There is a lot of discussion society wide at the moment with regards to the question of education, namely is the education system failing us? A while back, Margaret Wente, one of the columnists for the Globe and Mail was on a roll. First, she lamented our children’s seeming inability to grasp the concepts of math. She put the blame square on the ‘system’ and it’s current advocates of ‘discovery’ math, a process designed to encourage and enthuse children with a thirst for mathematical knowledge which, for the most part, ends up creating, total confusion instead. I should know as I had the privilege of attending a math session just for parents only a year or so ago only to be reminded of the horrible feeling kids have when they have absolutely no idea what the teacher is talking about. You may conclude that math obviously isn’t one of my strong points and you’d be right, but still?
Is educational jargon bad for us?
Then Margaret hit us with another one between the eyes arguing that the educational jargon common in todays classrooms isn’t doing us any good either and to back up her argument, she brought in Tom Bennett and his book, ‘Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What it Claims.’ In his book, Mr. Bennett argues that we have got used to magic beans. That the art of teaching is chock full of unsubstantiated ideas, many of which do more harm than good.
Collaborative learning often doesn’t work
Take collaborative learning, for instance. Apparently, the research is rather thin on its benefits but it’s been adopted whole heartedly by the school system as fact. The idea of learning together, collaboratively, picking up and enhancing each other’s knowledge sounds great and it some cases, it can work well, but it needs to be directed by a teacher who is monitoring exactly what is learned. Without that, it turns in to an exercise in futility as the stuff they’re learning is likely a long way from the goal the educational establishment had in mind. I’ll give you a case in point. My daughter, in grade seven had to do a group project. It was to find out about key figures in Canadian history and then transmit what their group had learned to the class as a whole. My daughter’s group picked Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
Ok, sounds great. Well, except perhaps for the idea that one has to have an idea of the general period in history in order to understand the importance of the contribution of the individual, which of course, they hadn’t done yet. Still, ok, I was keen to see how my daughter would progress with the task. The background work for the project had to be done in class time in small groups and the kids had to work collaboratively to find out key information to transmit to the class as a whole. A couple of kids had to do the fact checking, someone had to do the poster etc. The first week came and went and I enquired as to the group’s progress. “Don’t worry mom, it’ll be fine” came the confident reply. “We’re doing it in class.” Then the following week came and went with the same reassurances.
It’s all falling apart
Finally, my on the night before the project was due my daughter looked particularly dejected. What’s wrong? I asked. Well out gushed the same old line I’d heard many times before. “Liam didn’t do his work and Sarah was supposed to do that and she didn’t because her computer’s not working and now I have to…..” Well, if you’re a parent of a school-aged child or one that’s grown up, you’ve no doubt been there yourself.. So at the eleventh hour we were desperately trying to find images of the man on the internet, cut them out and make a poster.
Then I thought I’d better have a fact check of my own about what they were planning to say. I know the teacher would have checked it too, at least I would assume she would seeing as part of the class would be based on that information. Well, no, she hadn’t so we had the wrong decade and a number of other major facts incorrect and had I not intervened, we would have had a whole class of grade seven students who wanted to tell each other all they could about, would you believe it, Canada’s first…..president. Oops.
And that’s what happens in collaborative learning. It sounds great on paper, wonderfully egalitarian, a veritable garden of learning but either the information is suspect or more often, some poor sod always gets left with the work. The others sail off in to the sunset scot free with your child’s mark for managing what my daughter terms, “diddly squat.” Sometimes the information learned is worth having. Often it isn’t.
Collaborative learning is only as good as the teacher teaching it
In my experience helping parents with their children’s behaviour and being a parent myself, I’ve learned that collaborative learning is only as good as the teacher that’s facilitating the collaborating. Otherwise, it becomes a buzzword for a style which sounds wonderful but means very little. Teachers feel they must try and incorporate it because that’s what they’ve been told they should do. That means that more often than not, the children are made to collaborate on things that don’t lend themselves to learning in a group simply to fulfill educational requirements, rather than because it is the best way of learning that particular material. And that’s a shame because the intent behind trying to make school more interesting and engaging is worth hanging on to. In fact, it’s critical.
As we search for solutions to 21st century learning, aware that our education system is failing many students, Mr Bennett’s magic beans are out in full force and the beanstalk to ‘fairyland’ is growing by the day. People want to believe that there are magic ways to solve complex problems” he says. Margaret and I couldn’t agree more.