Browsing through education news I came across this article announcing “Province Delays Launch of New Curriculum”. We are already part way through the implementation of the new curriculum, and I have been asked on a number of occasions my opinion of it. With my tongue in cheek I will often reply that I am hugely in favour of it; it ensures demand for my tutoring services for years to come. I have seen at least four major curriculum changes/redesigns over the past twenty years each announced with great fanfare and greeted with great optimism, and to my mind none of them have improved on the curriculum I experienced in the 80s and early 90s. Each time it seems a revolutionary solution has been found, and then five or six years later we find ourselves back at it again.
Why is this the case? Why do we keep trying to fix education, and why can’t we seem to fix it? I think the logical answer is simple: we are trying to fix the wrong thing. I am not saying that the curriculum does not have problems (it does, and they are getting worse) but changing what is taught is not as important as changing how it is taught and how it is learned. Nor is the problem the teachers. While there are good and bad in the teaching profession as in all others, teachers and students alike are victims of the real culprit: the education system itself.
Now, when I refer to the education system, I am using that term in a broader sense. I am not referring only to the way in which schools are organized, or to the administration at the local and provincial levels, or to the formation of teachers; but also to pedagogy, to the underlying philosophy by which the system operates and sustains itself, and to the expectations it engenders. What I have to say on this topic could fill a book (and maybe it will), but I have learned by observing the glazed looks that come over people when I start pontificating, that I’d better keep it short and to the point. So I’m going to dwell on one specific problem the system enculturates: lack of personal initiative.
Here, for example, is a typical student’s experience learning math. The teacher tells the students what to learn. Then the teacher tells them how to do the problems, often with itemized steps. Then the teacher assigns the homework, setting which questions are to be done and when they are due. The teacher checks if the homework is done and may check that the students have done it the right way, or show them how to do selected problems the right way. The teacher then writes a test, sets a test date, marks the test and tells the student what they did wrong and what they need to correct. The teacher assigns the student a mark, and may allow a make-up test.
Does anyone see the incredibly huge problem here? At what point in this process does the student get to show any initiative? Absolutely everything is spoon fed to them. One of the most common ailments I am asked to cure is weakness at problem solving, and relatively early on in the process we will reach a roadblock where the student finds they can’t remember what they are “supposed” to do. At this point I will ask “Ok, so what should we do next?” and I am greeted with the fish out of water face – mouth opening and closing but no sounds coming out. They seem utterly confounded when I won’t tell them the steps they forgot: “I mean I told you I couldn’t remember – what do you want from me?” The real crime is that they have forgotten that they know how to think.
If you are wondering how the scenario might be different I can tell you, from personal experience. Thanks to my ADHD I was unable to learn math properly from the math teachers at school, and so I was forced to teach everything to myself – I didn’t know any better. So I took the text-book home and figured out what to learn, in the order which made the most sense to me. Nobody told me what the rules were, so I had to figure them out myself. Now at times if I wasn’t sure about a rule I would ask the teacher about it but it was I, not the teacher who took responsibility of what and when to learn, and what information the teacher was to provide me with. I learned to be skeptical when a teacher told me something that did not seem logical; to test it myself to be able to sort out what was true. I almost never did the homework assigned; my friends thought I got away with murder but what they did not know was that I assigned myself the problems that I recognized would teach me best, instead of mind numbingly repeating the same steps over and over with different numbers. As for tests, by the time I ever got to the one the teacher provided I had already given myself many of my own, so I knew exactly what was coming, and I knew that I knew it perfectly.
I wish I could tell you that I am smarter than other people, but the truth is, I was lucky. Because I do not have a “normal” brain like everyone else, I was forced to adapt in ways that were different from others. I unintentionally avoided many of the poor learning habits that the students who come to me now seem to have absorbed. This perspective of a maverick learner provides much of the value I can give to the students I teach. Good learning habits like consistently taking personal initiative are key to success in this life.