Saturday, 20 September 2008

CCK08 - looking for patterns

The second week of the connectivism course has got me thinking about the relationship between educational theory and practice. The weekly readings and following some of the discussions, have started me on a quest for patterns to help me decide if I could apply some of the theoretical approaches to my work as a high school language teacher.

In the course of this week I have learned that I am not quite competent enough to engage in academic English discourse in a productive way. It's rather disappointing, since I would like to somehow be able to be part of the negotiation of an emerging theory or pedagogy. After all, I will eventually be in the front line of implementing it if it gains a more official status. Yet, it seems that as far as education is concerned, the movement is always top-down - researchers formulate their theories first (up there somewhere in their ivory towers), and if ministries, local authorities and other vested interest groups buy into it, they will start putting pressure on practising teachers to implement them.

When I did my MA and teacher training some 20 years ago, it was all about differentiated education. We were asked to read the theories , but there was no advice as to how to incorporate it in the classroom. Teachers were intuitively expected to find their own methods, since we are all individuals as teachers with our own preferences and strengths and weaknesses. I can still remember working long hours at night trying to prepare personalised exercises to cater for very heterogeneous students. I would argue that it was practically impossible for any one teacher to reach each individual student in big classes of 30-40. But the 'good' teachers were the ones who sacrificed all of their own time pursuing this.

Next it was the introduction of constructionism, together with pedagogies and methods, such as co-operative learning, experiential learning and inquiry-based learning. I really worked hard to understand what this was all about, especially as I, myself, was the product of the good old behaviorist methods, which must have been ingrained in my system, and which teachers are said to inadvertently perpetuate in their own teaching. I read volume after volume looking for some pointers as to how to change my classrooms into constructivist workshops where all students would enjoy learning at their own pace making use of their varying abilities. The best advice I ever found was along the lines: you won't truly have understood what constructionism is until you are able to verifiably apply it in your classroom. I doubt I truly understand it even now...

And yet, I did see the need for a change and improvement of school practices. I was just left so alone, as many colleagues were happy enough with their cushy tenures and refused to try anything new. Rejecting new methods while securing long-established comfort zones is a strong survival mechanism inside the teaching profession, quite understandably, though, given the scarcity of further training budgets, for example. In addition, the straight-jacket of externally-imposed testing routines (highly respected by students' parents, by the way), still called for the old-style rote learning of pre-set facts. I also saw warning examples of ill-advised, although well-meaning and enthusiastic, teachers applying experiential learning - eg. my daughter's maths teacher, whose adage, when a student asked for help or guidance, was simply 'you will get it'. In the end, my daughter never 'got it' and now hates mathematics! Or whole schools adopting inquiry-based learning as their only method, leading to each and every teacher starting new courses in all the different subjects by asking students to define their own inquiry problems. Students soon got tired of exactly the same repetition and lost their initial motivation.

And now it's personalised learning and connectivism that are the latest educational hype. Even though I do appreciate many aspects of connectivism, I don't yet believe that it will be the one and only solution to revolutionise education. I can already picture schools letting their students loose on the net to find their own PLEs and PLNs, but what they learn and understand is another question. More and more, I think that connectivism is a good way to learn in small doses. Yet, young people especially still need some face2face interaction, too. They need
guidance about critical thinking, media literacy and focused reflection- I don't believe they will just 'get it'. Personalised learning and connectivism, yes, since they seem to enhance the enthusiasm and motivation of students, who would otherwise waste their time in the drone zones of traditional classrooms. Further, from a teacher's point of view, finally I am beginning to see the light at the end of a long and confusing tunnel of managing heterogenous student groups. Thanks to modern technology, it will at last be possible for students to partly tailor their own learning without the teacher having to do it for them! What's more, teachers won't have to work in isolation any more, if your own colleagues are reluctant collaborators you can establish your own online learning and sharing network.

But not exclusively personalised learning and connectivism, as an end in themselves, or for everybody to the same extent. Learners are different, and teachers should avoid rushing on the bandwagon and throwing the baby with the bathwater - even behaviorism still works in certain learning contexts!

I look forward to the learning and insights of the coming weeks.

Photo: Droplet Patterns by rob.owen76 on flickr


Rodd Lucier said...

I don't see connectivism as a 'replacement theory', but rather as a unifying idea that can actually demonstrate the links between learning theories in seeming competition.

