Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

Our friends' old boy would definitely opt for taking it easy!

When I was doing my teacher training (eons ago!), we used to have to write to-the-second lesson plans, in which we even had to anticipate possible students answers to our questions, and then write down reaction and intervention alternatives to them. Back in those days - in the last century - school seemed so much simpler than today. Every classroom had the neat, straight rows of desks, the teacher's word was the law (or close to it anyway), and mostly, the students didn't question this reality.

It's a different ballgame now. My 16-19-year-old students get restless after about 10-15 minutes if they need to focus on one learning task that long. They can't part with their smartphones, which sit on their desks, within easy reach - and they DO reach for them, the moment there is even a momentary lull in the lesson. For many of them, the phones, or alternatively tablets or laptops have become almost an extension of their bodies, and they feel rather lost if a nasty teacher asks them to put them out of sight for a while.

So, the question is, what should be done to avoid the inevitable friction between today's students and teachers trained in the 20th century? We had a mandatory in-service training day last Saturday, with a keynote speaker from Helsinki University, Professor of Educational Psychology, Ms Kirsti Lonka.

The title of the talk was 'Plunges into tomorrow's learning', where instead of ready-made, clear, structured answers and guidelines, Professor Lonka threw us possible ideas and scenarios what that future learning at schools might look like. Surely, it's up to all of us teachers to start redefining our role and renewing our classroom practices, or our students' spark for learning will soon be totally lost, and they will just waste their school days, mindlessly entertaining themselves on their gadgets. One thought that stuck with me was that although there is no doubt that teachers will still be very much needed in the future, they won't be needed to deliver information any more. If you define your role as a a teacher in 20th-century terms, aren't you perpetuating an old-world paradigm that will possibly fails to reach the kids of the digital age?

Serendipitously, today I came across Scott McLeod's blog where he says the following:
You want student learning to change but you don't want to change teaching or schooling. Good luck with that.
Good luck indeed! I am quite concerned about the apparent lack of many students' motivation for school work, so what could I, as the facilitator of student learning, do to help them? Traditional school practices are still the norm, and most of us will probably stay firmly put in our comfort zones, fully believing that that's for the benefit of student learning. What baffles me, though, is how long educators have been wondering about these issues, with the same problems and questions cropping up again and again, and still not much changes, other than maybe in individual schools or the classrooms of individual teachers!

One step forward would be to drastically change the arrangement and design of learning spaces. Here's a time-lapse video of an experimental, flexible and adaptable learning space at Helsinki University. A far cry from the desk rows in the old school, don't you think?

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