Saturday, May 13, 2006

What's your 'mental model' about teaching?

  Posted by Picasa Over the years I have become increasingly aware of the different ideas people hold about teaching; in today’s terminology ‘mindsets’.
It is also obvious that many teachers hold these ‘mindsets’ unconsciously – it is just the way they have learnt to do things. When asked about the beliefs that underpin their teaching many such teachers find it hard to move beyond platitudes or clichés. And when they can, all too often, their actions do not match their words. You only have to look at school philosophy statements – what they say and what students experience are two different things. No wonder many students find school confusing places. The only School Review that ought to count is how well the school reflects its beliefs.

It is important for teachers and schools to be able to articulate what they believe so that they can provide consistent learning for their students. There are two basic ‘mindsets’ to consider, each with extreme versions, and all too often they are either seen to be in conflict with each other, or teachers unconsciously ‘pick and mix’.

The first model, or 'mindset', is the traditional teacher centred approach where teachers ‘transmit’ predetermined knowledge to their students. Learning is assessed by the knowledge students retain, by means of tests, and students pass and fail accordingly.

In this traditional model the system defines the scope and sequence and standardized curriculums are developed for teachers to ‘deliver’. The most recent technocratic version involves defining all learning around learning areas, strands, levels and learning objectives. Teachers are expected to assess and record what objectives students have learned. The perennial ‘back to basics’ cry ( literacy and numeracy) has long been part of this ‘mindset’.

Discipline, control and order are issues that concern teachers in such schools
School subjects are timetabled and taught separately by specialists. Little value is placed on individual students, questions, culture or views. It is essentially a ‘one size fit all’ approach. This approach is commonly seen in secondary schools.

The second mindset might be called ‘progressive’, or child-centred, and relates to such educationalists as John Dewey. Teachers who hold this view see themselves as learning coaches or advisers, guides or mentors, who help students ‘learn by doing’.

Programmes in such schools are centred around student questions, project and group work and learning area are integrated as required. Teachers with this 'mindset' 'design' curriculum with students to help them ‘construct’ their own understandings.

In the early years ( the sixties) the work of Piaget underpinned an individualized 'child centred' approach but more recently it has been the writings of Lev Vygotsky that has had more influence. Vygotsky believed that, ‘what a child can learn with help today she can do by herself tomorrow’. Modern 'constructivism' is better called 'co-constructivism' to emphasize the teacher's role in helping students ‘construct’ their own learning. Such teachers base their teaching on, and then challenge, student's ‘prior learning’, or 'constructs'. Constructivist classrooms are based on real problems, student’s questions, and lots of focused interaction and feedback from teachers. Co-constructivism places requiresa vital role for teachers to have the skill and knowledge to ensure students both improve their understandings and gain appropriate learning/thinking strategies; pedagogy is thus vital.

Extreme student centred approaches see traditional education as oppressive ( Paulo Friere) and believe that schools should be the centre of social reform and justice. Other approaches believe that students should control their own learning but these extremes are rarely to be found in schools.

Currently school curriculums are an unhappy mix of traditional and constructivist approaches. We need schools that are 'learning' rather than 'teacher' or 'child centred'.

The answer to the dilemma of two seemingly opposed ‘mindsets’ is to develop a ‘More Informed Vision’ that take the best from both. Combining the rigor, discipline (belief in effort/perseverance) and content knowledge of the ‘traditional mindset’ with the initiative, enterprise and learning strategies of the ‘constructivists’. 'Co- constructivism seems to be an ideal 'mental model'.

Currently primary school programmes reflect a co-constructivist ‘mental model’ while secondary schools a more traditional ‘transmission approach’. Students caught between the two are often called the 'muddle in the middle’.

If teachers were to spend time uncovering their basic ‘mental model’ and, through dialogue, develop an agreed set of teaching learning beliefs, they might be able to develop an inclusive approach that reflects the 'best of both worlds'. This would be preferable student success being pre-determined by unquestioned ‘mental models’, structures and curriculum approaches.

Our students deserve better.

Our website is dedicated to assisting school develop such a More Informed Vision.


Anonymous said...

This is an important issue but you don't hear much about it.

Education and schooling are not synonomous. As Mark Twain said, 'I never let schooling interfere with my education'; good advice!

Publishing agreed school beliefs would be a start.

Bruce said...

You don't hear much about it because no one talks about it. Only the students experience it and I guess they just presume it is the way it is supposed to be. As well the students with the necesssary 'social capital' succeed and, as most of these are in the most 'admired' schools, why would such students, their teachers or their parents, want to change anything.

Bruce said...

I have just read an article in the Washington Post about this issue of blending 'divergent schools of thought'.

Some schools have found that the 'middle' ground produces the very best schools. Progessives focus on real life experiences and traditionalists focus on the 'three Rs'.

Schools blending approaches become involved in community projects, and use these experiences to teach 'core subjects' such as writing, maths and science, and to improve reading.

'Progressivism' is based on the writings of John Dewey and today his followers are often called 'constructivists' because they want students to 'construct' their knowledge through exploration of their lives and their environment.

They key, it seems, is getting 'buy in' from students and parents and not to apply it rigidly. Teachers still have an important role in helping students learn.

Amber Lee said...

Developing School / Teaching Beliefs is really fundamental to establish what a schools core practice/function is really about. There are some great examples on Bruces Website and with a bit of tweaking is doesn't take too much to find ideas that inspire and then frame up ideas for your staff. Developing Teaching Beliefs is all about working on consistency and quality of teaching practice at your school.
To make these TB's well grounded and owned you need to have 3 things as part of the process.
1/ Vision of the school.
2/Research e.g. BES, Clarke etc.
3/ the experiences from your staff about what works for them and what doesnt work.

Align all these things and you get a document that is powerful and challenging and the basis for quality PD and Appraisal.

Compare this document then with the Interim Professional Standards and tell me which one you think promotes quality teaching practice.

Bruce said...

Thanks Amber lee.

I am pleased you find the material on our site of use - makes the effort really worthwhile.

And you are right to say schools should ensure that they modify/adapt/mutate anything they like to suit their own special circumstances;there is no point in re-inventing wheels. Creative adaptation is the name of the game.

And I agree about the Professional Standards - just 'busy work'!