The Active Ingredient

I spent the last part of my time at the computer yesterday, listening to a recent Women of the Web podcast interview with Dr. Gary Stager.  It was a good interview and Stager seemed, on several occasions, to be talking straight from my speaking points — something that is deeply gratifying to me.  He did a better job than most at balancing his constructivist approach with the fact that this is not an either or proposition — that although consciously constructing learning from previous knowledge, frame of reference, and skill is preferred (and natural IMHO), some times and for some objectives, teaching to the students is called for.  

As is often the case, the conversation veered over to the ever persistent question, “How do you reconcile these more progressive constructivist strategies with the demands of standards- and accountability-based teaching.

It’s a hard question to answer and I hope it is a temporary question.  My hope is that “modernized” schools will come to value what students are capable of learning and doing with what they are learning, than what we are capable of teaching.  It was after a rather short play-out of this conversation that things shifted again — “How do you reconcile progressive, constructivist, project-based learning with teachers who are more comfortable with the traditional direct teaching approach — especially as many of these teachers seem threatened by more student-centered education.

It all reminded me of an instance, about 20 years ago, when I was director of technology for a rural school district in North Carolina.  We had a lab of Apple IIe computers at the high school, where computer applications was taught.  They taught AppleWorks, which ran off of a five and a quarter inch floppy disk.  Raise your hands if you remember those!

There were two teachers who taught this course.  One was a business instructor and the other was the school’s Art teacher.  The idea of an Art teacher teaching computer applications seems much less unusual today than it did back in 1985.  Toward the end of the semester the Art teacher, John Bell, had taught word processing and spreadsheets.  It was time for databases.  He presented the class with a problem.  I do not recall the nature of the  problem, but it related to a small business.  Then he said, “I want you to use the database in AppleWorks to produce a report that will solve his problem.”  “The user manuals are over there.  Get to work.”

An Appleworks Manual

This was a first for me, but it immediately made sense.  Learning to rely on a users manual to learn how to operate a new piece of software or operating system seemed like a valid technology skill.  But other teachers at the school didn’t make that connection.  In fact, there was a vehemence to their objections that seemed down-right irrational in its emotional intensity.  They said that that art teacher was not doing his job, that the students were doing it for him.  Being John Bell, he let it run its course and the controversy died down.  But I’ll not forget that.

If you are a parent, then you have certainly had the experience of asking your son or daughter, “So, what did you learn today?” only to be answere with an irritated shrug of the should or a simple, “noth’un!”

I wonder if a reason for many of our students’ lack of enthusiasm for learning is that it isn’t learning that they are doing.  The the active ingredient of traditional classrooms is teaching.  Might our students become more excited and engaged by what they constructively learn than what they are taught.