Friday, December 31, 2010

Working -v- Learning

I've been thinking quite a bit about work these past few days.  What we do as teachers is called work because it's our job, yet what the students do in class is also often called work and at home it is homework.  Sir Ken Robinson talks about this as being tied up with the origins of schooling, how the purpose of education was to produce workers and how the subjects seen as most relevant to work were those that appeared to be higher on the hierarchy of subjects (maths, science, technology and languages being at the top of the hierarchy, while dance and drama were at the bottom).  As I was thinking about this and reading further, I came across a very old article by Alfie Kohn called Students don't work - they learn.  In this article he says:
To get a sense of whether students view themselves as workers or as learners, we need only ask them (during class) what they are doing. "I'm doing my work" is one possible response; "I'm trying to figure out why the character in this story told her friend to go away" is something else altogether. Better yet, we might ask students why they are doing something, and then attend to the difference between "Because Ms. Taylor told us to" or "It's going to be on the test," on the one hand, and "Because I just don't get why this character would say that!" on the other.
Alfie Kohn goes on to discuss the value of making mistakes as part of the learning process:
Another way to judge the orientation of a classroom is to watch for the teacher's reaction to mistakes. Someone who manages students' work is likely to strive for zero defects: perfect papers and assignments that receive the maximum number of points. Someone who facilitates students' learning welcomes mistakes--first, because they are invaluable clues as to how the student is thinking, and second, because to do so creates a climate of safety that ultimately promotes more successful learning.
Assessment can also play a part in learning.  Today, learner outcomes seem to be the latest bandwagons that many schools and countries have jumped on, with standardised testing to show whether or not these outcomes have been reached.  Earlier this month the New York Times published an article about how 15 year old students in Shanghai were doing better than students in 65 other countries in reading, maths and science on the PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment).  Some educators have pointed out that this is irrelevant - the focus shouldn't be on the highest scores, but on the fact that only small percentage of US students were able to answer some of the questions correctly - that this is where the attention has to be in order to help those students to improve.  Others seem more skeptical.  Some years ago Linda McNeil of Rice University observed:
Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.
However as Alfie Kohn points out, measurable outcomes are the most significant results of work. So once again I'm brought back to my original question, what is the job of schools - to promote work or to promote learning, and if it is to promote learning, then what is the best way of assessing this learning?

Photo Credit:  14 More Days by Chris Martino

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