On Methods Versus Aims

Reading Daisy Christodoulou’s preview of her recent book, Seven Myths About Education, I was especially struck by Myth 6- that projects and activities are the best way to learn. This quote resonated with me in particular:

Our aim should be for pupils to be able to tackle real-world problems by the end of their education; that does not mean that our method should involve endless practice of real-world problems. This is because real-world problems often involve a great deal of distracting information which overwhelms working memory. Likewise, our final aim should be for pupils to work independently; this does not mean that constant independent learning will achieve this aim.

It seems clear that we should choose educational methods based primarily on what helps students learn most effectively and efficiently. After all, that’s the goal of education, right?

The question of aims versus methods reminded me of the recent discussion regarding content versus practices in the structure of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS lays out a series of aims for students, referred to as “performance expectatations.” For example, here’s a fifth grade performance expectation:

5-ESS1-2: Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky.

Some recent criticism has argued that the “representing data” part of this performance expectation (the science practice) should be separated from the understanding of “daily changes” (the science content). Many of the arguments for and against this arrangement seem to center around pedagogical arguments, but the NGSS is not about pedagogy. Standards in general are not about pedagogy, that is, they are not about educational methods. They are about aims, the goals of education. Thus, the NGSS do not prescribe a particular method of instruction.

In the case of science standards, it is critical that students both know the science content and be able to apply it in context. Going back to the example above, students need to be able to do things like take scientific data and graph it. It doesn’t have to be data about day and night necessarily, but the aim needs to not be just “know that there are patterns in the length of day and night” but to be able to do something with that information. By not making this “do something with it” requirement a clear enough part of the aim, many existing standards are falling short.

You can debate about the best methods used to reach educational aims, but I think this quote from the NRC report How People Learn is instructive:

Are some… teaching techniques better than others? Is lecturing a poor way to teach, as many seem to claim? Is cooperative learning effective? Do attempts to use computers (technology-enhanced teaching) help achievement or hurt it?

This volume suggests that these are the wrong questions. Asking which teaching technique is best is analogous to asking which tool is best—a hammer, a screwdriver, a knife, or pliers. In teaching as in carpentry, the selection of tools depends on the task at hand and the materials one is working with. Books and lectures can be wonderfully efficient modes of transmitting new information for learning, exciting the imagination, and honing students’ critical faculties—but one would choose other kinds of activities to elicit from students their preconceptions and level of understanding, or to help them see the power of using meta-cognitive strategies to monitor their learning. Hands-on experiments can be a powerful way to ground emergent knowledge, but they do not alone evoke the underlying conceptual understandings that aid generalization. There is no universal best teaching practice.

In other words, we should not be dogmatic about different pedagogical methods, and instead start choosing methods selectively, like tools, based on what we need to do with a particular student or group of students that day. There’s nothing wrong with a good lecture, or a good inquiry-based activity, as long as each is in an appropriate context. And most importantly, as long as the end result is efficient and effective student learning.

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