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?


Mandela, Community, and Leadership

Today the world observes the burial of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, his village. As I contemplate the passing of one of the giants of modern world history, I am thinking about reflections from my former colleague Temba Maqubela. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he wrote:

Nelson Mandela would not have led us as he did had he not grown up in his village … That is where the seeds of leadership took root, where he came to understand the common man, and ubuntu, the importance of each one to another. For Mandela, the battle was never about him. It was always about us.

I wonder about Mandela’s teachers and mentors. What values did they impart to Madiba? How did they inspire him? Mandela shares a brief description of Qunu at the beginning of his extraordinary memoir Long Walk to Freedom, but he is more direct about his time living and learning at the royal residence of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, beginning when he was nine years old. Mandela writes of how his enthusiasm for African history began via the vivid storytelling at Mqhekezweni. He also shares specifically how the Chief conducted his court as a form of direct democracy.

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place. I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person has to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. (25)

As a boarding school educator, I naturally think of schools as villages. In our small communities, do we demonstrate care for each other? Do we illustrate thoughtful, reflective leadership? What values do we uphold for our community through our collective behavior?

Some reflections on a wintry night.