Sunday, October 31, 2010

To Change or Challenge?

Education has undergone many shifts throughout time.  Likewise, the notion of 'effective teaching' has changed as well.  So, just what qualifies as 'effective teaching'? And more importantly, how would one identify examples of it?

Traditionally educators were seen as imparting knowledge to their students.  Their responsibility: take a group of students, transmit as much information to their students as possible and send them into the world more knowledgeable than when they arrived at school.  It was seen as the role of the teacher to ensure that the students who left their classrooms were different than when they entered.  In other words, teachers were responsible for changing their learners.  Teachers were the ones who caused the learning to occur.

But, is this really the case? Of course not.  While we would all agree that student learning is dependent on their teacher's teaching, we also know that a teacher's teaching does not determine student learning.  To take this a step further, the teacher does not cause his or her learners to change.  Students, like any set of learners are self-determining individuals who draw from their own history of experiences. (Sumara & Davis, 2010, Education Canada, Vol 50)

So, if effective teaching isn't about changing students, what practices are common to the classrooms where the greatest and most powerful learning is occurring?

I would argue effective teachers are consistently challenging their students.  These teachers are not relying on a teacher-centred approach where the 'filling up of students' brains' is the common practice. The most effective teachers are stimulating learning and inquiry by posing relevant challenges for their students.  They are challenging their students to look at the world in ways they may never have previously done so.  They are forcing them to ask and answer the deeper questions of 'why' and 'how'.

Today, we live in an information and knowledge-based society.  Knowledge remains important, however with the overabundance of information that exists and the fact that it is growing at an exponential rate, it is impossible for an individual to ever know enough.  When we need to know something, what do we do? We turn to our laptop, BlackBerry or iPhone and let Google find the information for us in mere seconds.

With so much information at our fingertips, our focus should be on challenging our students to analyze and think critically about the information in front of them.  We should be encouraging our students to create new information and to share this information with others.

So, why do so many educators continue to apply such a traditional approach, overloading students with photocopies and handwritten notes that include more and more information?  We know that newer and more progressive student-centred approaches exist, yet step inside many classrooms and you can still see teachers at the front conducting class.  Are we afraid of taking a risk and altering our approach? Or do we hesitate because we feel we may lose some control when we turn the focus over to our learners?

At the end of the day, we all want what is best for our students and we all want what is best for the global community.  So I urge us all to reflect on our current practice and ask ourselves whether our teaching is preparing our students for a 21st Century world that will require them to be adaptable, creative problems-solvers who can lead our world forward amidst the countless challenges they will face in their lifetimes.

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