26 March 2011

the learning doesn't stop

I spent my Spring Break running around London with a group of folks from @mishelleyb's Brit Lit class at SNU. We had a worldwind tour of the UK. I think we squeezed about 3 weeks worth of stuff into 6 very short days (or long depending on when you asked me about it).  We saw everything from Stonehenge, to Hampton Court, to Buckingham Palace, to Canterbury, to Dover, and Stratford (word to my Bard!). Some of our group even ran over to Paris one day while I strolled the grounds of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and our tour guide even arranged a private tour of the Royal Society for me. Yes, I got to see Newton's Telescope (although I'm thankful I took a picture because there was so much to take in I barely remember it!)

Once our time in London was over, @mishelleyb and I extended our time there by going on up to the land of my ancestors, the Scottish Highlands. Who knew I've been pronouncing my name wrong my whole life? The bow part of my name is like the part of the ship!

Anyway, I got to spend about 3 hours at a school where a friend of mine is doing a Fulbright Exchange this year. It's called OldMachar Academy and is a public Scottish Secondary School in Aberdeen, Scotland. What an amazing experience! I was struck by the differences in our system of education and theirs. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but there are definitely some differences.

For instance, OldMachar has students who are middle-school age to high-school all in the same building. This could be a good thing, depending on the climate of the school. Students might be able to learn how to act in a more mature way if they have older students around to "show them the way". On the other hand, if students who are older are prone to shenanigans, then that might not be setting much of an example for those 1st years. (btw, just for perspective, go back and watch Harry Potter and you will get an idea of how their ages are tiered - 1st years, 2nd years, etc.)

Another major difference I noticed was these students study for a comprehensive exam which constitutes a major part (if not all) of their grade at the end of the year. Everything, including whether or not they go to college and what they would major in, rides on these end of year tests. You cannot enroll in the next level of a class without the recommendation of a teacher and a satisfactory grade on that test. That may not sound remarkably different, but it seems to me that there is an immense amount of pressure on them to succeed on a single test, rather than the leveled testing we do here (to "earn" a grade).

I did think the students were more motivated than our students (and less apathetic) but I think that might have been a misconception based on some conversations I had with a few of the teachers.

I did come back with even less patience for apathetic students, so kids, if you are reading this, watch out!

While we were in Oxford (checking out local haunts like The Bird and The Baby), I learned about how education used to be (might still be) around that part of the world. Apparently, there used to be a time when student would attend SOME lecture, DO something (labs, etc.) and then they did a lot of independent learning. That might be in the form of sitting in a Pub or Tavern sipping a pint and smoking a pipe while discussing the chosen topic. I love this style of learning! The discussion part, not necessarily the pints and pipes. Students engaged in a discussion based on their research and had to support their ideas with evidence. This reminds me a lot of what Mr. Rupert Baker, the Library Manager at the Royal Society,  told me about the early days of that particular institution. It seemed that learning occurred often outside the walls of the classroom. I suppose my question is this: Why did we get away from that style of education? I mean, its seems that I have heard rumblings of people innovating in their classrooms while doing things exactly as I have described.

[caption id="attachment_572" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Newton's First Telescope"]Newton's First Telescope[/caption]

I recognize that there has to be some lecture, there has to be some structure and basic knowledge, but why don't we have students doing some independent learning?

One final thing and I'll be done. At OldMachar, they have written a new problem-based learning curriculum and are instituting it with their first years this year. Here's what that looks like: the science curriculum is based solely around the guiding question of "What if there were some reason for us to leave Earth (natural disaster, etc.)? What would we need to know?" That smacks of the same kind of thing I heard at the Oklahoma Technology Association Conference about Apple's Challenge Based Learning. So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same? I mean, I flew 5000 miles across the globe to observe a school and they are innovating the same way our own corporations are encouraging us to innovate!

I believe there are going to be some major changes in my classroom next year (again). When people say "Oh, teaching! It's SO easy! You just do the same thing over and over, right? Uh, no. This is my 4th year and I'll be starting over next year. What do YOU do? Do you teach the same lessons year after year? Or do you tweak and modify to fit the students that are NOW walking into your classroom? The kids are changing. Are you?

Finally, I thought I'd share my favorite picture of the entire trip.

[caption id="attachment_573" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Stonehenge from my iPhone"]Stonehenge from my iPhone[/caption]

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