Recently I have found a number of ideas on the web that were particularly interesting and together paint a compelling picture of education's future. Each fits into a model where the focus is on developing skills, dispositions and habits that will last into the future – long life skills.
The first is an article by Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien titled ‘Hands-off teaching cultivates Metacognition’. The authors encourage teachers to become aware of who is doing the thinking about learning in their classrooms. They state that the research points to a simple reality 'If you want your students to learn as much as possible, then you want to maximize the amount of metacognition they're doing.’ Based on research by the ‘National Academy of Sciences’ the role of metacognition is the star in this article and few would debate that it has an important part to play in learning, but the strategy the authors suggest to encourage this might stir some debate.
In simple terms they want the teacher to stop teaching. What the authors report is that when teachers do all the teaching the students stop learning because they know the teacher will, in the end do the work for them. Why would a student expend energy discovering new information if they have learned from experience that the teacher will eventually provide them with the answer. 'A great teacher teaches as little as possible, while modeling the behaviors of how to figure something out. Perhaps it seems too obvious to say that your goal should be for students to think as much as possible during your class.’ Maats and O’Brien want teachers to not just have their students think about the content but to go to the next step and think about how they arrived at their response, to understand the thinking that led to the learning. They say in too many classes all of the quality thinking about thinking occurs while the teacher is planning the lesson and too little of it is left to be done by the students. The article concludes with four tips to encourage metacognition.
Next is a series of articles that focus on the latest idea out of Finland. Increasingly Finland is seen as the go to place for best practice in education and while part of that is because of their compelling performance on PISA it is also because many of their ideas seem to make good sense. The latest is that they are planning to replace teaching subjects with teaching topics. Naturally such a move did not go unnoticed by the world’s education press and an article by The Independent presented a brief introduction to the plan and has been followed by others. The idea is simple; instead of students engaging in single discipline topics they will be presented with interconnected topic based learning experiences. In these topics they will be required to utilise a range of skills and approaches to learning that would typically cut across subject lines. The hope is that the learning is more relevant, transferable and less siloed. Students will benefit from access to specialists in the contributing subjects but the teachers will be required to collaborate around the topic. To a primary teacher the idea probably seems quite easy to relate to; after all it is largely how a Primary teacher operates except in that model they are the multi-discipline expert. If this model works then it is likely to spread and hopefully for the students it will deliver a transformed learning environment where there are almost no breaks in their learning throughout the day and knowledge and skills from one area cross over to others.
The last idea to come to my attention was the one that tied things together. It presents the idea that ‘Education Needs More Fuzzy Learning’. Fuzzy learning is the sort of learning where the result is not known, the question and the answer have degrees of flexibility and the learning path can be and will be varied. It is the sort of learning that will work with the real world problems our students are likely to encounter and that industry experts say they want graduates to be able to solve. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was an article by Ewan McIntosh. In this fuzzy world traditional knowing is replaced by a set of broad thinking dispositions which can be brought to bear on finding and solving problems. 'We don’t need people who know about history; we need people who can think like historians to help us prevent future conflicts’ writes McIntosh.
Looking across the three ideas the trend is clear, we need to focus our efforts on building students who can think and who can think broadly to solve problems that are fuzzy. They need to see that they can take charge of their learning and that understanding how they learn now and in the future is more important than what they learn. We need to give them experiences that will allow them to do this sort of thinking while they are at school instead of hoping they will be able to develop these skills after years of learning content in stand alone subjects with teacher experts delivering the answers.
by Nigel Coutts