Among the Constructivists

The online journal Aeon posted (6 October, 2016) The Examined Life, by John Taylor, director of Learning, Teaching and Innovation at Cranleigh boarding school in Surrey (U.K.).

Taylor advocates “independent learning” in describing his “ideal classroom”:

“The atmosphere in the class is relaxed, collaborative, enquiring; learning is driven by curiosity and personal interest. The teacher offers no answers but instead records comments on a flip-chart as the class discusses. Nor does the lesson end with an answer. In fact it doesn’t end when the bell goes: the students are still arguing on the way out.”

As for what he sees as the currently dominant alternative:

“Students are working harder than ever to pass tests but schools allow no time for true learning in the Socratic tradition.”

“Far from being open spaces for free enquiry, the classroom of today resembles a military training ground, where students are drilled to produce perfect answers to potential examination questions.”

…You get the drift.

A bit sarcastically, I write in the Comments section

“So, the ideal class is the one in which the teacher does the least amount of work possible. How nice …for the teacher.”

To my surprise, other readers respond. I find the responses interesting. (Numbers of “Likes” current as of 9 October, 2016.)

Richard Phelps
So, the ideal class is the one in which the teacher does the least amount of work possible. How nice …for the teacher.     Like 0

Dan Fouts
If only it were like that! The ideal classroom described in this article would be led by a teacher who does a very different kind of work– coaching others to think rather than dictating everything–Being patient with confusion rather than rushing to answers– Discarding pre-determined outcomes and instead promoting outcomes that reveal themselves within lessons. This is very difficult, time-consuming teacher work.     Like 2

Richard Phelps
One purpose for tests is as an indicator to parents and taxpayers that their children are learning something. How would you convince parents and taxpayers that students have “learned how to think”? I presume that there is no test for that, and that you might not want to use it even if it existed, as that could induce “teaching to the test”. So, what would you tell them?     Like 1

Dan Fouts
Great point and questions. Therein lies the challenge. Since thinking itself is a mental process, it eludes empirical measurement in a very real way. We are in an education system that places value on things only if students can show they can DO something (this is the behaviorist model) and only if what they do is measurable using the language of mathematics. Standardized tests are wonderful models to use once we have embraced these assumptions. Cultivating independent thinking isn’t really on the radar.

Though I tell them that writing assessments or projects (as referenced in the article) are better vehicles to demonstrate independent thinking.     Like 2

John Taylor
I would agree with you Dan. Project work has the advantage that it is conducted over a period of time, during which a range of skills can be exhibited, and, typically, the teacher can form a better judgement of the student’s capacity for thinking their way through a problem. Exams, being a snapshot, are limited in this regard and the assessment of factual recall tends to be to the fore, as opposed to capacities for reflection, questioning of assumptions, exploration of creative new options, and so on. I think too that we could make more use of the viva; in my experience, asking a student to talk for a few minutes is an excellent way of gauging the depth of their understanding     Like 1

Ian Wardell
Teaching people the ability to think is more important than passing tests. What is important is the ability of people to think for themselves and to attain understanding. Not to simply unthinkingly churn out what others have said.     Like 0

Richard P. Phelps
Again, how do you measure that? How can a parent or taxpayer know that their children are better off for having gone to school? How do you prove or demonstrate that a child is now better able to think than before?     Like 1

Amritt Flora
Richard, therein lies the dilemma – the need for people to measure rather than believe. If we stopped being obsessed with measuring and categorising so deeply everything we do, we would be in a better position. You should only need to talk to a child to know that they have learned to think. Maybe we don’t have time to do that.     Like 0

Brian Fraser
I would ask them to read “An Atom or a Nucleus?” It takes the position that the thing that has virtually all the mass of the atom, and which accounts for all the properties of the atom, is actually the atom itself, not some sort of “nucleus” of something. This goes contrary to what we have been taught for the past 100 years.

This is supposedly “hard science” physics. But it raises deeply disturbing questions about Pavlovian style education.

The link is (Take the test at the end of the article)

If we are wrong about the atom “having” a nucleus, we could be wrong about A LOT of things, even in the “objective sciences”.     Like 0

Young Thug
I think most parents want what is best for their children. I don’t think anyone wants their child to be a little robot who can take a test but not navigate through life and all its challenges. And if they do, that’s just sad. It should be noted that the author did not say we should do away with examinations. In fact, they said this kind of class increases performance on examinations, and I have first hand experience with that since I teach a class after school, on a volunteer basis, that also uses a discussion format. Our program has also helped improve test scores among students that took it (and this in a lower income neighborhood) and we have data to prove it. So the results will show, I have confidence in that.

But there is an easy way parents can know what their kids are learning in school. They can just talk to them. And these kids actually want to be in my classroom. One time, I was going to cancel class because my co-facilitator did not show up and she had all the materials. But the kids, and this is, let me remind you, AFTER school, came trailing into an empty classroom with their chairs and started setting up. I told them they had the day off, they could go play. They kept on setting up and said they wanted to have the class anyway and since I was there I might as well do it. This kids wanted to be there. These are regular kids by the way, chosen at random by the after school program. They wanted to be in that class because we have great discussions. These discussions are not random though, the questions are carefully chosen based on a curriculum that has been scientifically validated, and we guide the discussion along to make sure it goes somewhere productive. We don’t take a fully Socratic approach, we have a mixed teaching and discussion style. The classes are about an hour and a half long. And I’ve had parents come up to me many times and thank me personally because they have seen their children change after taking my program. So if kids are interested and engaged in school, they will talk to and tell you about it if you ask. Because they are interested, and kids, like all people, like speaking about things they are interested in.     Like 2

Ian Wardell
Nice for the teacher, nice for the children, nice for society as a whole that we are educating people to think for themselves.     Like 0

Richard P. Phelps
“we are educating people to think for themselves” How do you know you are? How do you measure it?     Like 0

Nicola Williams
This type of teaching takes a great deal of preparation, and I would say it is actually far more challenging for a teacher to guide and direct students towards answers and valuable discussion than to spout out the answers themselves. The teacher who looks like they are doing very little, and manages to guide students to a point where they have learnt something, is an outstanding teacher – they pull the strings, and the students are guided into finding the answers themselves: students feel fantastic because they did it ‘on their own’, and, because they did the legwork instead of writing down an answer they were told, it sticks in their mind for much longer.     Like 1

Digital Diogenes Aus
Teaching to the test is easy.
Sure, its stressful and a lot of work, but it’s a lot of grunt work.
Teaching in the Socratic fashion is hard- you actually have to know what you’re talking about, you have to know your kids, and you have to consistently stay ahead of the curve     Like 1

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