Education: How to do it right

I love TED talks. I love that the best ideas from some of the best thinkers in their fields are online; it makes me optimistic that we can build a great future for humanity.

I spend a lot of time railing against Accelerated Christian Education. I feel that if you asked experts to design the worst possible education system from the ground up, they’d produce something with notable similarities to ACE. But that’s not to say mainstream education has everything right. There are lots of people who are failed by their education, and lots of talent that goes undeveloped because our schools don’t value it. I’m interested in how we can improve the situation, although my optimism is tempered by the seeming fact that every time a British politician goes near education, they make it much, much worse.

TED talks are one place with a lot of suggestions on how we can get this right.

Salman Khan suggests we use video.

(Direct link)

If you don’t have time to watch: Khan Academy has a huge number of online video lessons. Salman suggests that teachers could assign watching these as homework, and then the assignments that would traditionally be completed as homework can be done in class, where students have access to help from the teacher and their peers. This has some appeal. I certainly find video lessons very effective for my guitar students (what, did you think I was a professional fundamentalist-basher?).

The thing that interests me about this system is that it is based on individualised mastery learning. You know what else is based on individualised mastery learning? ACE. I have to fight my knee-jerk reaction to dismiss Khan’s whole idea based on this similarity. Actually, there’s good evidence that mastery learning is effective when properly implemented. For one thing, you have to be mastering material that is actually worth mastering, which can’t be said of ACE. For another, you need assessment which requires students to demonstrate understanding, another area where ACE fails catastrophically.

The evidence for individualisation, by contrast, is that it is appallingly ineffective (this is another good argument against ACE, by the way). John Hattie argues that’s because students need good feedback about their performance. Wholly individualised learning usually fails to provide this, because students don’t get enough attention from the teacher, and don’t get any help from their peers either (evidence is that peer learning is pretty beneficial for all parties).

The tremendously appealing idea of ACE is that students learn at their own pace. It’s just that, in practice, this doesn’t happen. Khan Academy seems to take this promising idea of individualised learning, and fix many of the problems with it. Because the “homework” is covered in class, students can get the teacher and peer feedback which contribute so strongly to success. The stifling isolation of ACE is replaced with a classroom where the kids bounce off each other and the teacher.

I’m not without reservations. For one thing, Salman Khan presents this as though the only alternative is a one-size-fits-all lecture, when good teachers already know that kind of undifferentiated teaching is ineffective. For another, the computerised tests he proposes worry me. Computerised tests are fine in cases where there is one right answer, which is why it works well for the maths problems he demonstrates. For almost any other subject, any useful question has more than one right answer and an element of subjectivity. That can’t be tested by computer.

Even English grammar, which Khan mentions as another subject where this can be applied, isn’t best taught as isolated technical exercises. The evidence is that, when taught this way, students might get the exercises right but go back to incorrect grammar in their everyday writing (see excellent blog by Geoff Barton). Grammar needs to be taught in the context of enjoying reading and writing good literature.

Questions with one right answer are for people who live in a black-and-white universe. ACE loves them. That scares me.

But Khan also says some important things that reassure me. He says that students are encouraged to experiment, take risks, and fail. And he also says they don’t view this as a complete education, while ACE markets itself as total. This looks like a system which addresses the same educational problems ACE is targeting, but doing it much more effectively.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on August 13, 2012, in Accelerated Christian Education, Education, Faith Schools, School of Tomorrow and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Education can vary so much depending on where you are. A balance between different methods of learning and not being limited to one technique can make all the difference. It’s still an amazing feat there are well rounded people at all considering the imbalance evident when you see poorly implemented techniques for teaching and for assessment put into practice in so many places.

    At this point my education is very little about learning, much more about getting the marks for university. Jumping through hoops, as you often put it, to pass exams with the best marks. For me it has been this way for about 3 and a half years (this being because I chose to accelerate to take my time getting a good score. Which didn’t really eventuate.) and reading this blog reminds me my own learning and maturing has been largely due to the people around me, in person and in the virtual world, sharing their own wisdom. I cope with the fact spewing approach to final secondary education where i am, but it really doesn’t take into account those who aren’t getting enough from it, and if I stop to think about it (which this blog frequently has me do) I worry about those who aren’t learning from their final years of schooling but are simply taking in hundreds of facts to relay it into an exam.

    That’s my just barely relevant two cents worth.

  2. I’d never considered before what he says about mastery, but actually it’s a very important point – especially with maths. Lots of my school friends ‘got’ maths up to a certain point, and then started to get lost and therefore dislike it. Everything builds on everything else, so you really don’t have a chance at the next step until you completely understand the current one; a principle not upheld in the state school system.

    • Yeah, the argument in favour of mastery seems quite strong to me. The argument against it tends to be about time, but that’s related to coverage. Some people think it’s more important to touch on a lot of stuff than learn a few things thoroughly. What Khan says about students who initially seemed less intelligent is amazing though. The idea that they could be the best students with different instruction should really make us think about how we teach.

  3. I completely agree. It’s even made me rethink my views on grammar schools – or at least, the method of selection.

  4. Really interesting stuff, I like the idea of Kahn academy a lot, but it makes me nervous too. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but there are some traps that could be fallen into with this type of system.

    I like the idea of the videos being there as a supplement, I’m not a fan of them being the primary source of the teaching. Giving a lecture for an hour does get boring, but I would at least want to have a short lecture. Each group of students is a bit different. I’ve taught the same class multiple times in the same semester, and often each lecture goes a bit differently. I adapt what I’m saying based on the feedback I’m getting from class. Also, when people ask questions it benefits others around them.

    I also don’t like the idea of everyone in the class working on different material. I’ve noticed my students learn a lot by helping each other out. This certainly would work best if they were in the same section. That being said, the ability to go back and look at old videos for material they didn’t fully understand or have forgotten is awesome. I also like the gamification aspect of it. If they are working ahead to get badges or achievements or whatever, that is great. But I don’t think that is a reason not to also cover the material in a lecture. Even if they think they have mastered the material from a video, there is probably some other nuance they could pick up from a lecture.

    • I agree; it’s important for the class to be working on the same material as much as possible, because that makes it much more likely that the students will get meaningful input from the tutor. It seems that, used as a supplement to good classroom teaching as Khan is proposing, this could happen. The videos could stop children from falling behind (or allow them to catch up) so the classes are actually more unified.

      I’m cautiously optimistic. I’d definitely be up for trying a scheme like this in my own classes.

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