Monday, December 15, 2008

On Education (Three): The Balance

Last week we had a visiting speaker on campus who did a series of presentations on creative thinking and entrepreneurship. One of the slides that she used with the teachers made reference to "building t-shaped people." It's a phrase that has apparently been around in the design industry for some years. Here's Tim Brown's explanation:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that
they're willing to try to do what you do. We call them "T-shaped people." They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T -- they're mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That's what you're after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.

I hadn't heard the phrase before, but it kept reverberating in my head as I went through the rest of the week. On Wednesday, I was asked to meet with the new teachers group at my school, and at the very start of the meeting one of the teachers asked what I think is probably one of the core essential questions that has to do with lesson planning and design, which was basically, "How do I find the balance providing time for my students room to explore and be innovative and engage in projects, and also providing time for them to study and master the core course content."

Well, it's exactly the right question to be asking. Students do need to learn core skills; they need to have some degree of "Depth of knowledge in a technical discipline." So there are times when as a teacher when you need to hone in on those skills: how to diagram a sentence, how to solve a quadratic equation, how to do html coding. On the other hand, if they are ever going to develop the broad spectrum of "21st century skills" that everyone keeps talking about, they are going to need time and space to try things out on their own, learn how to question and to collaborate and to brainstorm and to consider possible solutions and to devise plans and to put them into action and to evaluate the results. All of which takes time. And there's never enough time.

The good news is that it's not an either/or proposition. It's certainly possible to design a sequence of project-based, collaborative activities that have the beneficial side effect of helping students to learn content-area skills. That's the ongoing challenge: to come up with elegant, effectively-designed activity sequences that build both content skills and process skills. That also takes time, in the preparation, but it pays off in terms of efficiencies in class.

Sometimes you can't do it. Sometimes you have to say to your students, "You know what, the most efficient way for me to deliver this material to you is for me to talk and you to listen and ask questions. And there's going to be a test tomorrow that will help us both assess whether or not you've understood what I've been teaching you as well as you think you do."

But that's a mode of teaching, and a mode of learning, that I would prefer, if possible, to avoid. Students who are subjected to that particular teaching methodology most of the time will never develop the "breadth of knowledge about entrepreneurship and leadership," because there's nothing for them to do, in that environment, which is remotely entrepreneurial or innovative. The irony is that they're not going to wind up with a depth of knowledge either. I'm fond of B.F. Skinner's formulation that "Education is what's left over after you've forgotten what you've learned." And what my own experience of school has taught me is that you're going to forget pretty much everything that you haven't worked on yourself. I had a lot of well-meaning teachers who tried their best to stuff my head full of what they thought was useful information. But what I remember, what's left over, if you will, has little to do with what they taught me and a lot to do with who they were and what it felt like to be involved in a process that was thought-provoking and challenging and significant.

So that's why I think we have to keep the balance, keep weighing the alternatives: content skills vs process skills, individual work vs collaborative work, teacher-directed activities vs student-designed activities. One of my mentors when I was first teaching high school some 25 years ago had a resource book that he asked me to read called Freedom and Discipline in English. There's that balance once again. You need one; you need the other.