Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Interactive Teaching Model

When confronted with new or ambiguous situations the human brain does its best to make sense of things - to 'construct' the best answer it can. Humans are born to learn and it is a crime that so many of our young people continue to be failed by their schools. What can you see in the image?

The active brain searches for patterns.

In the early eighties exciting research was being undertaken by the Science Education Research Unit of the University of Waikato. As a school science adviser I was lucky enough to be involved in applying the idea gained in schools at the time. Unfortunately the impetus was lost under the confusion created by the curriculum changes following Tomorrow's Schools in 1986. As the Ministry is now leaving behind 'their' imposed curriculums it is time to return the focus to teaching and learning and to revisit the inspirational ideas of the Learning In Science Project ( LISP).

The project originated with Dr Roger Osborne from the Waikato University Physics Department. He was concerned that students did not seem able to apply their knowledge to practical physics requirements. After visiting local secondary schools he became concerned to find, although that they were being 'taught' the appropriate material, their 'prior ideas' about physics concepts were interfering their learning in his classes. Later the project was extended to primary classes to see if the same mis-match existed.

It did. Learners from birth do their best to make sense of any learning situation that attracts their attention but all too often develop misconceptions. At school they 'learn' to provide the 'right' answers while at the same time still holding on to their hidden personal views. If this process of a mismatch between teacher and students' knowledge goes unchallenged then students gain, what some call, 'fragile' learning. It was to these 'prior ideas' that students were reverting to in the practical university physics classes. It is as if the 'scientific' view and the students 'common sense' views were in conflict.

The implications for teaching at all levels are immense.

Any form of transmission teaching is suspect ( we all know we forget much of what we were 'taught' after the exam) but equally in discovery, or practical approaches, who knows what the students are really learning? These were the issues that concerned Dr Osborne and his researchers.

If students cannot always learn by transmission, or from their own experience a 'new' model of learning needs to be defined; an 'interactive approach. Hardly new, if Socratic questioning was understood, or the ideas of more modern theorists who believed that learners need to construct their own meanings, but it went against the 'prior ideas', or hidden assumptions, that underpinned much current teaching.

It was soon discovered that students hold on to all sorts of views that make sense to them, no matter how unscientific, but of which the teachers are completely oblivious. It was David Ausubel who wisely said (1968) , 'The most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows: ascertain this and teach accordingly'. This was to be good advice. The challenge for teacher was to reduce any disparity but always to leave the learner feeling in control of his , or her, own leaning. As Gibran (1926) expressed it, 'no man can reveal to you ought that which lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge'. The idea was that students should 'generate', or 'construct' their own meaning with the assistance of others if possible. One challenging development was an appreciation that students will only 'change their minds' if they see sense no matter what the teacher might insist but that, at least in the process, they will understand that others hold contrary views which could be unsettling.

These ideas apply to all learning areas.

For many primary teachers these idea were liberating as teachers and students could 'co-construct' learning together ( as against teachers having to know everything before hand). For subject teachers it would make sense to value students questions and 'prior ideas' before any further teaching. This 'interactive', or 'constructivist', approach is an ideal mix of process and content; one that places the learner at the centre of the equation. The results of any learning, at school or elsewhere, will only be the best answer at the time.

The teachers role in this process is vital, either as a 'learning guide' or 'adviser', or as a 'co-creator'. Challenging students' current understandings and to see how much they have changed is important, if we are to value in-depth, and lasting, understanding in any area of learning.

The original project produced booklets outlining students' views on a particular topics ( which were remarkably similar worldwide) and suggested activities to challenge student thinking. But even without such focused help the approach is easily applicable in any learning situation.

1 First put students in an interesting situation.

2 Gather students question and concerns about the issue. With experience teacher and students will learn to recognise the 'best' question for students to research ( other questions will 'emerge' as the study progresses). Students, in some cases, can be asked to draw what they know about a topic before they begin e.g symmetry or spiders. This is an excellent way to gain insight into their thinking.

3 Get the students to provide 'answers' to their question to give you insight into their 'prior ideas' and current theories. These can be recorded and displayed under 'What we know before we studied...' The drawing mentioned above will also provide insights into their current understandings.

4 Divide students into research groups to plan how they are going to investigate the question they have chosen ( 'action research'). Students can also work independently. Studnts will need help to develop their 'action plans'. Best results require students to have been taught information gathering skills ( and design presentation skills) beforehand but these will evolve with experience.

5 Students complete their research. The teachers' role is to circulate providing feedback, necessary guidance, and to challenge student thinking. He, or she, may see the need for students as a class, or group, to be given specific help.

6 Students report to other students their finding ( possibly using a range of media). Other students might have the opportunity to comment or ask questions. Through such demonstrations, displays and reflection students will become aware of what they have learnt and how their ideas might have changed. A heading might be added to any wall display, or written up in their study book, called, 'Things we have learnt' and this might include questions 'we' still need to think about.

Teachers will recognise that the approach is a version of inquiry or 'action research' learning
that should underpin all their teaching, valuing and building on the natural curiosity of their students. It is also the basis of Reading Recovery and modern approaches to mathematics and will be nothing new to teachers who value student creativity.

It is a shame that 'constructivist' teaching is not more common in our classrooms.

This is the sort of teaching the future requires of our schools if students are to become, 'active seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge, as indicted in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.


Anonymous said...

Those in the Ministry ought to be held to account for their misdirected curriculums over the past decade or so.Time 'methinks' to return to the 'stocks' for some good old fashioned tomato throwing at our highly paid 'experts' living in their 'ivory towers'. Mind you who can afford tomatoes these days! The LISP research was the best thing we never really did.

Tom Sheehan said...

I remember a quote which goes something like - "We teach children not the curriculum."

Unfortunately many teachers now start with the curriculum achievement objectives and attempt to shovel in the knowledge.

This method of teaching was the only one many advisors and facilitators of new curriculum documents preached.

Consequently today's teachers either do not know how to start with the children or are afraid to !

LISP is certainly something I want to explore in my school.

Bruce said...

Hope you are enjoying your break Tom. If you want some good material about constructivist teaching see one of my small booklets ( you have them?) or go to: www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class Excellent stuff on this site. Think I will write a blog about it!