Learning in a digital age – Nicholas Hughes
The educational practices of the traditional classroom are no longer effective and teachers must develop new teaching strategies that are radically different from those employed in the traditional classrooms.
In the roughly fifteen years that have passed since I left secondary school, it is striking how much the landscape of the classroom has changed as a result of advances in the accessibility of digital technology. I am part of a generation who while far from being unfamiliar with it, at the same time did not really utilise it to a great extent in their own secondary education. Computers now though are a regular feature in practically every 21st century classroom.
Indeed the medium you are reading this on is a reflection of how much smaller the world has become thanks to technology. Blogging allows us to share knowledge with peers and gives a global platform for people to voice their opinions.
In this blog, I will discuss the opening quote in more detail. What teaching strategies are available in the digital age and how can they help me as I set out on a Maths teaching career in the UK? Is it really true that former educational practices are no longer effective? (They seemed to serve me pretty well.)
My own context is perhaps unusual as I am entering the teaching profession having already been an English language teacher in Japan for the last seven years. This experience teaching a different subject in a different culture can be considered both a blessing and a curse. I have knowledge of how to run a class in a certain context but how much of that is transferable remains to be seen.
Of particular interest to me are issues of teaching approaches, motivation and ability streaming. They are all in fact linked and it is hard to consider one without also thinking about the effect it has on another.
In 21st century classrooms, students play an active role in their learning and teachers serve as mere guides. They are more facilitators of learning than lecturers. They help students think critically and learn by doing and act as a resource while their students discover and master new concepts. (ibid)
Enquiry-based learning (EBL) is an approach that helps the teacher play this role of facilitator. By giving a context in the form of a real-world task, students are forced to engage with the subject more and share their ideas. In marked contrast to more traditional textbook based problem solving, there is no one fixed way to finding a solution and in this environment, mistakes or incorrect approaches are seen as inevitable. In Maths teaching, one champion of this approach is Dan Meyer. His belief in challenging students as opposed to spoon-feeding them answers has inspired him to create numerous resources (I particularly like this one) that a teacher can utilise in the digital age. He is keen to engage students by getting them actively involved in a task and discussing their ideas. The ‘money duck’ a real-life consumer item and its potential for use in the classroom provide a convincing example of the benefits of EBL. The availability of the Internet in classrooms today allows the teacher to easily access resources like Meyer’s or TED talk. Such resources provide ideal ways of involving students and facilitating discussion in the classroom.
From a theoretical perspective, this belief in sharing knowledge and creating discussion is grounded in social constructivist values. Proponents argue that discussion increases student motivation, collaborative skills, and the ability to problem solve (Dyson, A. H. (2004). Writing and the sea of voices: Oral language in, around, and about writing).
As a learner, I have little experience of participating in classroom discussion as an instructional format but as a teacher of English I would often use it as a way of generating interest in a topic. I completely agree that purposeful discussion can be very beneficial but I wonder if in the context of Mathematics there are perhaps limitations to its value. In foreign language teaching, the very act of discussion provides a platform to improve the skill you are working on. In History, Philosophy or other arts subjects, discussion again has more apparent benefits. In Maths however, I feel there is less scope to create a discursive environment and in fact too much discussion could hinder learning in the sense of grasping a particular skill. For example, knowledge of applying a method like completing the square to solve a quadratic equation is more easily obtained through demonstration than discussion. Also as a learner of Maths on this SKE course, I have come to realise that I prefer to tackle a problem individually rather than as part of a group. I realise that not everyone will share my learning preferences but it is undoubtedly something that makes me question the extent to which a more student-centric classroom can be beneficial for the learners.
In terms of teaching approaches, direct instruction (DI) can be viewed as a method that stands in contrast to the ideals of EBL. It is without doubt the quintessential traditional form of teaching where a teaching point is demonstrated following teacher-led instructions. Theoretically, it ties in with behaviourist values according to which any person can be trained to perform any task given the right conditioning. In Mathematics and also modern languages classrooms, behaviourist principles are evident in the form of adherence to procedures and drills, memorisation of rules, and repetition.
However in the modern classroom it seems that this approach is not without its critics. Yet my own experiences of learning and teaching convince me that DI when performed well can be a very effective teaching method. I have attended an awful lot of uninspiring teacher-centric lectures but I have also benefited from clear explanation of teaching points in well-structured teacher-led lessons. It is clearly all about delivery. As a teacher, I have also seen marked improvements particularly in beginner level students through using repetitive drill techniques so I think it would be unwise to reject a traditional teacher-led approach as being anachronistic simply because there are other options in the digital age.
