Hard Questions on Teaching, Learning, and Innovation

Happy Holidays! Although I cannot turn back the clock and write in the quantity I hoped for this past fall (see my pending “New Year’s Resolutions” post!), I can get return to my blog by sharing a few critical posts from the fall that have stuck with me.

1. Can we finally let go of an educational theory that has no scientific basis? Annie Murphy Paul (whose posts are invariably interesting) wrote a piece to remind us what educators should already know: a “learning style” is not an idea supported by empirical research. Howard Gardner recently offered his own repudiation of the concept, noting that it is “unhelpful, at best, and ill-conceived at worst” (Gardner has, of course, himself met criticism for his theory of Multiple Intelligences, such as this 1998 article from The New Republic).

Paul instead invites us to consider two general strategies:

  • Students benefit from encountering information in multiple forms.
  • Students’ interest is kept alive by novelty and variety.

Short, sweet, and simple. Mantra-worthy. While we think about larger change movements in education, let’s not forget about mixing it up, day by day.

* By the way, for more on novelty and the brain, see Judy Willis’s chapter  in Mind, Brain, and Education

2. Can we stop having narrow, binary conversations about what’s best in the classroom?On Mindshift, futurist David Price offers a preview of his new book by discussing the lack of vision for education:

This failure to define a clear purpose has fatally held back progress in understanding how we learn best. For if you can’t agree on a destination, how can you possibly agree on the best route? Instead, what we’re left with is a public discourse permanently afflicted by the curse of binary, oppositional arguments. The either/or positioning isn’t helped by constant political interference, resulting in a series of pendulum swings with every change of administration. Polarized arguments prevent real progress being made: selective vs. comprehensive school systems; instruction-led teaching vs inquiry-led; head vs hand; academic vs vocational; knowledge vs skills. Can you imagine doctors in the 21st century arguing over the use of flu vaccines?

3. Are we prepared to foster ground-level innovation in education? Lisa Martin reflects on her exhaustive three-year effort to start an online Model United Nations program — a project that required well more than a one-course reduction for one term! She argues that “educators need the luxury of time”:

You can’t buy off-the-shelf, organic, collaborative, student-driven programs. If this is what we say we want for education, how will we get there? Who will support it? What has to change within the culture of a school to bring ideas to fruition and, once ‘ripe for the picking,’ incorporate them in meaningful ways so that programs can develop and mature within a school’s culture?