Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Paradigm Shift in Education - A personal view

My pedagogic experience as a student at the primary and secondary level in South Africa defined my initial impression of the role of a teacher. It seemed clear based on my immersion in this British-style traditional system that teachers were first and foremost disseminators of knowledge, skilled practioners in dispensing a truth, that that we as students were expected through testing feedback to acknowledge understanding of.

Although the select few teachers offered debate and discussion as a way of processing this new information for the most part the transmission procedure was unidirectional and rigid. Biology for example was taught with strict memory-based criteria, so that those who could incorporate the names of muscle groups, skeletal parts and alimentary canal enzymes into their cerebral storage network were most rewarded. Formal testing was paramount with exams constituting up to seventy-five percent of the course breakdown.

Teachers were not course guides and the concept of a mentor was as alien to the system as was the notions of self-discovery learning or for that matter independent thinking.
Even after school extra-help was frowned on as students battled it out in a Darwinistic-like environment that favoured those who could best play the game of ‘give me what I want to hear’.

Now its not to say that my scholastic experience was one of doom and gloom (I did graduate with distinction and there were a handful of teachers who were motivating) but looking back now as a teacher candidate I can see where I and so many others, were short-changed. My education was teacher not student focused. Coverage was paramount and critical thinking was reduced to an after-thought best left to the universities.

My four-year experience as a teacher in a private school; where I worked alongside several educators versed in the new paradigm shift towards skills acquisition, multiple intelligence instruction and the development of big concept understanding; was enlightening. A more holistic role of a teacher as a motivator and outcomes director was revealed. This underpins a vision that both educator and student are partners in a joint learning venture that should be inspiring not daunting. Responsibility sharing is key.

Students are no longer seen as vessels requiring the suffusion of knowledge, but individuals incorporating ideas, memes and connections into their own framework of thinking (Brooks and Brooks Ch.1). Teachers act as facilitators to bridge Vygotskyian zones of proximal development, erecting the scaffolds from which the learner builds to realize their actual potential as a human being.

My practicum observation has further shed insight into the mechanism whereby student understanding can be enhanced. My host teacher’s intelligent use of Socratic questioning in a constructive Piagetian environment and his creative use of independent study projects (such as assigning the task of the students to build Rube Goldberg-like machines to solidify their knowledge of classical mechanics) are just two examples of how the students can be encouraged to think on their own.

In his effective use of demonstrations and challenges (like asking Grade 10 Science students to problem-solve a method for optimally emptying a 2L Pop container), he also augments both the individual’s desire to know and the enthusiasm for the subject that are necessary for the learning process.

However at the same time he is very cautious that the core foundation knowledge is not neglected. He evaluates both formally and informally with a conscious backward design (Wiggins and McTighe Ch. 1) so that the meshwork for concept development grows concurrent to application and inquiry. The student is encouraged to see, synthesize and communicate the scope of what is learnt both within and beyond the subject. A construct that was much overlooked during my time as a high school student.

The change is refreshing but what it implies on a larger scale is that an effective teacher must constantly be open to self-analysis and reflection, willing to expand their often specialist based training and always keep in mind the perspective of the student as a unique learner with performance based personal goals. It is no easy task nor should it be. Education is too vital a necessity to take short cuts for simplicity sake.

Class Notes – The Various Education Theorists – Abraham Maslow, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner.
Wiggins, G and McTighe, J. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, Virginia. ASCD. 1998.
Grennon Brooks, J. and Brooks, M.G.. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, Virginia. ASCD. 1999.
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