What is the next great idea in education? How might we best help our students to master difficult material? Does anyone have the key to unlocking minds?
These are questions that every teacher and concerned parent ask. We truly want to improve our educational system and we spend millions of dollars seeking answers. Our educational force travels to foreign lands to observe programs that appear to be successful. Our teachers spend summers learning new skills. Districts invest in diagnostic tools. We reinvent the educational wheel over and over again, hoping to stumble upon a magic bullet that will in one fell swoop increase our children’s knowledge, thinking abilities, and curiosity. We attempt to make mathematics and science more accessible to all, while we strive to demonstrate how to read and write more fluently. In spite of all of our efforts we find ourselves in a quandary. We still appear to be losing so many of our kids to struggles with learning, and so we continue to experiment in the hopes of one day stumbling upon the key to unlocking minds.
Fifty or sixty years ago when I was earning a degree in education a psychologist named B.F. Skinner was all the rage. His focus was on the types of reinforcement techniques that we humans use to motivate individuals, and so we learned that encouraging students when they do something right is more likely to have them repeat the good behaviors than punishing them for mistakes. He insisted that we can slowly move a person toward a goal with the just the right amount of encouragement. He even attempted to create a teaching machine that would be able to accomplish such a task according to the specific needs of the learner. Back in his days technology was a long way from being reliable or effective and so his efforts failed, but he predicted that one day there would indeed be a mechanism designed to enact his ideas.
Fast forward to the future which is now. The power of the computer has allowed us to create individualized instruction complete with feedback that would no doubt delight Skinner. While it has revolutionized education in general, there are still difficulties when it comes to creating effective programs for individuals. The fact is that it simply does not work for some people. There is till a need for a warm human to unravel questions and provide inspiration and motivation. A machine is far too cold to handle the task alone.
I do a great deal of interventional tutoring since retiring from education six years ago. I find that there is no substitute for small group interaction between humans. The first step in helping a struggling student is always a matter of dealing with fears and frustrations, something a computer can’t do effectively, at least not yet. Not all students have the ability to focus well enough to concentrate on a mechanized one size fits all instructional video, and yet they are being used in most of the schools that I encounter. Virtually every high school student is well acquainted with Kahn Academy, and while I use the lessons myself to brush up on ideas for teaching certain concepts, it cannot be used as a substitute for a good warm blooded teacher inside a classroom. It’s proper use is for reinforcement of material, not initial instruction.
I have encountered a new trend of late that involves assigning an instructional video to students for homework. They watch the electronic teacher explaining various concepts and then work independently on similar problems. The following day in class they are able to ask specific questions about the material. For the students with whom I work, this methodology has been a disaster. It is backwards from the way that works best for them. Namely, they would be better served by first receiving instruction from the teacher, then watching the videos to clarify the processes, followed by independent practice with problems and finally questions about the work. They are floundering but sitting quietly in the classrooms because they don’t even know how to begin their inquiries. They are simply lost and sometimes even drowning in confusion. By the time I get them they are feeling dejected and their confidence is in shambles. My job becomes demystifying the definitions and processes in a way that guides them to understanding. Sadly, the time that they have to spend with me often increases their stress because they are always just a bit behind in their mastery and so their grades do not reflect what they eventually manage to learn.
When I watch the videos that they must view I actually appreciate all of the time and effort that such teachers have put into producing them. I enjoy knowing how the instructor is presenting the material so that I might use similar terminology and practices. Still I find that I have to learn how and when to pause the stream of information so that I might take notes or try some of the problem solving on my own. I find that I am able to do so effectively only because I already know how to perform the operations and I am familiar with the vocabulary. I am also able to separate the chatter from the most important ideas. I suspect that the top students who are already rather gifted in mathematics have little difficulty doing as I do, but for the average to below average soul those videos must be just a cacophony of meaningless sound. For those with specific learning disabilities I can only imagine how frustrating it must feel.
I’ve been in a classroom and I fully understand and appreciate the frustrations of teachers as well. They have far too many students and increasingly complex demands that don’t always have much to do with teaching are placed on them also. Their days are long and exhausting and the vast majority of them are doing their very best. Sometimes the most gifted among them are able to break down the barriers that all too often separate them from their students. They become the inspirational individuals who change minds and manage to touch hearts as well. In other cases they simply feel as beaten down as the students. They desperately want to make a difference but can’t seem to find the way to do so. Far too many aspiring educators last less than five years before they leave in total frustration.
We seem to understand that people are complex and as such there is never one right way of doing things. It has been proven that even with regard to diet, there must be differences that take individual genetic tendencies into account. Why, I wonder, do we still approach education as though there is indeed a magical way of reaching all students without concern for their individuality? Why do we crowd our children into rooms as though they are being warehoused like cattle? Why do we push them at the same pace? Why are there so few of us who want to teach them in charge of so many? What is it about our society that we place so little value on such an important task? Why do we complain but demonstrate an unwillingness to support our schools?
The truth about education is that it has to be tailored to a person, not a crowd. Everyone is capable of learning, but not in the same way or at the same pace. How many times have we met an adult who struggled in school but eventually got it all together at a later date than his/her peers? It is the way of humans to meet milestones in a variety of ways. It is up to us to appreciate that fact and provide our young with educations suited to them. It’s perhaps the most important task that we might ever perform, and it will pay unmeasurable dividends to our future. It always requires the human touch.