Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Education 2.0: Reflections on 'Victorian Teaching Methods'

A colleague brought this up in a recent discussion, how most colleges still follow Victorian Teaching methods. Then, I saw it on a newspaper article, denouncing the lack of creativity in the classroom. And, last week, there was the report on Primary Education from a Cambridge University Think Tank, which suggested that Children should go to school when they are 6 years old, which was rejected by the Ministers, who opted to keep the school age at the current level of 4 to 5 years, depending on which part of UK you live in. The decision was greeted by the media as one opting for 'Victorian' methods.

So, indeed, It is worth reflecting on what the Victorian teaching methods really are. My take is that the expression is usually used to mean drab, boring teaching, usually associated with unwelcoming, and often unhygienic, learning environments; apart from the focus on three Rs, which are all 'left-brain' activities, so to say; and the assumption that everyone learns at a similar pace and style, and if someone is falling behind, s/he is not trying hard enough.

Obviously, lots of those conditions still exist, and will continue to exist. The classroom hygiene may improve, but windowless rooms will become more and more common. It will take a considerable shift in our thinking to allow even greater diversity inside the classroom in terms of learners' pace and interests, and even if we can conceptually achieve it, government bureaucracies, which need concrete, measurable data to show progress, will attempt their best to keep away such changes. We may become aware of the possibilities of technology in the classroom, but it will take more time to change how we define achievement and success.

It also brought back something I read in Howard Gardner's Five Minds For The Future, where he talked about his experiences in a Chinese classroom, where the focus was upon memorizing. [That's what Victorians meant by Reading, really] Dr Gardner's point was that those skills were meant for a different age, when information was scarce and access to information was difficult. Pupils needed to memorize whole texts to be counted as educated. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, where the world's knowledge is being compiled for free and instant access, the key necessities have changed. It is no longer memorizing, but credentialing and validating available information. To be fair, a pre-Victorian intellectual surely got this: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it". [Samuel Johnson - I 'found' this on the entrance of the British Library]

This thought also brought me to the way the University College London, a premier institute, assesses its students for the course I just enrolled into: just by marking Pass or Fail, and does not grade them.Was it okay to just mark Pass/Fail, or a gradation is important in an assessment? A flippant thought: Why we always cared so much about pass grades, but never cared for grades of failure? In context, I think even the gradation is also very Victorian - an assumption that learning can be compared in its own right. The fact that we have different learning journeys mean that we have a box of apples and oranges and grapes to compare.

In this context, it is worth mentioning what the Tutor told us on day one. The learning group was indeed very diverse, which included me, from business background, some university teachers, research and lab assistants, a training manager from Royal College of Nursing, a school teacher, and a Priestess. We had people coming from all corners of the world, and when the tutor asked why we wanted to do the course, the reasons were as diverse as the group itself.

And, then, the tutor, Paul Walker, introduced us to the concept of a Learning Log/ Learning Journey. He drew this diagram on the flip chart:



In his scheme of things, there are those 12 parallel learning journeys that will take place, representing our individual journeys, which will come together at a certain intervals when the learning group convenes, represented by the table structure in the picture. The learning will happen through Literature Surveys, Observations, Presentations and Feedback Sessions and finally with evaluation and assessments, all of which will be based on our reflections on learning based on our context, and which will be gathered in the form of a portfolio. So, after 12 months of doing this course, we shall have this portfolio containing the details of what we studied, thought and learnt. Paul Walker, our Tutor, quoted T S Eliot, to explain the outcome of this journey: We shall not cease from exploration/ And at the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.

Now, this is far apart from the Victorian conception of learning, of all that homogeneity and uniformity. It is meaningless to attempt to grade these journeys, because they are indeed not comparable, and the only thing to judge will be whether this journey was taken on sincerely and with the necessary curiousity, and whether one indeed arrived with a new perspective at the end, which is really the beginning.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

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Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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