As a composition teacher, I used to teach students long lessons about structure and process and the nature of a good thesis and all of that, and then they would go off and write. This is also how traditional math classes work, and it is how I remember science classes working when I was in school.
At some point, I realised this doesn’t work: my composition students weren’t applying the detailed, abstract principles of composition to their own writing. The dichotomy between learning and doing is false. I needed a new model.
As we all move through a task or work toward an objective, we will find the information we need and solve the problems as they come up. As a general principle, I definitely believe in that.
However, to be totally successful, students need some background to make sense out of their experience. I’ll use reading Shakespeare as an example: in the best of all possible worlds, I would take students to see a performance of Hamlet, and then we would read the bits they thought were the most important, and then they would develop their own reading of the text and demonstrate their own reading in a coherent and interesting manner.
But in reality, there are some bits of information – about Elizabethan England, about drama, even about basic critical theory – that I know will make this a better experience for them. To give them that information will make it possible for them to access the play at a level that makes more sense.
To put it another way: I was talking to a teacher of grade 6 Science. He said that he would love to have students just do experiments that may or may not validate their hypotheses and then respond to them. The problem is they don’t have a very developed scientific framework, or as he put it, ‘enough information to ask the right questions.’ On the other hand, you don’t want to give away all of the answers and have experiments that just validate or illustrate things that have been explained. There is power to the surprise, but they need to know enough to make sense out of it.
Experiential learning is the right way to go – where assessment experiences drive the learning rather than respond to the learning – but it needs to be supported with some theory or background information.
New Phone PedagogyWhen I get a new phone, it might come with a manual. But I’m not going to read the entire manual before I use the phone. I’m going to look at the ‘Getting Started’ instructions.
This allows me to turn the phone on and understand how it basically operates. Then I’m going to play with the phone. If I come across a problem or a feature I don’t understand, then I go to the manual and look it up, but mostly I learn how to use my new phone by using my new phone.
When I start a new unit, I ask myself, what is the bare minimum of information students need to be able to discover things for themselves?
I could spend a week on the context, or have students research these topics, or have them watch documentaries as homework, but I really want to get into the play. This doesn’t mean students won’t want more information while reading the play, but that will grow out of honest inquiry as we read through the play: Why would he act like that? Why would the author use that word? Why is this so hard to follow? etc.
Likewise, I boiled down the elements of a student essay, which I encourage students to stray from as they are ready to do so. We can get through this very quickly and get writing, asking and answering questions as we work.
I’m interested in inquiry-based learning, but I’m interested in its practical application rather than as an ideal. New Phone Pedagogy is a way for me to understand the role traditional learning might play in empowering students to have learning experiences that invite greater inquiry.