Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Barriers to Change in Education

The biggest barrier to change in our public education system is, ironically, that teachers are preparing students for what comes after high school.

Students have been earning their postsecondary degrees, specifically the undergraduate degrees that universities sell, in the same way for at least a century:
  • Lectures
  • Assigned Readings (never chosen by the student)
  • Tests and Examinations
  • Essays
  • Oral Presentations and Seminars

(Before I go any further, I will add the following disclaimer: the evidence upon which I base my argument is anecdotal and coloured by my experiences both as a recent graduate and as a Humanities student.  However, in education, anecdotal evidence can be some of most powerful and convincing evidence there is).

This pedagogy and these assessment and evaluation practices may have worked when universities were small and when professors knew who their students were, but when first year classes have as many as three hundred students in them, these strategies stop working, and not because they’re inefficient.  Au contraire, given the number of students that universities are willing to enroll, professors and their teaching assistants have been forced to find the most efficient means possible of teaching and evaluating students.

These efficient means, however, involve students teaching themselves and the professor occasionally popping his or her head in the door so that there is some evidence upon which to base a grade.  No standards exist within departments for essays, and a student can write an A+ paper and never find out why it was brilliant, or more commonly, a C+ paper and never find out why it was so bad.

The picture painted here is that of the Dark Ages of Education, and it is an age that teachers in public school system recognized long ago and have been working fiercely to push past.  Teachers have changed the way they instruct and evaluate students.  Teachers now use assessment as, of, and for learning, and they vary their instructional strategies to engage students with diverse learning styles.

There’s only one problem.  The closer students get to graduation, the further away teachers move from these new practices.  The reason for this distancing is that the teaching practices at university are so vastly different from the new teaching practices in the public education system that when high school students head off to university, they won’t be prepared for it, despite having received an excellent education.

Teachers of senior students are, therefore, held back by sense of responsibility.  Teachers expose their students to university-style instruction and assessments because they don’t want their students to be frustrated or think poorly of them when they are struggling in university.

I’m not arguing that learning cannot happen in universities.  I had the opportunity and privilege of completing two independent research projects during my undergraduate years, and during these projects, I received one-on-one help and attention from tenured professors.  It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had, but unfortunately, students often have to venture into grad school to get this kind of mentorship.

It’s not the universities’ fault that they teach the way they do.  They simply have too many students, or at least they teach too many of them at a time.  Everything requires more education than it used to, and one doesn’t have to delve into the past to find that this is true - it’s on the horizon.  Very soon, Teacher Education in Ontario will go from a one-year program to two.  I’m no math major, but I can say with a certain degree of certainty that that’s double!  More and more young people have to go to postsecondary institutions for more and more time.

This mentorship is key and is what we should be aiming for in education.  To truly make not just learning, but meaningful learning happen, teachers need the resources and the institutional infrastructure to become mentors to their students.

Society has reached the point where the Backwards/Design-Down Lesson and Unit Planning that teachers do becomes insane.  If we begin with the end in mind, and if the end is postsecondary education, then that’s going to change how we are assessing and instructing their students.  If our preferred method is to start from the top and go down, then why are we frustrated when starting at the bottom and going up fails to work?

As a society, we have two options: (1) change the end we have in mind, or (2) change postsecondary education.  However, we seem to have all generally agreed at some point that given how technology is rapidly changing, we simply don’t know what society will look like in the next decade.

And as always, our crises boil down to a question about the human condition: how do we prepare for a future we cannot see? 

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