The Didactic Approach

Twenty, thirty years ago, you could walk into any classroom and, out the front of the room, you could find a blackboard. Then classrooms updated to the much better whiteboards and, if you were lucky, you might have also had a projector that you could use as well. Nowadays, most schools are making the transition towards Smart Boards.

Have you noticed the trend towards newer and better technology in that short paragraph?

Now, have you noticed what hasn’t changed?

Nothing in that paragraph talks about how teaching has changed. For the most part, a lot of teaching is still standing up the front, teachers talking and students writing. Now, I am not being mean to teachers here, as many of them do try to innovate as much as they can, but within the confines of the classroom, there is only so much you can change or innovate. Real change requires real investment from government, and a clear path in which we want to take our education system.

Some teachers innovating in isolation will not overhaul our education system into something better for every student.  Furthermore, teachers innovating in isolation means that each of those teachers is reinventing the wheel slightly differently. I commend those teachers who are putting in the effort to do so but they are drops in a vast ocean when compared to the entirety of our education system. You may hear stories of these teachers, and sometimes even schools, from time to time on a news broadcast, but you will never hear much follow up on how successful they are or how they are being implemented elsewhere, or how they are being invested in by Education Departments who are learning from those experiences.

That is a problem because these changes need to occur from the top.

Under Rudd, we begun the creation and implementation of the Australian Curriculum, and we also had the Building the Education Revolution stimulus package that offered funds for the update of schools.

Nowhere in either of those two endeavours was any wording for what would change, fundamentally, in the classroom. No mention of class sizes, of the introduction of educational technologies that would change how we teach, of the number of teachers in the classroom, or of what needs education would be filling.

Now, I am not criticising the implementation of a National Curriculum; that was a step in the right direction. Neither am I angry at the use of funds to update our schools; that is always welcome. What I am saying is that this was a significant investment in our education system that did little to modernise our education system or help our teachers. A simple way to put it would be to ask the question that, after these two endeavours, what fundamentally changed in the classroom?

Nothing. Nothing fundamental, anyway.

If you want to see fundamental changes, you can always look towards Finland, who are looking towards scrapping individual subjects in favour of ‘phenomenon based teaching’. We do not need to go to the Finnish extreme, because they are a different culture and different society, but we can take some lessons from different cultures and societies in how they address education to come up with a system that works for us.

For example, the article mentions changes to the traditional format of teaching, stating:

“There are other changes too, not least to the traditional format that sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the didactic approach of a teacher imparting knowledge to a student has its place, like a lot of teaching methods, but what we see in the Finnish example is them looking at society and modelling their education system to give students the skills they will need. They are focusing on developing students’ interpersonal skills by encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

You might think “so what?”.

Years ago, it was common to hear of individual scientists who championed their fields. Einstein had Relativity, Newton had Classical Mechanics (and maybe Calculus), Darwin had Evolution and Natural Selection, Gregor Mendel had Genetics, Leeuwenhoek had Microbiology and Protozoology, and many others. Now, whilst many might have built upon foundations that were already there to some extent, these people are largely responsible for entire fields of research. Nowadays, you don’t have that. This is not a bad thing, it is just that scientists now, more often than not, work as part of teams. When CERN scientists had a candidate particle for the Higgs Boson, two teams worked, blinded from each other, to experiment and confirm or deny its validity. The point being that many areas are now moving towards collaborative efforts to solve problems, where people work as part of teams rather than as individuals. The Finnish example here demonstrates that they are looking at how to ensure their next generation of citizens can work well in a team based environment, but, more broadly, ensure they have the skills they need to be successful.

It is not just scientists that benefit from this model of collaborative effort, either. Deloitte University Press published an interesting article about the Rise of Teams in Organizational Design which talks about how companies’ structures are being updated into decentralised task-forces to tackle problems. As globalisation marches forth, the need for modern collaborative efforts is going to be even greater. Transnational companies will be able to develop networked teams across continents, connected by internet. For our next generation to be able to compete in that job market, they too will also need to have the interpersonal skill set that allows them to work in collaboration with others, rather than in isolation.

Our current teaching structure does not encourage the development of interpersonal skills or even the proper use of modern technologies. How can it when most classrooms are centred upon the board at the front of the room?

When students do maths, they watch a teacher explain how to do something and then they work through their questions individually. When students do English, they read a book and then write an essay. Now, I know I am oversimplifying here, most teachers encourage discussion on topics, but everything still centres on the teacher explaining and individual students outputting their individual work. Collaborative tasks are few and far between, which does not bode well for a future in which collaborative skills will be necessary.

