Learning to think properly

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Education is a tricky topic- in reality there is no perfect approach which will get the maximum out of everyone as they are growing up, short of giving every child his or her own personal tutor. Unfeasible even in infinitely better economic climates than that in which we find ourselves today, we are left to look for a compromise- more or less successful with most of the people most of the time, rather than all the people all the time.

Recent years have seen changes to the curriculum to cater for the changing world we live in and the demands we later encounter in society as a result. Ideas such as preparing children for the digital/electronic/technological aspects of modern life with the introduction of mandatory electronic portfolios are excellent but I believe there is still plenty of room for improvement on a more fundamental level. A significant proportion of the education system, especially when it comes to the assessment of academic performance, exercises only the memory of the student. Though the situation has improved with higher percentages based on forms of continuous assessment, there remains a heavy focus on factual content of the courses. As a result, it’s perfectly possible to achieve reasonable results as a school leaver by simply taking in information given by the teachers and then repeating it in exams

If you dispute my claim that this problem still exists, I suggest you keep an eye on the headlines for the next instance of the ever popular lament from industry and higher education that school leavers lack the necessary skills to succeed in life, principally the ability to use information to solve problems and make reliable decisions. We spend too much time learning things like “an atomic nucleus is made of protons and neutrons”, “the Battle of Hastings was in 1066” and so on, facts which, in themselves, are of little benefit to the vast majority of students. Taking into account the omnipresence of the Internet in our society, the ability to store and remember raw information is rapidly becoming an anachronism. If I want to know when the Battle of Hastings was, I don’t need to have that information in my head, or even be able to find someone else with it in theirs, I can just look it up online. For another example of how redundant such abilities have become, when I was a teenager I knew off by heart the telephone numbers of approximately 20 people, now I know one (not counting my own). My life is no worse for this change, if I wish to I am able to contact many more than my original 20 people despite not knowing any numbers as they are all stored in my phone along with many that I will never use again.

Another problem with the focus on learning raw information brought on by the relentless march of time is that the facts themselves are often superseded by more accurate ones as researchers discover more of the truth. A child growing up 100 years ago would have been given some very different information in, for example, science lessons, to those of today. So, while some level of basic knowledge is of course important, much more valuable and adaptable to change is the ability to think, to form opinions and insights from information presented and to draw your own conclusions as to its deeper meaning and knock-on effects. This is what various bodies often complain is lacking in school leavers, and has been for some time.

The obvious next questions to deal with are: “What should be done to change the situation, to teach our children to think?” and, a bit less obviously, “Who will do it?” The second question arises because many of the hard working people we have teaching in our schools were also not taught this skill sufficiently in their own time at school and it’s hard enough teaching people something you do know, never mind something you haven’t yet learned yourself. Despite the proliferation of specialist programmes designed to teach precisely these skills of critical thinking, I believe it is best done in conjunction with teaching the more important factual information in ways which I will discuss further in my next post, which should appear in the next couple of days. Watch this space!

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6 thoughts on “Learning to think properly

  1. As the employee of a tutoring company, I am all for enrichment and support of what is being taught ( or in many cases not taught) in school. I agree that there is a balance between classroom teaching and one-on-one guidance. Teaching children to think is critical, and as a former teacher, much time was ( is) spent encouraging students to see things in different ways. To figure out solutions with a guided approach. Of course there are times where rote learning is essential, however much of the day is spent seeking to have the student discover through multiple approaches.
    Not an easy task with classes of 20 +, but teachers are educated and trained to provide a “modeled” approach. A teacher’s education does not stop once they get their degree.
    And so far as the not needing to memorize anymore, ask a person whose blackberry has crashed and is sitting there helpless.

    • There aren’t many easy tasks with classes of 20+, especially with the emphasis on the ‘+’ for most teachers.

      I wasn’t suggesting eliminating remembering information entirely, just making the point that its much less important a skill than in the past. Nowadays, more often than not you don’t even need to remember where to look for the information (which book, etc.)- as long as you can recall the name of an appropriate search engine for example, you’re usually OK.

      That said, I agree we don’t want to find ourselves without options in the all too familiar situation where our technology lets us down at a crucial moment.

  2. You raise a valid point – I remember very little beyond roughly where I saw particular information, in order to navigate my way back there. However, the issue is much bigger than just kids not having the skills for industry.

    I’m in an interesting position here, as an educator, in a position of responsibility for a subject which does in fact teach students skills rather than knowledge.

    The primary problem is that of the measurement of performance. I can, at any moment, be called upon to justify the performance of myself and my team. Are we teaching well enough? Are our students achieving as they should be? Largely this actually has little to do with ensuring our students are adequately prepared for life in the “real world” but instead that we are performing close enough to slightly above the National Average as to satisfy our superiors, inspectors and government.

    My subject teaches students how to Get Stuff Done. We teach them skills that would be useful in a myriad of different professional situations (at least, that’s the idea, the biggest issue is that they generally lack the maturity to understand the real details of professional requirements). We judge their progress against a set of criteria which do generally make some sense.

    Our A-Level exam is actually a timed practical in which students must complete a set of tasks – produce a database to solve problem x and answer question y. As exams go, I think it works well, it does genuinely test students’ skills – they’re even allowed to use the built-in help functions of whatever software they’re using.

    The problem is that this is such a narrowly focused area of knowledge, a simple set of skills they may be called upon once or twice in their professional lives to use.

    Our school has taken some steps to address some of these issues in our curriculum for the younger students – we trialled the “Integrated Curriculum” where students were taught a broad range of skills and knowledge and taught to apply it in different ways [one of the things we identified is that students may learn simple formula in “Maths” but were unable to apply them in “Science” because “Science” was “Science” not “Maths”, so deeply did they compartmentalise].

    There are many issues with this approach – no least of which is simply having the time to develop the resources for such a curriculum.

    At the end of the day though, it means little when schools are judged on their performance in national exams. We could develop a curriculum that fully prepared students for living in the Real World and working in Real Jobs, but if they don’t perform well in the standardised tests required by the government, it means little.

    The education system is slowly changing towards this goal (“Skills for Life”, Integrated Curricula, “Emotional Intelligence”, “Functional Skills” to name a few of the initiatives), but it is not something that could ever happen quickly.

    • Things have definitely changed a lot and it seems they’re still going the right way. Pressure on schools as well as kids to ‘perform’ has had plenty of ill effects, causing schools to force their teachers to focus on whatever is required to pass exams. I get exactly the same here even, on a small scale, with groups that i teach that are working towards various English certificates.

      Your A-level sounds like another step in the right direction. Maybe it is as you say a very narrowly focused assessment but at least its in something which is entirely optional unlike, say, English GCSE in which I seem to remember we were given plenty of opportunity to think for ourselves, write about our interpretation of certain works we read and so on. Alas, I don’t remember being given any help as to how exactly this kind of thing was done- I hope today’s GCSE students aren’t expected to either miraculously become literary critics without any training or, like I did, to occasionally reel off 500 words of nonsense.

  3. Pingback: Original. Sin? « Andy knows everything!

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