Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health raised this provocative issue in his recent article for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies “Online Learning is where Online Music was five years ago.”
Maynard reports in the wake of a heavily attended special session on education from VidCon’s Third Annual Conference, held the last week of June in the Anaheim Convention Center. According to Maynard, a distinguished panel of experts largely from commercial and independent video production identified with wide consensus that Online Video-Based Education is on the cusp of something really big. The transition is led by an influx of online educational resources centering around YouTube and featuring famous early adopters like the Kahn Academy and the PBS Idea Channel. (Check Maynard’s article to see many more.)
The core of this widespread adoption of online learning resources the panel suggested can in fact be found in the emphasis on ‘learning’ rather than ‘teaching.’ Of course this is hardly a new idea, and hardly something of which mainstream brick-and-mortar educators are unaware. Cognitive theories of education that anchor approaches like Constructivism have been suggested as preferable approaches for many decades. Unfortunately traditional educational institutions, as well as certification bodies and most notably political administrations have long favored didactic instruction (basically drill and kill, lecture-centric approaches to education) because the results of these methods are far simpler to track and report.
The Constructivist approach to learning is rooted in the work of John Dewey from (wait for it) the late 1800’s. No, that’s not a typo. Dewey strongly promoted an active learner-centered approach to learning. This led to the Montesori schools and notions of the teacher as facilitator. Eventually whole curricula would be developed based in Constructivist methods, but as so many educational paradigms are, this has been largely hijacked by reactionary extremists on both the didactic educational end of the continuum and on the Constructivist end.
In 1993 Alison King published an article in College Teaching magazine entitled “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” Around that time I was studying College teaching (now Higher Education) at the University of Arkansas. And King’s work was among many resources we read on educational paradigms, history etc. It had an instantly penetrating power and I was not at all surprised to see the resurgence of concepts from King forming in the many Constructivist ideas being presented in today’s new efforts to re-introduce Constructivist methods by using educational technologies to free teachers from what has been perceived and painted as the chains which bind them to PowerPoint lectures, worksheets and overheads.
You might for example have read headlines recently about ‘Flipped Classrooms.‘ The core idea here is centering the classroom around the learner by creating a blended environment. (As an aside, I’m such a huge fan of blended environments, moderation in the application of methodologies and common sense education I find it difficult not to add a hurrah for compromise.)
Flipped Classrooms, like many Constructivist approaches, have significant potential problems as well as enormous potential benefits. Considered simply, educators are generally not trained to handle highly engaged individualized instruction. Sadly, most pre-professional teaching programs (the places that educate the teachers) have deeply invested in a culture that promotes students who are highly successful products of didactic (infodump) style instruction. Having taught thousands of these future teachers I can assure you that they in general highly focused, highly performing machines. Unfortunately they tend to be very limited in their ability to adapt. Decades of positive reinforcement for list-following, note-taking, and info-dump absorbing behaviors have left most as masters of drill and kill, didactic instructional methods and other approaches that simply replicate the largely failing classrooms from which they came.
Creative and adaptive learners tend to be rooted out of pre-professional education programs because they think creatively, propose different solutions than are expected, and reject much of the traditional educational machine. One of the most difficult parts of learning to guide students as an effective teacher in the Constructivist setting is learning to stay out of their way. The teacher’s first impulse is to teach. The guide’s first impulse is to facilitate discovery. We know from cognitive theory that information discovered by the learner will have a far more lasting and dramatic impact, but knowing and doing are often vastly different things.
A very wise educator / guide once said that ‘whomever is working the hardest in the classroom, is learning the most.’ (someone will help me recall the source and post in comments I hope.) It’s a very easy way to sum up the paradigm shift.
So why do I celebrate the blended approach in a Flipped Classroom? Simply put, the didactic elements of the instruction have been moved to a better medium. I’d encourage you to have a look at my last blog on the amazing new technology from Adobe that supports this sort of approach for teachers, really anyone who doesn’t have the first clue how to start creating videos for this approach. Crazy simple software that virtually anyone can use with virtually no training needed to get started. Now you can capture your lectures with incredible ease and pop them into short video snippets. This facilitates learning better because often students ‘tune-out’ during the lecture. Shorter snippets reduce the chances of that happening and give them the opportunity to replay anything that is unclear, even outside of class.
Meanwhile, you the teacher, have the opportunity to provide individual instruction to students at the moment they are beginning to discover key concepts. I’d of course recommend positioning these things in the form of nearly-impossible challenges. Asking critical questions of students has most often proven for me to be the best way to kick off a particular topic in a way that forces them to self-discover new ideas and build on their own prior schema. If a lesson on flight begins with the question how is it that a bumble bee can fly – the last thing you want to do is tell the students the answer. It is far more effective to provide them a powerful architecture on which they may rapidly build theories. As long as you’ve prepared enough information to cover the key objectives you hope the students learn about flight, the beauty is that they’ll be applying and synthesizing, evaluating and inventing new concepts based on the key ideas you’ve provided them as a ladder.
So what are your thoughts about Flipped Classrooms, Sage on the Stage-vs-Guide on the Side? As always please don’t hesitate to leave comments and questions below. Or better yet: Download the new Adobe Presenter 8 – Launch that Adobe Presenter Video Creator, and let me know using video.
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