Plane thoughts – part 1

I recently participated in a meeting for the EdCan Network, part of the Canadian Education Association, in Mississauga. I knew we’d be talking about some heavy issues regarding education in Ontario, especially K-12 education. I spent my time on the flights down and back writing some thoughts I’d been wrestling with. I’m planning to share those thoughts in small posts for a little while. Here’s the first entry.

Learning is not about acquiring knowledge and skills. You’re learning whenever something is changing you. It can be intentional, accidental, or incidental.

Learning can be good, bad, or neutral. Learning to be accepting of others is usually good. Learning to abuse power is generally bad. Learning to factor quadratic expressions is probably neutral.

Learning doesn’t have to be permanent, although it’s not fleeting (because then it hasn’t changed you). Skills can fade, knowledge can be forgotten, and new understandings can supplant old ideas.

If school education is only about the narrow, curriculum-knowledge-and-skills learning, it’s missing the richest and most valuable kind of learning.


8 thoughts on “Plane thoughts – part 1

  1. Brandon I’m surprised sometimes to know how becoming aware of a piece of Fact can change my world views (learning?). But I get your general point.

  2. Regarding your last point, I think it’s ok if school focuses on the curriculum. In fact, as a parent, I need school to do that part. All the rest, the real life learning, well that can happen in real life, with our experiences, etc. And it’s up to each learner to figure out how to incorporate it all together. Maybe that view is traditional or outdated, but the notion that the school system can provide all these real life learning experiences seems like an overreach. I need the school to teach the math and chemistry and literature so that the learner has a basic knowledge base to work from. And the rest, well that will happen IRL. I suspect this may not be a very popular view given the main philosophies of our education system these days, but something worth questioning.

    • I agree that curriculum is important, but I disagree that the other kinds of development will happen outside of the school. There is no equity of opportunity. Families have dramatically different means. School could be a place for exploration, but often it’s a place for memorization.
      I find it interesting that you contrast learning in school with learning in real life. Shouldn’t school be real life too, instead of something you have to finish before you can start your real life?

      • School is just a part of real life. And it’s up to each of us to figure out how to incorporate our learning and experiences in all the diffferent areas of our life into our overall experience. When I take a professional development course as an adult, say on management or SQL, I need to take that new learning and figure out how to incorporate that into my current or future job and possibly other aspects of my life. I have to actively engage in applying it. I don’t see school as a finish line, as we can take courses all our lives. But implying that school is real life and hence we should be learning ‘real life’ things here, whatever that means, is inaccurate. It is a part of real life. Maybe we could focus on teaching how to apply learning from anywhere to somewhere else. Given how difficult it already is for teachers to get through all the curriculum, doing more seems unreasonable.

        Two assumptions we need to at least question:
        1. School should be more like real life. Why? What does that mean? In what ways? What are the benefits? Disadvantages?
        2. It is the school system’s job to address inequities of opportunity. Why? Is that even possible? Was the system designed to do that? Can a different design do that? What about the fact that life is about inequity of opportunity and generally unfair? So what, if anything, do we need to teach students about how to handle this?

      • I agree that school is just part of real life, and that school (and teachers) can’t figure out how each student should incorporate their learning. I think what I mean is that opportunities in school should be less prescriptive and more organic. Instead of every student learning essentially the same set of facts and skills, I wonder if it would be more useful (and efficient) to reduce the amount of specific, compulsory learning in favour of more elective learning. I don’t think every person needs to understand the Bohr model of the atom, and lots of people don’t need to read MacBeth. It’s not that those things can’t be valuable, but they’re not universally essential. In our non-school learning we tend to learn what we want, in the way want, and often for a purpose.

        I don’t think, though, that school-based learning should always be applied to the outside world. In math we’re especially guilty of manufacturing false applications of skills as a way to illustrate “real life” or “authentic” math. In my opinion the math itself is enough on its own, and the applications come more from a need to solve a problem or a curiosity about how the world works than from a need to conjure a story to solve.

        A significant disadvantage to reducing the compulsory load could be a lack of exposure to ideas. Sometimes you don’t know what will fascinate you or be useful to you until you’ve tried it out. A 5-month, semester-long commitment to a subject is pretty costly for a high school student that isn’t sure whether they’ll enjoy or have an interest in learning something new. A lower cost to entry would help.

        Is the school system’s job to address inequities of opportunity? I think it is, to an extent. Certainly that’s one of the reasons we have a standardized curriculum – it’s not just a logistical solution. In a modern context we can make opportunity more equitable than it is – if I live in a community with a small high school and no qualified Philosophy teacher, my school can connect me to a remote teacher through e-Learning. That’s the sort of equity that can be improved even within our existing system. I think there would be a lot of possibilities for other improvements if the system itself imposed fewer restrictions in the name of standardization.

        Challenges of geography, finances, relationships, experience, and skills will all create inequities that people will struggle with and sometimes overcome. We should be minimizing the unfairness that our system causes students to experience, and helping them to cope with or resolve the inequities that will still exist.

        One other thought… our schools here (I don’t know about the rest of the province) tend to work parallel to but isolated from the rest of the community. We sometimes make partnerships with specialized programs, etc., but our formal requirements restrict how strong those connections can be. Reducing the weight of the core curriculum could allow for the development of our students to be spread out more to the rest of the community, which would be healthier, I think.

        Heavy stuff, and I definitely don’t have it all sorted out, but it’s great to think about it with you!

      • Some very good points there, much closer to the meat of the matter. I shall think on this some more before responding…

  3. Ah, yes, the age old questions of:

    What to include in the public school curriculum? and
    How should we teach it?

    How do we determine what is universally essential? So many factors to consider and involved here, from what is appropriate age-wise according to the research, to what knowledge and skills do today’s kids need to survive/work/thrive in our modern tech/information society, to the leanings of the current politics/government in our multicultural province. Definitely not an easy question to answer. Likely always a moving target, usually moving faster than we can keep up. Seems almost impossible. So I think we do the best we can. Perhaps we should spend the time looking at how we create the curriculum, who’s expert opinions we draw upon, and update it regularly to accommodate changes. It will evolve over time. And we’ll never really get it right, at least not for long, but as long as we keep trying and have a decent methodology, it will be ok.

    I’m glad that as a teacher you are spending time thinking about these things. You are in one of the direct positions to be able to make small changes over time in your classroom, school, board, community, etc.

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