#PLENK2010 The place of content in teaching and learning

Today’s PLENK presentation from Maria Anderson was based on her paper – The Holy Grail of Education: Personalized Learning

Unfortunately, like many others, I hadn’t had time to read the paper before attending the session (Note to PLENK convenors – many of us might need more advance notice of pre-reading  – or did I miss the advance notice?)

There was lots of interest in Maria’s presentation and many avenues I could follow – but I’ll pick one, which is of particular interest to me – and that is the place of content in teaching and learning in a digital age.

Currently my work is always in Higher Education, talking to lecturers about how they could take advantage of technology to enhance their teaching and learning and I often find myself saying  that technology can release you from the tyranny of delivering content (which was a revelation to me when I recognised the idea for myself in my own teaching and learning). I can remember clearly the time when I realised that I didn’t have to cover the ‘curriculum’ in my face-to-face sessions, if I provided the content online (my subject was science for trainee science teachers). Instead, in the sessions we could focus on addressing students’ misconceptions (which relates to Maria’s discussion about Socratic questioning).

Of course, you may say that this approach is all very well with adult learners but it wouldn’t work with children, because as Maria pointed out, many children don’t do any work outside of school – therefore in school teachers need to cover the content.

I can understand where this argument is coming from.  I have taught in schools where children are deprived of any sort of parental support outside of school. I was also teaching in schools when the massively overloaded National  Curriculum was introduced into schools in the UK, and when ‘league tables’ were introduced. This led to schools’ test  results being published so that parents can select schools for children on the basis of these results. This in turn led ( in this competitive environment)  to teachers ‘teaching to the test’.  It was not all ‘black’, as there were many ‘failing’ schools, and these government initiatives made schools more accountable, but they also had the effect of stultifying teacher creativity. I remember one newly qualified and talented teacher saying to me that she didn’t have to be creative, she only needed to ‘follow the script’. In the UK, not only was the curriculum dictated, but also the lesson plans.

Now – I was fortunate in having had experience of teaching before the National Curriculum was introduced. There are some advantages to having reached the higher decades ;-). I remember in those early days (the 60s), a head teacher saying to me – ‘follow the children’s interests’ – if they want to talk about birds nests all week then go for it (this was primary aged children).  Our job was then to find ways of introducing mathematics, science, English, drama, art, geography, history etc. into and around the children’s interest  birds nests. Those were very stimulating times and that experience never left me. For me it meant that when the National Curriculum came in I looked for ways to ‘subvert the system’ so that I could recapture the energy of the ‘birds nest’ scenario.  The interesting thing was that I certainly wasn’t alone. There were other teachers old and young who felt that it was more important to follow the children’s interests than cover the curriculum (although I must stress that this was within a reasonable and measured balance) – but we were not automatons, dancing to the National Curriculum tune.

It is quite a number of years since I have taught in a school, but recently I was reminded of this need to subvert the system in relation to the dominance of content and the National Curriculum, when Gareth Malone presented a couple of television programmes about his attempts to improve the literacy of boys in an English primary school – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2010/09/gareth-malones-extraordinary-s.shtml . You will see from the comments that there are many perspectives on this and many critical practising teachers, but if we can believe the outcomes of the programme, then he did manage to improve the boys’ literacy scores through – what is currently – an unorthodox approach to teaching, learning, the National Curriculum and content.

So – I wonder whether content is the starting point (I think Maria suggested that learners  need some content to base their learning on – or words to that effect) or whether there is an ‘engaging the learner’ stage, a ‘learning how to learn’ stage,  which precedes or circumvents content  – just as Matthias and I feel that e-resonance precedes online communication, and  whether ownership of learning or personalized learning means making it legitimate for learners to determine their own learning content – although I can appreciate that many learners, young and older, might appreciate guidance and support with this. I am not advocating that we cast learners adrift alone into a sea of unfathomable content and information, but that choice and learner autonomy at all ages might enrich the learning process and make it more effective and maybe this should be the starting point.

PS – With many thanks to Carmen Tschofen for explaining to me how Community Colleges in the US work, which reminded me that I should always be aware of cultural differences, even if we speak the same language (:-)). Her contact prompted me to make this post. Thank you Carmen.

3 thoughts on “#PLENK2010 The place of content in teaching and learning

  1. sabridv October 28, 2010 / 3:07 pm

    Hi jenny! I have just came across your blog. I totally agree with what you say here. We should always have our learners in mind when we teach. And even if we are contrived by the system to follow a certain syllabus or a certain coursebook we can always find ways to adapt it to our learners needs, likes, interests, etc. After all, we are teaching the students and not a book. I am an English as a foreign language teacher in Argentina, so I come from a totally different context. However, your words ring a bell to me. Apparently, we teachers have the same type of problems all around the world! I have recently written a series of posts around this topic. I believe this is the most relevant to the ideas you have developed here: http://sabridv.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/what-really-matters-our-learners-life/
    I would love to know your opinion!

  2. Chris Jobling October 28, 2010 / 3:18 pm

    As a lecturer looking to be released from ‘the tyranny of delivering content’, I’d be interested in hearing more about that! But I appreciate that you’d have to charge me 😉

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