Learning must move on

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Talk and chalk is last century's technology and curriculum reform has to take note of the pace of change, says John Brims.

ONE OF the key points about Higher Still is the development of a structure that will provide students, staff and industry with an educational framework for the new century. One of the crucial dimensions of this should be a review of teaching methods.

When I attended college one of the tutors posed the question: "What should be included in educational science (teaching methods) to improve the course?" This was a number of years ago and it was unusual for students to be consulted. One of the suggestions was the study and examination of different teaching styles demonstrated by successful teachers.

At that time Jacob Bronowski was presenting the Ascent of Man on the BBC, and Lord Clark had recently introduced Civilisation. These educators had the benefit of television, a medium that had come of age in the mass education market, and they would be considered successful teachers. However, they used a tried and tested method, standing in front of an audience and talking about a topic, an approach identified by Higet that had not changed for a hundred years.

Recent times have witnessed the advent of a range of different teaching methods as well as the development of cognitive psychology. Howard Gardner, Seymour Papert, Paulo Freire and James Greeno, to name a few, have provided a number of different approaches - and there are many others. Such educationists offer a completely new approach to education and teaching.

However, events appear to have overtaken the supportive approach advocated by the theorists. For example, for years Paulo Freire was advocating the view that education should be a collaboration, a joint venture between learner and teacher, both learning and both contributing to the learning process. What has now happened, particularly with the advent of new technology, is that young students who have a faster rate of learning are becoming more expert than their teachers. The students are then teaching the teachers, and an almost enforced partnership is formed which is skewed towards the more knowledgeable student.

Obviously the teacher has to be involved in the partnership, but the collaborative approach suggested by Freire has been enforced because of the change in teaching environment. In short, a massive change has happened in the teaching process with little input by the techer and without any forward planning. This is the opportunity that is being missed by Higher Still - reflective thought about the methods of teaching.

Seymour Papert is interested in pupils developing computer skills and has developed "Mindstorms", a new toy, in collaboration with Lego, the Danish toy company, allowing children to develop small robots using the Logo programming language. In this approach, it is argued, he is providing an opportunity to manipulate cognitive skills.

Howard Gardner, another researcher, provides a completely new approach by looking at the various intelligences in man. He takes the view that individuals should be valued for their abilities. His book Frames of Mind provides a radical approach to the current view of intelligence.

James Greeno in another approach focuses on the use of cognitive objectives, advocating a form of mental dentistry, identifying cognitive problems and providing solutions.

Each of the above has an established theory and teaching approach. There are also more recent developments: Goleman's work on the development of emotional intelligence is another approach that shows promise.

These theories and approaches have benefits and advantages for the modern teacher. To a large extent many people who teach today teach the same way they were taught, emphasising Higet's view. However, the world is a changing place: as I write, I am using a skill not learnt as a child, moving text up and down on a computer screen. The ability to adapt and transfer skills is a key factor in today's society.

Higher Still promotes a framework that needs to be adopted. But the new teaching approaches that are being advocated also need to be incorporated within current practice and taught at teacher training colleges. Otherwise the wonderful opportunities to provide guidance and structure in teaching will be missed because teachers do not have the tools to implement change.

Higher Still, while giving students an opportunity to work in an all-inclusive system, does not address the more important issue of the methods used in teaching. This area is increasingly important as new developments become available, providing students with greater opportunities to succeed and providing teachers with a teaching approach, and a framework, for the century ahead.

John Brims is a senior lecturer at James Watt College, Greenock, and has been involved in new methods of teaching.

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