Thursday, June 09, 2005
We need learning schools!
This book by David Perkins is on my list of favorites. It is full of common sense about the art of teaching.
‘Dreams are where the dilemma starts ’, he writes – dreams about great schools.
‘We want our schools to deliver a great deal of knowledge and understanding to a great many people of differing talents with a great range of interests and a great variety of cultural and family backgrounds. Quite a challenge – and why aren’t we better at it.’
Some, he would say, is because ‘We don’t know enough.’
Perkins, though, thinks they’re wrong, ‘We know enough now to do a much better job’. The problem comes down to this, ‘we are not putting to work what we know.’ 'We do not have a knowledge gap – we have a monumental use – of - knowledge gap’.
Schools that use what we know he calls ‘smart schools’.
In particular Perkins’s book focuses on ‘thoughtfulness in teaching’.
He asks the reader to consider what we want from schools and says schools are currently ‘bedeviled’ by endless imposed agendas that act as ‘energy vampires’ and that ‘nothing drains energy more than doing far too many things.’
Successful schools dig more deeply into fewer topics; emphasize authentic work and value problem solving. But Perkins spells out three general goals (his Theory One) that must be in place as foundations before schools move into such exciting things as multiple intelligences, cooperative learning and constructivist teaching etc.
The three common sense goals are ones no one would argue with:
1. Students should retain what they have been taught
2. They need to understand the knowledge they have gained
3. They need to be able to use or apply the knowledge.
Knowledge includes not only factual knowledge but skills, know how, reflective- ness, ability to ask questions, and so on. And the application these common sense goals are not as common as you would think as the number of school failures would attest to.
The three goals are themselves enough, Perkins believes, to lead to ‘smart schools’.
Currently Perkins believes there are two shortfalls in educational achievement: ‘fragile knowledge’ which means students cannot remember, or understand, or use what they have been ‘taught’ and ‘Poor thinking’ which means students can not think very well with what they know. Perkins blames this on what he calls ‘a trivial pursuit theory of learning’ (trying to cover too much) and an ‘ability counts most theory of education’ (which means student think it is how smart you are, or luck, and not how hard you work that counts). In contrast Asian cultures, he points out, cultivate an effort and importance of persistence model of success.
So current education, he writes , is all about ‘knowledge missing in action’; or 'inert knowledge’ which students know but don’t use; or ‘naive knowledge’ where students hold flat earth views no matter what they have been taught; or ‘ritual knowledge’ where students use knowledge without any real understanding.
Not only is the ‘fragile knowledge syndrome’ all too real for weaker students it is all too painful - and it is these students that make up the long (lack of) achievement tail.
When everything is important for teachers students have to face up to a pandemonium of knowledge and by serving all masters we serve none.
Perkins Theory one requires the following common sense conditions:
1. Give students clear information about what is expected, goals, criteria, task descriptions – what is now called ‘intentional’ or ‘focused’ teaching.
2. Provide students with thoughtful practice by engaging with tasks actively and reflectively.
3. Provide informative feedback about performance and encourage students to consider what they might do next time.
4. Make learning rewarding or interesting or because students see that feed into other worthwhile activities that are of concern to them.
Theory One teaching is all about making clear what, why, how, when and how good is good. It is about clear explanations, demonstrations, coaching, using Socratic questioning, providing focused feedback, developing mastery, helping students reflect on what they have learnt,(often by thinking aloud to the teacher ) and helping them to see connections that they might otherwise overlook.
Beyond Theory one there are several approaches available: Constructivist teaching which see the learner as an active agent; cooperative and collaborative learning; multiple intelligences, the use of ICT and so on; but none of these things, Perkins believes, are of much use without Theory One teaching in place.
Perkins says we need describe, in broad terms, what we want students to do and then for students to be able to demonstrate what they can do .We need to think more deeply about what is worth teaching and use Theory One common sense ensure it is achieved.
These ideas are central to Perkins’ 'Smart School'