About Me

I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Reflection on teaching for active learning

What kind of learner are you? Have you ever thought about it? I grew up thinking that there was only one way to learn – and that was to memorise everything I possibly could, and then repeat it back appropriately for the purpose of exams. This served me well – straight As throughout school, distinctions and prizes for both my undergraduate degrees – but I often had a feeling that I was somehow cheating. I didn’t really know much, I certainly did not understand all of the information I ‘knew’, and I would often meet others who seemed much more conversant and familiar with those very facts, and who were able to translate them into real life. I was easily swayed by persuasive arguments, and could find myself agreeing with both sides during a debate. Had I really learnt? Does it really matter, given that my qualifications then opened the right doors for me to progress in the areas which interested me most?

During my PhD, I actually needed to think! Despite having worked in clinical medicine, with its daily uncertainties and grey areas, for more than a decade, somehow I had not fully appreciated that there is not always a right or wrong answer to a question. In fact, there might not be an answer at all! A recent fact that astonished me was that up to 50% of the material which we learnt at medical school will subsequently be shown to be incorrect in some way. Often all we have is the current best evidence, and in addition to an awareness of the current ‘facts’, we need the ability to appraise, consider, question, critique and re-evaluate in line with emerging data. I had not developed these abilities at all during my school and undergraduate education, and found the learning curve during a research doctorate very steep.

Currently, I am undertaking a teaching qualification in Higher Education, and reflecting upon what teaching actually is. What I grew up with might be described as a ‘transfer’ theory, where a section of knowledge is transferred from the teacher into the student. However, much more effective are the modalities which enable active learning. Learning and teaching are two extremely different processes, and even the best teacher in the world will not be effective if the learner is not actively engaged in the process. A student should have opportunity to explore, to question, to consolidate and to be given feedback and guidance as they develop in their understanding of an area. More than simply being able to list facts, such a student will develop the skills of lifelong learning, standing them in good stead for all walks of life. 

What about skills development? I always thought a ‘skill’ was somehow an alternative to the pinnacle of academia, that perhaps students who were less academically able could focus on the development of skills to enhance their future employability. But what about the skills of leadership, negotiation, conflict resolution, teaching, encouragement, appraisal and critique, debate, delivery of presentations, being an ambassador in one’s field? How should these skills be developed? You see it clearly in medicine. It is simply assumed that a doctor will be able to teach, and with increasing seniority (usually meaning advancing age), to be able to step into a management position. Some of this has changed in recent years, but the assumptions continue. 

Why is this relevant to a Home Education blog? For me it is highly relevant, as I consider both the styles and delivery of teaching and learning which take place in our home. When I first heard of home education, I had pictures of a group of obedient children sitting down with jotters and pencils around the kitchen table. How wrong could I be! Visit any website on home education (and I have links to several of these on this blog), and you will be astonished by the sheer diversity of teaching and learning methods that take place. Some of it will be intuitive – you and your children will have a unique style, and with a little trial and error, you will find what suits you best. But a basic understanding of some of the processes might help streamline this. What type of learner do you want your child to be? Do you want them to simply accept all things they are taught as the truth, or do you want them to question and explore? Are there any absolute truths? (My understanding of this issue should become clear, and I would refer to my posts on worldview and Biblical parenting for more detail). Similarly, a child may know accept something to be true, but can they put together a coherent argument as to their point of view? And how will they handle conflict and criticism, which are a sad part of ‘real life’, but from which the mainstream school system might shield them? The processes involved in active learning, together with timely, constructive feedback and the opportunities to explore, challenge, question and re-appraise would be very difficult to achieve in a classroom setting where there is a high student to teacher ratio, where the length of lessons is set and the curriculum is firmly established, and where there are diverse needs represented within the student group. You could argue that it verges on impossible.

What is the main goal of learning? Is it simply to be able to jump through the right hoops to get into the right form of higher education, leading on to a ‘good’ job? Of course, those hoops will continue to exist, and must indeed be navigated if a child is to acquire the best qualifications they can in their area of interest. But without detracting from this, can we embrace the development of learning skills? I believe that we can, and this is a great merit of home education. I believe that we can help our children to learn, to understand and to become lifelong learners.  These skills will be transferable between disciplines, and should enable a child to develop confidence and security in what they believe, even when faced with others who disagree or who hold an alternative view. I believe this to be a far better preparation for adult life than that which I received through a conventional education.

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