Reducing options in learning processes until they are necessary….

Its about 20 years since I started my Ph.D. research. I began it as a study of human computer interaction and usability and it ended as a study of media ecology, knowledge management, flows and application, and the creation and management of experience.

What was apparent is that whichever way you look, the most relevant and intelligent interfaces and displays are those that are most economical with complexity. Most of the usability rubrics and ‘rules of thumb’ are about reducing complexity at any given time of operation and navigation. One can imagine a Microsoft word which only shows aspects relevant to those operations you are performing – i.e. if you are imputing tables all else temporarily disappears. The whole ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ product and interface market had functions which would remove or reduce complexity of operations, or in the case of say, a video camera – functional aspects such as handshake compensation so as to equip the amateur with more professional style results.

Even some video recorder and television remote controls had a lid which kept more less-used, more arcane functions out of the everyday pressing of ‘play’ ‘rewind’ and ‘forward’.

A lid on the top of the remote control removes from experience more sophisticated, less used features

A lid on the top of the remote control removes from experience more sophisticated, less used features

The point of the matter here is that education, management of resources and facilitation should be like this. Who, what, when and whenever the student needs or wants something it should come in a measured response which lends you the features or functions you need at that juncture, but also giving the option to open the lid and gain access to more width or depth or more arcane knowledge when they see fit. This would improve the ‘usability’ of education.

We would want our education processes to be more like Apple and Google than 'your company'

We would want our education processes to be more like Apple and Google than ‘your company’

A world of difference between ‘be able to…’ and ‘be taught to…’

TES English subject adviser Chantel Mathias has made apparent a subtle but significant turn in the phrasing of the new English national curriculum. She has spotted that whereas in the current programme of study you will repeatedly find the phrase “Pupils should be able to”, in the new one you find “Pupils should be taught to”.

This shift  is the indicative difference between progressive and traditional views on education.

Progressive education, which perhaps finds its apotheosis in Montessori methods, has boundaries and limitations such as found within the ‘prepared environment’ which have learning outcomes in mind. It is not just ‘open’ with children  doing whatever, whenever they want. The Montessori toys ‘decode’ the natural and social worlds in a manner that best suits children – that is ‘play’.  They are neither set in front of cartoon network, nor are they restricted entirely to the natural and man-made experiences which lie on the periphery of adult life.

To be able to do something independently of praise or accolade, to learn to do do so independently surely indicates a real capacity to perform in a variety of circumstances, let alone, engage in such modes of learning over one’s lifetime. And what one encounters over that lifetime will no doubt have a variety of constraints and limitations, and offer varying options, uses and opportunities. This requires then, a critical mind, sharpened to understanding the abstract and concrete environment, its characteristics, conditions, attributes, features and functions, and moreover, flexibility, in attainment of knowledge or solutions leads to the inculcation of a problem-solving attitude to the world.

Being ‘taught’ however, suggests that their is always some higher authority, higher presence which boasts some omnipotent expertise which pertains not only to a given problem or subject at hand, but to all subjects and knowledge which of course, and by nature, is impossible. This authority is a chimera that breeds a kind of dependency culture, which reinforces the process that when we are flummoxed we will always expect that the more knowledgeable guiding hand will always be there to shake a head compassionately or maybe disparagingly, before lending that paternal hand to ‘teach’ us how to do it properly and clean up the mess.

in such circumstances we never learn from our own mistakes, nor must invent our own solutions, even if they are clumsy and inelegant. It is difficult to learn mastery when someone is always ahead of you no matter how you try. The authority of the more knowledgeable, the teacher and the book author, or even you more proficient class mate, the straight ‘A’ student, are always coming to tell us where we have gone right or wrong or praise or punish or ridicule when we do or perform. It leads to an expectations of, and implies,  the one fixed answer, the ‘preferred or received’ method or solution to properly and fully understood problems, with little or no slack with respect to interpretation. Of course there is no reason to reinvent the wheel, but surely, is it not better that we find ourselves the reason why the wheel was the best solution given a few options? Isn’t that what schooling should be about?

Chantel Mathias picks this point up in her textual and grammatical analysis:

“Pupils should be able to”

The subject of the sentence is the pupil.

The notion of “teaching” is implied and responsibility for learning seems ultimately to lie with pupils.

The verb “able” stresses a central part of learning and teaching: ability.

As a result of this, the conditional – “should” – acknowledges and allows flexibility in terms of attainment, for both pupils and teachers.

“Pupils should be taught to”

Although the concept of teaching is brought to the fore, the subject of the sentence is destabilised by the second verb of the sentence – “taught”. “Pupils” seem to become the object (rather than the subject) of the clause.

At the same time, the notion of pupils’ ability has been pushed into the background. We are left with the impression that learning must be obtained by the teacher on behalf of the pupil; although the sentence is declarative, its mood, somehow, seems imperative.

Rather than considering the teaching and learning process – where pupils and teachers work together – there is the idea that pupils will be not just “taught” but “taught at”.