The End of Pedagogy Wars

December 7, 2011 at 9:57 PM Leave a comment

A dozen or so years ago, there was a glimmer of hope in academia for teaching diverse learners in the mainstream. Learning styles were analyzed and some number (usually eight) of unique approaches was defined for reaching the whole class. Theorists designed units of study that combined these approaches, ranging from independent reading to full-scale construction projects. What happened?

Since the introduction of the New Math in the 60s, educators have been drawn to pedagogical fads. Staunch supporters of all-or-nothing swings in teaching methods have ruled content areas, and a throw-away culture has had its way with the tools of the trade. These single-minded approaches always failed to meet the needs of a segment of the student population. Eventually they would get discarded – baby with the bath water. Given enough time, as any veteran teacher will assure you, each was resurrected, once its antithesis had been explored and unanimously dropped for its own short-comings.

Debates over pedagogy have continued to treat many decisions as binary, and persuasive dialogue has quickly devolved into the usual Good versus Evil dichotomy. While this would seem to be wrong intuitively, research often has supported the conclusion that the most recently released version of teaching was better. What could be wrong with that?

The paradox of the short-term blip in achievement in responses to any new strategy accounts for part of the problem. Essentially, students who were receptive to a particular strategy would internalize it and activate it independently with repeated exposure; less receptive students would be neutral or worse. Over time, the strategy would grow stale, and any valid innovation would have a better chance of stimulating learning, especially if it hit the mark with children who were underserved by the previous technique. All the same, confetti would fly heralding the discovery of the new magic bullet for education woes.

The greater flaw has been the limited bandwidth for learning styles, processing speeds, and vehicle preferences. Pedagogical swings or biases have prevented access to meaningful lessons for some of the students all of the time. A more robust model of student engagement and choice could keep the whole menu of learning strategies in the mix with less risk of overexposure. Versions of “broadband” learning, such as the Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model or Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, have appealed to academics but found limited success in K-12 schools. I suspect that early innovators had difficulty implementing them within the context of technological support and traditional classroom management.

Today, the time is ripe to revisit the case for teaching every child by design. Technology has become ubiquitous with a wide variety of platforms and applications. Accountability for special populations has exposed shortcomings in inclusiveness of education systems. And scrutiny of teachers has led to a mixture of sharp criticism as well as heightened support for valiant efforts. A longer vision will allow us to exploit these challenges and opportunities for our own growth.

Truly student-centric education will rely upon further evolution of classroom resources and redefinition of the role of the teacher. The new classroom must be technology-rich and multi-purposed, or students must have access to alternatives in the form of dedicated activities rooms or virtual learning opportunities. Teachers will need to release control over instruction in favor of milieu design, coordination of the learning workshop, and guidance of student decision-making, as well as observation and feedback. Educators need not worry about discarding teaching methods. Let the children try them all to see what works. Best practices match strategies to learners; they should never limit the field.

Reinvention of the teacher is not a personal quality issue so much as an opportunity to diversify skills and take professional risks. Knowledge cannot be personified in a single teacher, nor can complex lesson plans be developed and applied in isolation. Collaboration and interdependence among educators will be crucial.  Deep knowledge of content and pedagogy will remain essential; however, the ability to work in a team and foster self-advocacy in students will be equally important. Individual variations arising from professional experience, style preference, or demographic factors must be seen as sources of insight rather than divisiveness.

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Entry filed under: Pedagogy.

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