Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's academic

"It's academic" is an interesting phrase.  On the one hand it refers to education and scholarship, in particular an emphasis on traditional subjects such as reading and writing as opposed to something technical or practical, on the other hand the phrase "it's purely academic" is often used to mean something fairly negative, for example something that has no practical relevance or something that has theoretical interest only and no effect on an outcome.  As I was thinking about this earlier this week, it called to mind the question asked by Doug Belshaw on the purpos/ed website:  "What's the purpose of education?"  Last year when this site was launched, various people contributed 500 word answers to this question and more contributed the to campaign in 2012.

The reason why I was pondering this question earlier this week was because I started reading The Best Schools by Thomas Armstrong (someone I was fortunate enough to do a workshop with when he came to the International School of Amsterdam where I was working in the 1990s).  The first chapter of this book is all about academic achievement and whether this can be used as the measure of a great school.  As both Thomas Armstrong, and many of the contributors to the 500 word campaign concluded, a narrow focus on grades and test scores misses a great deal of the point of education.

The focus of academics is on both content and skills.  For example academic subjects include science, maths and the study of literature and studying these develops skills such as reading, writing, problem solving and critical thinking.  The purpose of education, some argue, is to construct outcomes for these subjects and skills and then to assess students' mastery of them - usually coming up with a quantitative measure of their achievement.  Such assessments rarely take into account personalized learning or different learning styles, and rarely give students choices in how they learn or what they learn or how they express their understanding.  In such systems learning is not valued for its own sake, but to prepare students for "the future".  Scores are used to compare students against each other and rank schools against each other and even countries against each other.  Students and teachers often have little or no say in what is taught or even how it is taught and in the rush to compete for academic success many subjects get sidelined or neglected (mostly the "non-academic" subject such as music, art or PE).

Thomas Armstrong points out other negative consequences of a purely academic focus:  teaching to the test, cheating and plagiarism, manipulation of test scores and a decreased emphasis on learning for its own sake.

At ASB we recently launched a new programme of Independent Studies.  Students from Grades 3 - 5 have some time each week to pursue their own passions and interests - and there have been some remarkable interests that have ranged from a study of the red eyed tree frog to an investigation into the evidence that aliens have visited Earth.  We're starting a new investigation of our own after Christmas. Building on the success of Independent Studies we are looking to see whether we can change a couple of the PYP units of inquiry so that they are more student-led.  We're also investigating whether it's possible to turn a unit into a project based learning unit of inquiry.  Follow along with my posts in the second half of the school year to read about how we get on.

Photo Credit:  Academic by Tim Ellis, 2008 AttributionNoncommercial 

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