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How should we teach?

In my last post I set out why I thought schooling as it currently exists is a problem. In this post I start to explore possible solutions - specifically by looking at how we ought to teach.

In order to understand how we ought to teach we need to understand how people learn - because teaching ought to enhance learning. I have previously set out my views on learning, but also summarising them here.

We all know about learning by being told (Figure 1) - it is the predominant form of how we are expected to learn in school.

A picture of a teacher standing at an interactive whiteboard talking to her class
Figure 1 - Learning by being told

We are also familiar with the idea of learning by doing, though in schools this is usually decontextualised (Figure 2). Taking a science experiment as an example, you can tell it is decontextualised because if a group doesn't get the results the teacher expects her reaction is unlikely to be 'Oooh that is interesting, let's investigate to find out what is going on'. She is much more likely to say 'Copy the results off the group next to you and write the experiment up for your homework.' That is not doing science - it is decontextualised - it is doing school science (a different thing entirely).

A group of children doing a science experiment in school
Figure 2 - Learning by doing in school (its usually decontextualised)

Then we have learning through role play - something that anyone with an Early Years background knows all about. This was an important way in which members of Schome Park (an island in Teen Second Life) learnt. For example, some members of Schome Park pretended to get married (Figure 3) and there was a lot of learning involved in the process of organising the wedding(s) and associated discos.

A picture of Trixxie and of her wedding to Wintermute in Schome Park
Figure 3 - Role playing getting married in Schome Park

Part of why role play is important is that it allows us to prepare to engage with new activities and roles; it allows us to practice 'becoming'.

Learning by becoming is even more powerful than learning through role play, as I learnt from the Schome Park Programme. An island in Second Life can have a limited number of objects (prims) on it. If you exceed that number then everything grinds to a halt on the island. We exceeded the prim limit within a few weeks of starting the project (Figure 4). So the participants decided to set up a planning department to control what was built on the island. The planning officers came up with rules for how to get permission to build, and went around threatening to delete/remove any constructions that didn't have planning consent. There was nothing pretend about the reactions of people whose buildings were deleted! The planning officers were not pretending to be planning officers, they actually became planning officers. This was a very powerful learning experience for all concerned.

An aerial view of Schome Park showing the large number of prims
Figure 4 - Learning by becoming - dealing with there being too many prims on Schome Park

The importance of 'becoming' as a means of learning was further highlighted on the NP3 project, which was focussed on young people's digital practices outside school and the extent to which these influenced pedagogy inside schools. For example, Rory, who was 11, was a gamer (Figure 5). He created mods for games and shared videos on YouTube of himself and his friends playing games. He was recognised as having a great deal of expertise. He was initially helped by his mum, who bought a book on how to play Minecraft and started to work through it with him. He quickly became more proficient than his mum, and started to learn from and with friends (who he knew in the physical world). Later on he started to interact with other gamers, who he didn't know in the physical world. Thus he was inducted into gaming, initially by his mum and then by interacting with other members of the gaming community.

Rory playing Minecraft on his mum's computer whilst talking with friends via his iPad
Figure 5 - Rory who had been inducted into the world of gaming

Similarly, Latifa who was a ten year old Somalian refugee, had become expert at creating video skits that she uploaded to YouTube (Figure 6). She had a sophisticated understanding of different YouTube genres and at how to engage people (including 'haters') in conversation about her videos. She had been inducted into the world of video creation and YouTube by her mother and siblings (all of whom were also YouTubers).

Quotes from interviews with Latifa
Figure 6 - Latifa was inducted into the world of YouTube and video creation by her mother and siblings

The examples above illustrate how humans learn (from a sociocultural perspective). In essence, from this perspective, learning is about identity formation, it is about who you are and your place in the world (Figure 7). Learning is about becoming a member of an enduring collection of people who are mutually engaged in a shared endeavour. It is about increasingly sophisticated participation in communities which have a shared purpose and shared ways of working.

Image summarising the text above about what learning from a sociocultural perspective involves
Figure 7 - Learning from a sociocultural perspective

From this sociocultural perspective knowledge is the ability to act in valued ways within such a community of practice – it is about agency and the application of information and understanding in specific contexts.

Within a sociocultural perspective people are intrinsically motivated to learn. Learning is unavoidable, it is ongoing, it is personally meaningful and it is socially situated.

The key elements of human learning are summarised in Figure 8.

Table showing the why, when, where, who and how of human learning
Figure 8 - Summary of the key elements of human learning

Sadly, the key elements of human learning conflict with formal learning (as it typically operates in schools today) - as shown in Figure 9. This mismatch is a further critique of schooling - because teaching ought to enhance human learning rather than being incompatible with it.

Table showing the contrasting views of human and formal learning in relation to the why, when, where, who and how of learning
Figure 9 - The contrasting elements of human and formal learning

If we want teaching to align with human learning - so that it enhances it - then teaching should:

  • involve multiple approaches - so that they are aligned with the needs of each individual learner
  • be based on trust (in young people's desire and ability to learn)
  • encourage constructively critical feedback, not just from the teacher to the learner but also from the learner to the teacher (so that her support for learning can improve)
  • involve direct instruction - which is not the same as didactic teaching - both the learners and the teacher should have a shared understanding of why they are doing something (the purpose), what they have to do, with whom, how and when, as well as what success would look like. Importantly, the learner might decide these things, they don't have to be decided by the teacher
  • recognise that learners are active participants - they should be supported in being agentive and collaborative
  • the role of the teacher should be to help bridge the gap between the learner's current understandings and ways of working and the valued understandings and ways of working of the community; their role is to induct the learner into the community
  • challenge learners so that they are stretched - whilst being realistic about what is achievable
  • enhance each learner's self-efficacy, their belief in their ability to succeed
  • be sustained; it's about depth not breadth
Summarises the text about how we should teach that comes above the image
Figure 10 - Summary of the implications of human learning for how we teach

This of course has implications for the curriculum - the focus of another post.

This blog post summarises part of my OU inaugural lectureOpens in a new window, which was delivered at the OU in Milton Keynes on the 25th June 2019.

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