It seems that our nation, and possibly the world, are in the throws of a debate of what education should look like and ultimately what learning really is. Granted, change is always difficult. And although it seems education or learning should always be about change, growth and adaptation, we can also safely say that it’s also about tradition, compliance, control and power.
In addition to the standard debates about educational reforms, there are two other forces contributing to the newer level of debate. First, technology has become so dominant and influential in all aspects of the world economically, socially and politically, that education can no longer ignore technology or attempt to work outside of it. Two, the impact of the changing global economy are finally becoming a reality. The nature of jobs and employment is dramatically being altered so fast that all educational entities are being forced to reckon with what it all means.
In an attempt to boil it down, this is a summary of the major divide in education: Does one learn better through a highly structured, top down approach (teacher delivering content or info, students taking notes and ultimately regurgitating the information back on tests, etc.) or by doing real world work (project-based, bottom up, student-directed, etc.)?
To me, it seems almost tragic that we’re still really struggling with this or having a debate at all. How complicated can it be? Haven’t we always known that learning by doing is far superior? Education researchers have documented over and over that lecture and teacher directed instruction (listening, notes, etc.) is by far the lowest form of learning. And simultaneously, that learning by doing/student-directed learning (project-based featuring choices, ownerships, etc.) is ultimately closest to the highest form of learning?
So, why do we still debate? Why is our system so slow to change? First, as a student yourself, how did your learn best? What learning experiences were the most memorable, meaningful and applicable? My estimation is that most individuals would reflect on their own learning and identify the highest or most valuable forms as ones related to ultimately doing something vs. passively taking something.
Does the problem come from academia? Learning at one time was directed and operated by the great thinkers who bestowed their wisdom and knowledge on the masses right? Indeed, much of our university traditions still come from this where we put hundreds of people in a lecture hall to be enlightened.
Why are electives always so popular and successful? Choice and more learning by doing are typically the answers or rationale. Science teachers always got it right. They had labs and hands-on activities. We’ve had field trips in schools forever because we realized that learning came to life when it was real, hands-on and participatory.