The Not Enough Time Problem
In my opinion, this all points to the challenges of teaching and the need for both structure and choice when planning and teaching. I think over the past couple of decades we’ve been moving away from structure and towards variability when it comes to teaching. The old school model was deemed boring and just plain wrong. That idea that kids are vessels and information is poured into them. That kids sit in rows while teachers drone on about things not relevant to students. And the incorrect conclusion was that kids were skipping classes, not graduating and not prepared for the future. It was an easy message for educational reformers and progressives to sell.
Instead, the alternative was a sort of educational utopia where teachers could be freed from the bonds of detailed curriculum, the internet offered endless options and students could be happy exploring anything that was of interest to them. And even more exciting was the promise that by following these new ideas, students would be prepared for the 21st century by being creative problem solvers able to use all the tools of technology to thrive in this new unpredictable world.
How could you not want that for your students?
But now educational nirvana isn’t quite what we expected. Issues around student mental health, dropping academic scores and teacher burnout are just a few of the issues surrounding education today. Now schools can’t solve all of society’s problems. Even though many good people are sure trying hard. I think it’s time to take a page out of cognitive psychology around how we learn and stop for a few moments to reflect on how we got here and where do we go from here? Call it a metacognitive break.
The goal during this break is to make some small changes. As BJ Fogg from the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University describes in his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything (2020), real change in our lives starts with the smallest possible change increments we can imagine.
Additionally, let’s just assume we’ve missed something in our quest to ensure students are ready for their future. Let’s start with two themes: technology and teacher well-being. A fair start is to all agree we’ve been over sold on the benefit of technology. I’m not saying throw out technology, but rather let’s redefine our relationship with technology. And let’s make our first step a small experiment.
One day, count the number of times you look at your phone in an hour. Repeat that three times and average your number of ‘looks’. The goal then is to reduce the number of looks by 10% and consciously use that extra time for something you really want to do that is non-technology based. For our experiment, non-technology based means you’re not staring at a screen and using your fingers/thumbs to type or swipe. For example, walk, sleep-in, fix that squeaky door or talk to someone face-to-face.
If you can complete the first experiment then I think we can agree that small, incremental changes are far better than large, sudden changes. It’s this belief that we continue to apply as we return to the structure vs choice discussion.
I think it’s a fair statement to say most educators decided to become involved with education to make a difference. We are optimists. In fact, I can’t imagine being an educator and a pessimist. But, coming from the frame of reference we are susceptible to quick fixes and promises of a better future. We want a better world, a better classroom, the best for our students and we want it now. Any less is unacceptable in our views. But, we’re are also pragmatic and know this won’t happen overnight. So, when our State or Provincial curriculum comes out with descriptions like the below in the third paragraph of the document, we naturally get excited.
“The Science curriculum allows for instructional flexibility. For example, the curriculum components can be combined in different ways to provide a diverse range of learning opportunities. Within each grade, there are multiple ways to combine Big Ideas, Curricular Competencies, and Content to create lessons, units, and learning experiences. The curriculum encourages the use of a range of approaches that support instruction and acquisition.” (British Columbia Science curriculum – accessed April 26, 2023)
But as always in life, the devil is in the details. With every instructional flexibility, multiple ways, diverse range of opportunities or choice comes a cost. And the cost is in teacher time and ultimately well-being. As Barry Schwartz points out in his book The Paradox of Choice,
“… as the number of choices keep growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”
Somewhere in this cornucopia of educational choice, there needs to be some structure.
In the past the structure came from a rigorous curriculum and key resources built around the curriculum. For most jurisdictions those days are gone, but the need for structure is still there. As we learn more from neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists about how humans learn, we can slowly make small changes to bring some structure back into our professional practice. And to start with we’re going to build on three ideas from Hartman et al (2022) described in their paper Improving student success in chemistry through cognitive science. They state “to efficiently learn a new and well-structured topic, to circumvent WM (working memory) limits, students must take three steps.”
- Automate factual recall
- Overlearn with spaced practice
- Chunk new knowledge into a long-lasting conceptual framework
A Final Note or Rant: Free the Words
Part of the move from structure to choice has been what I call the demonization of certain words. This may sound a bit harsh, but if one uses any of these words, I think there is a sense the person is not part of the progressive move to make education better. I think we should free these words and talk about them, so we have a better understanding of their true meaning. Let’s start with:
- Direct Instruction