Monday, August 29, 2005
Back to the real basics!
Learners can only construct their own meaning
‘The whole point of teaching primary science is to help children make better sense of their world and to develop effective ways to go on doing it.’ This is a quote from Fred Biddulph introducing the Sunshine Primary Science Programme ‘Investigating Our World’ (an excellent series of students and teachers books).
If you were to leave out the reference to ‘primary science’ it applies to all learning at any stage and creative teachers of any era would find little to argue with it.
The approach taken in these books was based on extensive research in a number of countries but, in particular, research funded by the now defunct Department of Education, by the University of Waikato. It seems the powerful ideas developed by this research have almost been all but forgotten as a result of structural reforms of Tomorrow’s Schools followed closely by the imposition of almost incoherent curriculum and accountability expectations.
Lets hope, now the Ministry has recognized their imposed curriculums design are part of the problem, that the focus on students as their own ‘meaning makers’ returns to centre stage.
The Waikato research was known as the Learning in Science Project (or LISP for short) and it affirmed what many creative teachers had known intuitively – that students can’t be told what to learn; they have to construct their own personal meaning for themselves.
Of course his makes planning learning objectives that all students will achieve more than a little problematic! And it requires far more than the current emphasis on focusing on thinking strategies.
Both the process of learning and the acquisition of in depth knowledge, or understanding, go hand in hand. As Elwyn Richardson, a New Zealand pioneer teacher of the late 50s wrote, 'any learning without content is learning at risk’. The ‘LISP approach’ (or constructivist learning, or interactive teaching) extends the developmental ideas of Piaget (where children learn through their own activity) and builds in a more positive mediating role for the teacher. This more positive role makes use of the ideas of ‘co-constructivism’ of Lev Vygotsky who wrote that students learn through social interaction as well as experience. Vygotsky wrote that, ‘what a child learns with help today she can do by herself tomorrow’. Constructivism is also in line with the philosophy behind the Reading Recovery programme.
In practical terms classroom teachers can use the approach across the curriculum. Rather than telling, or leading students to the correct preplanned answer, the approach asks teachers to first value student’s questions and their prior views or current knowledge. It also gives an opportunity for teachers to learn along with their students relieving them of the need to know everything in advance (as the ‘curriculum experts’ ask of them).
This is in line with how all new knowledge is developed as any beginning learner moves from 'novice' to 'expert'. In some situations students will actually know more than their teachers and wise teachers will take advantage of such expertise. Often what is discovered will surprise both learners and teachers.
The approach develops in students an awareness of the disciplined approach of the scientist. Teachers, of course, need to expose students to ‘scientific knowledge’ but this will only be accepted by learners if it makes sense to them. At the very least they will have appreciated that there are alternative views. Most importantly this approach allows students (and their teachers) to retain their integrity as learners.
Essentially the approach asks teachers to:
1. Negotiate a learning challenge with the students.
2. Record the initial questions the students want to find out about ( deeper questions may emerge as students become involved).
3. Explore the current answers that students have to their own questions; what are their currents theories or prior ideas. This is vital to later assess growth in understanding against. These can be recorded individually, by groups, or as a class.
4. Negotiate a range of research activities to answer selected questions – and also how the students are going to record or present their findings. This will naturally integrate use of ICT. Ensure students are recording their own interpretations no matter how tentative. The teacher’s role as a challenger of student’s ideas, a co investigator, and as a supporter, is vital at this stage.
5. At the conclusion students need to assess how much their prior ideas (theories) have changed or what important new ideas they have learnt. It is also useful to discuss question students still need to consider if they had more time.
Throughout this process the teacher will be evaluating what new skills students will need and what misconceptions need to be clarified – remembering students ought not to be asked to accept what they cannot understand.
The whole process can be displayed, with an appropriate challenging heading (as a provocation or question) key questions, processes and criteria, on the classroom display areas.
Classrooms ought to celebrate both the students thinking and research and also inform the visitors about the learning process.
It would be great if teachers were to 'rediscover' this powerful teaching and learning approach and it would also be great if students could articulate in their own words how it is they learn.
If this were to be done then all the ‘higher order thinking skills’ would be most useful - but thinking without in depth content places real learning at risk.