Paradigm Shift

07Jul11

I was recently sent a link to a youtube video, part of a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson for the RSA.

I thought it was a fantastic representation of some of the problems with our current system, and where we should be headed. Fortunately, I feel that this is where we are heading, at least in Alberta. Of course, as with any significant change, it is slow in coming, and filled with many problems.

Over the past 6 years or so, Alberta Education has created an initiative called AISI, or the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. One of the things it has provided, is professional development for teachers to help improve their practice and teach in new, innovative ways (however it may not last long as the government has cut AISI by 50% this year). For example, it encourages teachers to move away from assessment based teaching. Ie, the practice of teaching a concept in a lecture format, giving an assignment, and grading it. Such marks based programs are irrelevant in the long run, and do not prepare the student for any situation later in life. Rather, teachers should encourage a learning environment where students explore material as a means to get to the end: mastery of the concept. Any mark or grade would then be awarded based on the student’s mastery of whatever concept taught.

This system does have its flaws, I agree. I also agree that in certain situations marks based assignments are necessary (for example, to test student knowledge in a unit or final exam). However, they should be used sparingly in order to make their presence more significant. By giving too many marks based assignments, they become dilute and worthless as far as student learning and grading is concerned.

However, that was not the main point of the video, just a brief explanation of where Alberta education is, and where it is heading.

The idea that education must move from a teacher-centred, lecture based system, to a student-centred, inquiry based system is not a new one. It is difficult to implement it in our current system. Our funding, our grade programs, our post-secondary education system, and our teacher training are all based on grade achievement. I would love to see schools restructure based on ability rather than age, however the logistics of that in the public system are horrendous at best. It’s not that it can’t be done, just that enough people in high places must be dedicated to do it.

Especially interesting, I thought, was the visual regarding ADHD. Now, I am also not an expert in such things, and I do believe that a certain segment of the population does have ADHD. The visual did provide some food for thought, although I doubt the correlation is as simple as a technological, conservative east versus a liberal, artsy west. I do also wonder though, if ADHD prevalence isn’t increased just due to the nature of our society. In other words, while a certain segment of the population does have ADHD  the true prevalence is masked by confounding factors. For those who say it’s a new, completely invented disorder, think about our increased knowledge of brain function and our increased diagnostic tools. The concept that is ADHD now would have been classified in a different way previously. This is similar to the “rising autism prevalence” seen now that is based purely on the changing definition of autism spectrum disorder.

If you think back to McLuhan, “the medium is the message,” consider what our mediums are like today. Instant. Flashy. Continuous. Think back ten, twenty years and consider how slow paced TV was. I don’t mean the plotlines were slow moving, I mean the scenes were longer, the movement between characters slower, the volume lower. Take a look at the difference between these two commercials: an Infinity commercial from 1990, and a Lexus commercial from 2011. This is a difference of 20 years, and the change is remarkable. The Lexus commercial is faster, brighter, gimmick-ier, and more attention grabbing. I would argue that you can see this change in every medium. If this is what our children (and ourselves) are exposed to, is it any wonder that we have shorter attention spans?

There is one point where I am a little at odds with Sir Robinson. He, albeit briefly, mentions that standardized curriculums should be discarded. I disagree. Standardized curriculums are essential. There are so many times, especially in education it seems, where change is foisted on us with the assumption that it must be good because it’s a change. How do we know this for sure? If we are to change education paradigms, and I believe we should, then we must keep the curriculums the same, at least in the beginning. If we don’t, how would we get a basis for comparison? How would we know that these changes are indeed beneficial? The curriculum outcomes, in Alberta at least, are general enough that the learning can be achieved using many different models. In order to tell whether we are doing students a favour by changing our entire system, we must keep some things controlled. This may also involve keeping our standardized tests every 3 years.

At any rate, I am glad to see some support that Alberta’s education system is moving in a positive direction. I feel that we could have a world class education system again, government cuts notwithstanding.

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