind-numbing process ourselves and have "learned" the same things and forgotten them just as fast, we seem to think that everyone has to pass through the same hazing process we did. After all, we survived. Someday in graduate school or beyond we might finally figure out how to use the "book learning." But perhaps not. It will never dawn on most of us that there must be a better way." (Herreid, 2003)

It is not my purpose tonight to explore what might be the possible "better way". In large, that is what the myriad of learning theories are all about, attempts to figure out that "better way". However, at what point does it dawn on us, that our generation's concerns with the education, safety and moral conditioning of our children, is not unique to our generation. For the last 100+ years, not 100+ months, bright minds such as John Dewey at the first of the 20th century to John Holt in our generation have concluded that the system is failing our children and method, not the teacher, is at the center of it.

What I have finally come to grips with is that method does matter. If Cyndy and I would have set as a goal for our children to give them minds that were full of facts, figures, historical dates, and word definitions alone, it was our responsibility to select a method of teaching to use with them that was efficient and effective in accomplishing just that. However, if we also wanted, in addition to the aforementioned goals, other skills like leadership, decision making ability, judgment, discernment, ability to communicate, moral fiber, etc. it was our obligation to select additional learning methods that best accomplish the building of those things in our our children. Method matters. A screwdriver just isn't very effective as a hammer. A spoon just isn't that effective as a can opener. The tool or the method one choses, makes a difference.

I have in my mind, the development of additional capacities in each of us, and am on the hunt for the teaching methods that will make that possible and make those capacities stick. In a recent stint with young men in a youth program, I can now see that parents were not interested in these kinds of capacities being developed in their sons because the process to make that happen, was not acceptable to them. They wanted and want the more visible forms of development, the more acceptable form of learning, to them and their sons, than the other forms of capacity that require a different approach. What a sad, but predictable choice. Sad, because like Herreid said, "Someday in graduate school or beyond we might finally figure out how to use the "book learning." But perhaps not. It will never dawn on most of us that there must be a better way." (Herreid, 2003)

Existing models serve a valuable purpose. However, when it comes to building the capacities of leadership, and character, commonly accepted educational methods just don't serve. I am now blessed to be in the hunt, when it comes to that something better. In these last few weeks, it has been nice to find out, after all these years, that there are actually some pretty smart people, who have already brought back the very game I have been hunting for. I get to hunt with them now for a while. I am so happy.

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  • I appreciate your analogy of the screwdriver/hammer and spoon/can opener. That's a great way to explain that we have to have methods that suit our goals. And if I use a spoon in educating my kids, I get very different results than if I use a can opener.

    By Anonymous Anarene, at 6:26 PM, October 22, 2008  

  • Deciding what results you want in your kids is so key. What knowledge and what skills and what abilities you want them to have are critical questions. Sadly most parents do not ask them, but act out their own lives experience as they were educating, expecting a different result. Conventions and other social networks available broaden our thinking, which is what I going to blog on soon. Personal learning environments.

    By Blogger Mark and Cyndy Weiss, at 7:02 PM, October 22, 2008  

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