Thursday, 11 October 2012

Educational Ideals Part 3: The Educational Setting

In creating an ideal setting, there are three things that need to be considered in order to make this model work in the best manner possible: the teachers, the students and the vision/mission statement.

The Teachers

Teachers need to be well educated in human development. A single course in developmental psychology is not sufficient to accomplish this. Teachers need to understand through research as well as direct observation and discussion how children of different ages naturally learn and grow. They need to understand the basis for language acquisition, numeracy, and abstract thinking. They need to understand what, how and when various milestones are reached. They need to understand cognitive development in order to encourage the student and adapt the environment appropriately.   When a teacher understands human development, that teacher is able to apply this knowledge, recognize the behavior patterns of students, and encourage them at the appropriate level.
This also allows teachers to better identify learners who have unique needs and to help to meet these needs. As it stands now, many teachers in the system have no background in special education whatsoever. This needs to change.
All too often, the developmental aspect of teacher training is neglected and teachers are given courses in subject matter instead. While every teacher should be well-versed in his or her specialty subjects, this should not be done at the expense of a thorough understanding of development. Understanding of the subject matter should be the main focus of the undergraduate degree; the teaching degree should focus on development. We need to teach students, not subjects.
Only once prospective teachers have an understanding of development should they begin to work on practical classroom strategies.
Our society has a bad habit of looking down on the teaching profession. Teachers are not treated as professionals with a great deal of responsibility, but rather as fancy babysitters, at least by some. Teachers are professionals though, with five or more years of post-secondary education. They are responsible for the education of the coming generation, which is something that will carry a lasting effect for decades to come. The effects of a good teacher can be felt through the community. By supporting our teachers, treating them as professionals and expecting professionalism from them, we will help to elevate the image of the profession, attract the best possible teachers to the profession, and provide the best possible future for our children.
Institutions such as the Ontario College of Teachers can help foster this improvement, by holding teachers accountable, supporting professional development, and by fostering communication and sharing of techniques, strategies and visions that work. Gaining and maintaining dialogue among educators is a challenge we must undertake in order to improve our educational system. All too often, teachers, especially newer ones, are left to their own devices and must “reinvent the wheel” when there are many teachers out there who have been there and can share their own valuable experiences. We need to budget time for such dialogue. We also need to maintain a dialogue between educators and the general public. There are many misconceptions regarding teaching that could be easily dispelled through better communication with the general public.

The Students

By emphasizing an understanding of human development in teacher training, students can become the focus of education. It may sound silly to say this, but all too often we are caught up in pedagogy, politics, pre-defined curriculum and policies that we lose sight of the real reason we are here: the students.
There is a tendency to view students in financial terms: as commodities, customers, consumers or investments in the future. Many of us come to education with an agenda of sorts, including social justice, power or control (never a good reason to work with others!), idealism, a quest for a sense of immortality by empowering students for the future, or any number of other reasons. We need to be honest about these, and then let them go. Our own agendas have no business here. I know that even that statement is an agenda of sorts, but once the students arrive on the scene, it is one that is easily transferred to them. If we are to encourage our students to become active, engaged critical thinkers who seek out lifelong learning, we need to empower them and rescind our own control in order to foster their growth.

The Learning Environment

My own ideal for a learning environment would be a mixture of Reggio Emilia and the Sudbury-style schools, with some elements of Waldorf, Montessori (as Maria herself described—not the modern variations), The Teacher Tom’s approach, and even “Maker Sheds” such as KWARTZlab.
There would be indoor and outdoor spaces in which to learn and explore, with spaces created for individual, small group and large group work. 
Play and open exploration would take priority over structure, although there would be a “rhythm” to each day and each season. This would continue through all ages with materials and mentors being available for students based on student interests. Students would have regular counseling sessions with an advisor group to ensure they were on track to meeting their own goals, and these goals would include academics, creative pursuits, physical development (fine and gross motor skill development), spiritual growth (philosophical, social), and general well-being (including physical and mental health). Students would be encouraged to arrange additional mentorships and forge connections with various experts and professionals as they became able to do so. Research would be paramount, from exploring caterpillars to viewing distant galaxies, and everything in between. Students would be encouraged to collaborate and also to share their work with other students of different ages and experiences as a means for fostering in communication skills necessary in most fields of endeavour. Age would be no barrier for learning; all limits would be based on ability, aptitude, physical limitations (ie. if you cannot reach the knobs, you cannot use the stove) and any applicable legal limitations. Students with special needs would have access to the mentors they need in order to work towards their potential. Since all abilities would be mixed, yet each student would determine their own pathway, tolerance would be encouraged through a non-competitive atmosphere. Older students would have an opportunity to mentor younger students without being compelled to do so.
The role of the teacher would become a facilitator. The teacher would provide links to resources and opportunities, be there to bounce ideas off of, ask open-ended questions to encourage students to stretch their limits, and help students create long and short-term personal goals and plan towards them.
The school would be similar to a Sudbury school, except the teachers would take a slightly more hands-on role, and the students would be required to explain their choices and review and update their goals on a regular basis.
The role of the teacher would be more demanding because it would require monitoring of a wide variety of topics and projects, and also a monitoring of available outside opportunities that might be of relevance to the students, such as college/university courses, contests, science fairs, performances, community events, gallery showings, etc.
Since the reporting would be based on portfolios, there would be little testing involved. Anecdotal reports, notes from counseling meetings, goal setting and reviews and physical projects would form the bulk of the assessments.
Some challenges would include the use of space, supervision, communication with community resources including mentors, lab / workshop access, apprenticeships, and co-ordinating with online and college/university programs. Working with less imposed structure demands a great deal of organizational skill on the part of the facilitators, and this would need to be recognized in advance. Excellent and regular communication between the teachers as well as the administration and older students would be imperative.
Some people are bound to balk at the idea of less structure, but after much research as well as some 24 years of experience in education, I believe that this is in fact the best and most effective learning environment possible. It fosters the natural learning patterns of young children, provides a stimulating environment in which to explore ideas, and feedback in order to adapt and learn in an ongoing fashion. Learning to make and set goals, then to follow up with them from an early age will help foster study skills, time management and also enable students to make connections between their goals and the foundation skills needed in order to attain them. Support from teachers who act as facilitators and educational counselors will help students work out their own learning pathways while providing support as needed. When the learning is relevant and comes in an order that is logical to and for the learner, it becomes deeper and better learned. The student values it and understands its relevance, and can be free to embrace it.