In my view, MOOCs like Khan Academy seem to be attempting to marry some of the traditional principles of DI with the more open, communicative features of the digital age. The format is very much DI with Salman Khan carefully explaining a teaching point before providing learners with exercises to practice applying the techniques they have learnt. However the learners’ comments feature underneath the videos provides a forum for people to discuss any unclear points as well as offer alternative ways of approaching a problem. The forums are useful as one of the major drawbacks of MOOCs is that without any form of human contact, there is nowhere for the student to turn if they cannot understand something. The danger is that faced with this lack of understanding, they might lose heart and abandon the task.
This brings me on to the issue of motivation which is a key challenge I think I will encounter in Maths teaching. In Japan, working in the private sector, one of the luxuries of teaching was that the majority of students were both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. They wanted to achieve their goal of studying in the UK, were giving up considerable amounts of money and time to achieve that goal, and had a real interest in Western culture and English. For the teacher, working with motivated students is a privilege and removes a lot of the challenges that necessitate classroom management and discipline.
What then are the main barriers to motivation? Perceived difficulty and inadequacy are I feel crucial in Maths. What I particularly like about the Khan Academy is the potential it has in reducing students’ affective filters and making Maths more approachable. Khan’s laidback delivery helps to create a relaxing working environment and students are free to watch the videos however many times they need until they grasp the teaching point. There are of course limitations to the effectiveness of MOOCs; Michael Pershan convincingly highlights how Khan’s approach could be improved with a little less spoon-feeding and more challenge on the part of the student.
Another barrier to motivation links in heavily with the third issue I want to discuss – ability streaming. Mathematics in the UK has long been a subject where students are grouped according to ability. From a teaching perspective, I completely understand the logic behind this; the same logic applies in foreign language teaching. It is easier to teach a large group when they are streamed according to ability or at least in my experience it seems that way. However by streaming students, we only serve to reinforce negative attitudes to learning and create a loser mentality among those who are placed in the lower sets. Time and time again, Maths and language teachers hear the common refrain from parents and students alike, ‘I don’t have a head for figures/languages’. It is exasperating and heavily engrained in our society. I am very convinced by Jo Boaler’s description of the benefits of a growth mindset, it truly does seem that in Maths by streaming students we are shooting ourselves in the foot. How can we expect students to be interested in something if they are (implicitly or explicitly) told from a very young age that they are not very good at it?
What are the alternatives to streaming students according to their ability?
EBL certainly seems to be one. There is no doubt that team-oriented, enquiry-based classes can be more inclusive which would seem to be ideal for mixed ability grouping. Further in terms of motivation, EBL fosters curiosity, challenge and cooperation, all of which are factors that have been identified as influential in increasing intrinsic motivation.
Another apparent positive to EBL is that it helps to counter another motivational issue, the perceived lack of real-world application. A lot of students do not engage with Maths because they fail to see the point in what they are doing. Tasks like money duck help to combat this. Despite all these advantages, I can’t help remain a little sceptical about how practicable teaching a large mixed-ability class would be. (I admit this is largely down to the fact that I have never observed such a class being taught. However it is telling that the top hit when googling ‘mixed ability maths UK schools’ was this article entitled ‘Why mixed ability classes mean chaos‘. Clearly the issue of the validity of ability streaming will be more influenced by political change than digital.)
So what can I take into my first year of teaching in the UK? The increasing accessibility of technology in classrooms has without doubt served to change the teacher’s role. They can no longer be seen as the ultimate source of knowledge, the Internet provides us with a limitless source of alternative ideas and opinions. EBL which thanks to advances in digital technology is now easier to practice, seems to have exciting possibilities. MOOCs also have the potential to increase students’ motivation in offering an alternative to merely practising examples from a textbook and also adding variety to a class. Yet both of these advances need not entail deviating massively from the more old-fashioned DI approach. They should be incorporated by the teacher but not replace them. Kris Boulton, another relatively inexperienced teacher, states that teaching is ultimately about communicating an idea effectively and, up to now, DI has proven for me to be the best means of doing this.
Ultimately though, no matter how conservative or liberal a teacher is in accepting changes into their teaching approaches, the overriding factor in assessing their success is exam results. Regardless of how popular they are with their students or how innovative they are in their lesson design, if their students do not achieve acceptable grades then, rightly or wrongly, they will be viewed as having failed. Things may change but despite all the advances in technology, examinations are still paper-based and in embracing these advances, a teacher can never forget that students need to be equipped with the skills necessary to pass exams.
I am looking forward to trying out new teaching approaches and utilising online teaching resources in the classroom yet at the same time I am aware that the realities of our results-oriented society and the pressures this places on teachers mean that it would be unwise for me to completely abandon the traditional classroom practices I have experienced and personally carried out.