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A Balance of Approaches in Education

Some years ago now, I did a student survey which looked at which subjects in the school were favourites with the students and which were least favourite, and then tried to delve into the reasons why.

It was quite clever (I thought) because it was worded in such a way as to reveal what was going on with each subject. It looked at what subjects were considered to be most and least boring, what was happening with differentiation, and how each subject dealt with the tricky subject of its own nomenclature, often the first place that students trip up - but all from the student’s point of view. The results at that time presented a real glimpse into what was going on in each subject at the end of Year 11.

In brief, though all subjects did well, from the students’ point of view the ‘best’ subjects were Maths, Art and Drama, in that order. Strangely enough, these subjects were the ones which consistently got the best exam results over the years at that school. So there was a direct correlation between how the students felt about them, and how they were actually performing in them.

To grasp what this was all about, you have to understand something that is so obvious it can be overlooked: schools deal with children. Whereas adults usually (though not exclusively) have enough self-awareness and experience to be able to evaluate what is happening when they sit down to study something, a child, even an older child, more often does not. Engaging a child’s attention and then holding it, through 15 years or more of intense learning, through a potential minefield of many and varied subjects, and then expecting that child to emerge at the end with full understanding and ability to apply all that he or she has learned, is the particular challenge of a school.

Back when I was doing this survey, I was also working on the school’s curriculum, upgrading it towards a consistent and high standard curriculum for the first time. It became clear that the Maths department could be used as a model for developing a truly workable method of education. What I meant by that was an educational approach which took the best of what systematised learning had to offer and combined it with the best of what interactive, class-based lessons had to offer to produce an all-round education that was not only effective in terms of getting hard, academic results, but which was also fun and alive and warmly thought of by the students themselves.

A magic combination, in other words, making the most of the advantages of using set work while also valuing and emphasising the incredible power of communication and interaction with subject-passionate teachers that occurs in some class-based lessons in schools.

Art and Drama were and are very successful because of this high level of communication and interaction in lessons; Maths was successful because, while retaining the valuable elements of class-based lessons, the way the set pieces of work were constructed meant that no one got left behind academically.

Our most sucessful subjects (academically) were the most (student-)loved subjects!

What could possibly go wrong with that?

Well, a school could get carried away with one extreme or another. The liability of running absolutely everything by distributing individually programmed pieces of work is that schools are dealing with children who require more live communication and interaction than a such work can usually provide. Children, especially (but by no means exclusively) younger children, can manifest boredom and exasperation if they are sat in a room expecting to get through assignments of various kinds for too long, by observation. Such assignments would have to follow precise rules to counteract this as much as possible.

The required knowledge of the subject for a six-year old is quite different to what is required for an adult - a child needs much more interaction, much more practical, much more action, and a little less significance if possible. As teachers, we know that this is so.

However, the liability of running everything through class-based lessons is that individual students can have specific bits of information or skills missed and can end up falling behind the group and getting into a real mess individually. Children, including younger children, can manifest nervous hysteria and sudden departures from the subject if they are in a class-based teaching environment for too long. These things are called ‘normal school behaviour’ but teachers should know better.

An effective school would have to be better than each of these extremes by striking a happy medium: well-designed, beautifully constructed assignments which walk carefully-differentiated individual children through specific subjects, accompanied by lots of activity, along with exciting, interactive, class-based lessons which inspire, encourage and form group dynamics.

A school should strive to become renowned for not only steadily adding value to and improving each individual student’s academic performance, but doing it in child-friendly, exciting ways. This depends on experienced staff preparing assignments and class-based lessons with all of this in mind, a totally correct application of set work and the definition of a class-based lesson and so forth. It depends on listening to people experienced at this and going with what they propose. Every teacher is responsible for their product and for results - they are all specialists capable of liaising with each other regarding getting this balance right, and are able to both give and receive professional feedback where needed.

So per my original survey, and based on decades of experience in teaching, the schoolwork on developing an educational method for children which meant that it would not only be fondly and profoundly remembered by every student who attended it but would also have a rich and meaningful impact upon the world.

For more on education, visit Education and Parenting World here.

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