The fact that learners (and teachers) are different from one another, actually gains strength by the forging of strong and weak ties. These same ties, can help us to recognize and create links between competing ideas about cooperative learning; constructivism; inquiry; experiential education and more.

BOFsensai said...

In Lucern, Switzerland, the CERN experiment to seek out basic building blocks of life has broken down - something about coolant allowing it to rise above absolute zero, I believe from my random, DISconnected enquiries throughout daily life ...which means they have been frustrated to begin to reach for a 'unified theory of everything' as Stephen Hawkin believes is around the corner - perhaps the 'unifying' aspiration of 'connectivism' may stumble across a similar cropper - and we must cope with many theories of learning acquisition (good old constructivism again): the true challenge is like you say, S., what is the practical effect on/for the learner at the sharp end of educational theory application. If it dampens, even ruins, a learner's natural yearning to know, then theorists need to recognise the duty to be realistic (humble) enough to go back to the drawing board and reassess all this theoretical, ah, er, claptrap/fascinating insight into the workings of human knowkedge acquisition.

Mike Bogle said...

Hi Sinikka,

First off, this was a very insightful post - thanks for writing it.

I should say too that I beg to differ with your statement "I have learned that I am not quite competent enough to engage in academic English discourse in a productive way."

I've benefited greatly from both your posts and comments. You've provided some valuable insight into areas I hadn't considered before. So I encourage you to keep doing what you have been doing, because you're contributing far more than I think you realise.

As far as your comment "I don't yet believe that it [Connectivism] will be the one and only solution to revolutionise education." I have a few thoughts to add to the discussion:

First off, I don't see Connectivism as being all things to all people; I suspect it wasn't intended to be. Ultimately it comes down to context.

One of the main sources of disagreement that keep arising in the course relates to how Connectivism can be implemented within a formal education framework. This is a very different matter, I think, to the overall efficacy of the theory.

By focusing on the formal aspects of learning such as course curriculum, learning outcomes, assessment and the like we place the highly personalised and locally contextualised notions of Connectivism within a highly structured, top-down, hierarchical framework of formal education.

It's of little surprise then, I think, that we're seeing so many stumbling points. To a large degree the two are out of phase with one another.

Especially given the point you mentioned about "externally-imposed testing routines", and teacher performance review (which I don't think mentioned) - the practical aspects of Connectivism in formal education will have to consider the local culture - including requirements, accountabilities, and learner (and parent) expectations.

As with most theories, I think Connectivism provides an ideal, or a mindset, that can inform practice - but I definitely don't think it dictates it.

So as far formal education is concerned, what Connectivism does is provide a new way of looking at learning that - along with other learning theories - can be rolled into plans that address the local needs of the community of learners.

Another very thought-provoking post :) Keep them coming!



jennip said...

I agree that many teachers (trainers) feel "alone". I have experienced myself.
However my thoughts on your your comment "Even though I do appreciate many aspects of connectivism, I don't yet believe that it will be the one and only solution to revolutionise education." is that I don't think any 1 theory (approach, whatever you want to call it), is the solution. I think our role as "teachers" is to look at the context & the learning need & apply an appropriate solution (of which there many be more than 1) to suit.
Like Stephen & George says - one size does not fit all!

sinikka said...

Hi Rodd, bofsensai, Mike and Jenni,

Thank you so much for each of your comments. They inspire a lot of thoughts in me and help me put things in perspective. My post was written partly out of frustration, at the apparent incompatibility of connectivism in many formal education contexts, just as Mike so nicely articulated. As you read, I have seen it so many times - new pedagogies adopted or introduced by administrators too hastily forgetting many good things from the past, even common sense at times.

Connectivism as a 'unifying idea', Rodd, or a 'mindset', Mike, of course is what all theories are in the end. Thank you Jenni for reminding me of the 'one size doesn't fit all', as well. And bofsensai, yes the eternal challenge to find the working applications of any theory...

Sarah Stewart said...

Hello everyone, thank you all for your contributions to this discussion - I have really valued them. I know this has already been said, but I agree that conectivism will not suit all learners and all courses, and that would apply to any theory of learning. This is where the teacher's skill and expertise comes to play - to work out what approach works best with what students/course and integrate, apply and adapt accordingly.