It’s the 21st century: the ‘information age.’ Technological changes are forcing everyone to radically question old assumptions about school, society, and self. Here are three old assumptions about education that Renate and Geoffrey Caine explore in Education on the Edge of Possibility:
Education as information delivery:
1. “Only experts create knowledge.”
2. The role of teachers is to “deliver knowledge in the form of information.”
3. The role of students is to store the information the teachers present to them.
In an information society, STORING information is not the most important skill to have, because information is readily available everywhere. For example, before books could be more easily produced in the 1500’s, students had to memorize texts, word-for-word, and good students were good memorizers. Nowadays, we certainly don’t ask high schoolers to memorize half of the Odyssey word-for-word. We understand that the book will be there, so knowing the words is not the key skill: understanding the words is the key. But how do students develop deep, powerful understandings of what they read?
In the information delivery model, students listen to teachers tell them what they should learn from what they read, and good students then store that information. While this is better than just focusing on memorizing the words, it produces students that are only one step better than word-memorizers; they are idea-memorizers. But truly autonomous, productive, creative people are not word or idea memorizers: they are idea creators, synthesizers, and producers.
Thus, I believe education must start with empowering individual students to develop their own analytical and creative skills. This is a long-term, personalized process in which teachers function as facilitators, coaches, co-learners and counselors, creating learning opportunities, offering ideas, and nurturing stable, supportive learning environments where students can take the chances they need to take in order to truly explore their own unique ways of thinking.
For an example of my philosophy in action, click here.
Real learning, as opposed to memorizing things based on rules, happens when students and teachers have the time to explore, play with, and ask questions about what is being learned. Real learning takes more time than memorizing, but it’s more fun, more interesting, and ultimately, more effective than memorizing, because the “efficiency” of memorizing is a sham if the things students supposedly “learn” are actually soon forgotten.
I know in my heart that real learning only happens for each person when they want to learn. A teacher can not make a student learn. Therefore, I believe real learning takes place best in a nurturing environment where teachers and students share authority. I want students to “learn”—to grow, to understand and remember new things—because they agree with the ways they are growing and the things they are adding to their permanent knowledge. I can not tell someone to accept something because I say so, but I can create a place where we can both explore it.
Many of the hardest things to “learn” are not facts or ideas, but ways of studying or relating to learning in general. I think that this kind of learning is hard and takes time, patience and understanding. Personally, I have a hard time with some of the discipline involved in being a really great student; that may sound strange coming from a highly successful student, but it’s true. I am constantly trying to become a better student and studier and person, and right now, in my life, I must admit that I think it’s hard. It’s worth it, but it’s hard. So I can’t sit back and tell my students “it’s not that bad,” or “it’s not as hard as you think it is,” because inside myself, I don’t have that experience. Instead, I validate that things are hard, and take the time to really look deeply into that difficulty. Why is it being so hard? What should we do about it? Understanding it can help us make plans of attack, not based on me telling a student what she should do, but rather, both of us together coming up with strategies for combating the things that make learning hard.
Ultimately, I guess the reason why I believe in real learning, not memorizing, and why I believe my students deserve time, attention, validation, and even co-suffering in their learning struggles, is because I think that real learning only takes place in a climate of respect. I deeply respect the autonomy and selfhood of each of my students—after all, isn’t learning all about becoming more independent and better selves? I don’t ask my students to unquestioningly accept everything I say, or to confront things that are hard for them without also doing the same thing myself. The only thing I ask of my students is that they return the respect I give them, and engage in the process of learning together honestly and with real effort.