Without these interpersonal skills, problems arise. People who are more predisposed to extrovert behaviours can dominate discussions, even if their suggestions are sub-par. But, if those are the only ideas being discussed because more introverted (and in this example, more talented) members remain quiet, because they lack the social confidence to speak up and the interpersonal skill set to argue their case effectively, can we really blame the group for using a sub-par strategy?

Of course, the Finnish model of Phenomenon Based Teaching encompasses more than just collaborative group efforts but the point remains that they saw the changes happening in the world and ensured their education system would give their students the necessary skills to be able to thrive.

Now, some people may argue that the Australian Curriculum does address this via the general capabilities or even the achievement standards. My counter is still that none of that changes how we teach IN the classroom.  Nothing in the Australian Curriculum addresses how we are going to change our teaching practice to build the skills that students will need to be successful in the future job market. At most, the Australian Curriculum makes passing mention of the need for students to be critical and creative thinkers, but offers no substantive change to ensure that it occurs, or even any way to assess that students are developing these skills.

Failing to adjust our educational system and our teaching practices to allow our kids to develop these critical skills will have long term effects on our next generation. There is an idea that my generation (Gen Y) will change careers four times throughout our lifetimes; I think that is a gross misunderstanding of how our technological advances means that number is probably going to be higher.

We are going to lose a lot of jobs purely to the fact that technology and robotics will be able to do those jobs cheaper and easier than manual, human labour. That is a good thing. When self-driving vehicles become safe and effective, there won’t be a need for truck or taxi drivers because those services will be automated and cheaper. Whole production lines will be completely replaced by machinery capable of doing it faster and cheaper than human labour. When NASA announced and began planning the Mercury 7 missions, computers did a lot of the complex maths… but computers back then was the term for people who did the math and computations by hand. Even there, technology has quickly replaced human labour as it became quicker, cheaper, and more reliable. In the future, I have no doubt that technology will replace human elements in research and even technological development.

Again, none of this is bad; removing human labour and replacing it with technology that can do it quicker, cheaper and more reliably is a good thing. However, as technology begins rapidly taking the place of people, we need to ensure that those people have the skills to retrain into other sectors of the workforce. If we don’t have a plan for the people who will lose their jobs, and if we do not begin now to ensure that future generations will have the skills they need to change careers, then we are going to fall behind the rest of the world very quickly.

However, I am very sceptical that anything will be done in this regard because it will be costly. There is a fun little saying in the Australian military which states that all your equipment was made by the lowest bidder. The same holds true for our education system; again, this is not to disparage teachers who do phenomenal jobs in spite of the limitations. As a teacher, I simply feel like funding for education is at the bare minimum.

I have felt this most when teaching in Special Ed.  Maybe it was because I was at a low socioeconomic school, maybe because governments know they can get away with underfunding Special Ed units, or maybe it is for some other reason. What I can tell you is that, last year a young child started at our unit because they had severe problems, and had funding for a one-on-one teacher to be present with them at all times. Not unheard of in Special Ed units but not exactly common, either and is usually reserved for unique cases. Our unit manager, knowing she could not offer me the guarantee that I would get a job back, asked if I would consider the one-on-one support role for this student. I declined for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I was not originally Special Ed trained and felt that the student would be better off with a support teacher who had the necessary qualifications.

I went back to the Unit at the start of the year to return some items I had borrowed from other staff members. It was about lunch time and I entered the unit staff room where everyone was gathered round for lunch. I asked the unit manager if she had found a one-on-one teacher for the student. The grim expression on her face said it all; not only had they not found someone but there was now no funding for the student.

You might ask yourself, what changed over the summer break that meant this student could no longer receive the support they needed. Did the student magically cure themselves of their intellectual disabilities? Had they found some therapy or treatment that made the one-on-one teacher unnecessary?

The correct answer is none of that.

This is probably the worst of many examples that I have seen in our education system that makes me feel like any excuse to not spend money is a good enough reason to not invest money in our education system, its students, and its staff.

This is the problem we face if we want to update our education system and our teaching practice. Despite the necessity to modernise, there is no political will to do so and the necessary changes will be expensive, and that is problematic because the longer we take to invest in our education system in order to allow teachers to update their teaching practice, so that we can recognise the skills our students will need and ensure they have them, the further behind our next generation will be, and the less competitive our nation will be.

We are shooting the next generation in the foot because we don’t have the political foresight to do better.

But then, that isn’t anything new.

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