Sunday 3 January 2016

Is teaching, 'teaching the tools you need'?

I've been thinking about some metaphors and phrases that we use in connection with teaching and learning: tools, skills, building blocks.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with them but I would suggest that they can sometimes end up with giving us a misleading idea of how we learn and think. A tool or a building block suggest something very mechanical:

1. We either have it or don't have it.
2. It's a necessary 'thing' I need to have before I can do other things.
3. It has to be acquired by me as, supposedly, it's no use being something I use in a shared way.

Let's suppose that we learn in different ways. For example, what if learning involves me in something more 'reflective'? So, I can't ever 'get' anything unless I do something with it in my mind. So if it's a 'tool' or 'building block' then at the very least, I can't just learn the tool, I have to learn how to use it. Otherwise it's use-less.

So, given that today we're talking about the times tables, most people can learn most of the times tables. We can then test that. This will distribute into those who can do it perfectly, less perfectly, quite well, OK, not OK and hardly at all.

But so what?

None of this will necessarily tell us whether these people will be able to use whatever they know. They may or they may not.

The national high stakes testing of knowing the times tables will ensure that yet more time is spent in schools on learning them off by heart. I think it's fair to argue that this will mean less time on learning how to use them.

What's more, we know that high stakes testing has a knock-on effect in terms of stress and segregation of children. This detracts from the supposed objective in the first place: to help children learn useful stuff. Instead, large numbers of children get worried that they are not good enough, and this is reinforced by the setting that goes on in classrooms.

So, rather than acquiring 'tools' or 'building blocks' we're acquiring 'stress' and 'knowledge that I am not good enough'!