Education: The solution

Posted by SIMON on May 22, 2016

It’s easy to blame the pitfalls of our current educational practices on things that are out of our control, the curriculum being created by those with limited classroom experience, the modern British culture harbouring stubborn short-sighted students, lack of budget being invested in our teachers and schools, and in truth I do not possess the political knowledge required to manoeuvre through these issues, but after taking on the task to develop my ideas as an educator I frequently ask people “How do we solve British education?” and it frequently and quickly turns into a conversation about one of those issues.

But the word I hope to focus on is “we”, not as a nation, but as individuals. While I do arrogantly consider myself as a big influence among those who know me, I’m not sure I can undo decades of set educational paradigms, I don’t think I could design a creative, cross curriculum, adaptive to the ever changing social landscape, grit developing, relational curriculum that caters to all ages, abilities, learning styles while preparing students for every and all career paths and it would take a lot to convince me that anyone could.

So what is realistic?  Well first let’s look at some of ideas I have been looking at over the past year, and how they have changed how I look at education and also some of the challenges that these ideas present. This first topic I wanted to dissect is based on the book The Teaching Gap and whether or not we can learn from other countries methods of improving education. The teaching gap compares math teaching practices in Japan and Germany with those in the United States (while the United States teaching practices do differ from here in the UK, it is much more comparable to our methods than Japan’s are) and after finishing it I was convinced that the solution was as simple as to just emulate what Japan is doing, easy right?

Well it was this thought that I ran with for a while… “Why spend decades researching how to fix education when someone else has already figured it out?” and when I discussed this with peers, convinced I had the answer, it was quickly matched with cultural differences and ideas that we are simply not the same type of learners as a nation. This was a frustrating development of thinking for me, the moment where I realised that it is actually really complicated and difficult (seems like an obvious statement in retrospect!) but there has to be something that can be taken from the TIMMs study, something that we can use to at least improve our own system.

There are many different reasons about why kids are not learning (or I should say learning as quickly as we need them to) and unfortunately for educators, many of these reasons are out of their control, even though they are a significant piece of the puzzle. Teaching methods are within our control and regardless of other factors, teachers can effect real change by improving teaching methods. The problem, though, is that our society does not seriously support teachers improving their teaching skills. People may care that teachers are enthusiastic, hard workers, who care for their charges. People may want more statistical evidence of student achievement. But they don’t so far as to support the kinds of changes that actually would make a difference, mainly because they don’t know what changes are needed, and they don’t understand the effort it will take to implement them. I discussed with a geography teacher who hates his job this topic, and he simply put all the blame on the students/parents and shrugged his shoulders as if there was nothing he could do, and I genuinely believe that many teachers are not given the knowledge that puts them in a position where they can do something about it.

Meanwhile, I do think that most teachers do improve their skills somewhat as the years go by. But this improvement comes from teachers’ own initiatives or their persistence in just surviving in a classroom environment, and not from any ongoing support. And when the teacher retires there is no mechanism for passing down the fruits of their experience, or any teachers experiences are not being properly tapped into. And it is this train of thought that helped me connect the teaching gap with the next most influential book I had read.

Black Box thinking is all about gradual change, looking at how the aviation industry is may ahead of other organisations in their methods how changing, adapting and recognition of learning from mistakes. The book is written by Matthew Syed, the author of Bounce featured in Task 7 about practice vs talent, which was a great read but I think that even the most talented teachers could still struggle without any external support!

“Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes — but Some Do.”

His core premise is that detailed independent investigation of our everyday screw-ups can prevent recurrences just as black box flight data analysis has dramatically reduced the incidence of airplane crashes. If more data creates a better outcome, good evidence-based analysis in all areas of human behaviour should allow us to lift those blinders that prevent us from learning from our mistakes. And if we can apply this to everyday life, then we can most definitely apply it to our own personal teaching methods. Find out what does work, find out what doesn’t work and do more of the stuff that does and slightly adapt the stuff that doesn’t, easy right?

And how does this match up with the Teaching Gap? Well look at how the Japanese reformed their schools. The answer is as breathtakingly obvious, once you realize that teaching is cultural, (that is, it is a complex and inter-related set of social skills, that are acquired by populations more than by individuals, and that are mainly learned subconsciously) and not a simple set of skills or directions that can be followed like a recipe. Basically, instead of attempting to train teachers, the Japanese set up a system that allowed the teachers to cultivate their own education in teaching theory learning theory.

They did it over fifty years ago, likely the students 50-40 years ago didn’t see much of the benefit, a large group of people making gradual changes takes a long time and this is unrealistic to expect from our “need results right now culture” but we do have a huge advantage of 1960 Japan….and you’re looking at it right now.

The internet is a tool that is being massively underutilised, if there are 438,000 state-funded (sorry only figure I could find!) teachers, each putting in 50(+) hours of work in a week, why are we not using this incredibly rich resource? Japan took a small group each year to focus on small details of teaching, but if teachers could share experiences, improve on each other’s experiences then we could make up for 50 years of research in no time.

This is where my thinking has developed, I am convinced if there was a way to tap into the minds and experience of all the fantastic, unique and frustrated minds of the teachers, not just in the UK, but the world then we could rapidly improve our teaching styles and have access to the most developed lesson plans, resources and ideas that would not only have been tested countless times…but also adapt to the ever changing technologies and societal quirks. I reflect on this concept and think it is brilliant in thought, but likely very difficult to implement and convince teachers to use (at the end of the day, it is a useless concept if there are no teachers to use it!) but I recently came across the website HitRecord ( created by Joseph Gordon Levitt, an online collaborative production company that uses user created ideas to produce music, short films, books and animations. The idea is a writer comes up with an idea but needs an artist to help him sketch his ideas, they are both involved and use their own personal strengths to come up with a much better product than if they had gone it alone, they receive feedback from other experts or people interested and improve it, then after it is finished another musician may want to use that idea to create a piece around and so on and so on.

I love this idea, using people’s strengths to create some kind of super mega idea….and then create it together! And why would this not work for teaching? I tell my online community I have this great little animation to show the area of a circle, but I am having difficulties creating a lesson plan around this idea, someone then tests it out and posts slight improvements, another teacher from a more difficult school lets the collaboration know that it is not so effective with lower set kids and asks if anyone has ideas, original teacher uses both sets of feedback to improve the animation that can be used for lower set kids.



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