January 30, 2019

New Ways to be Old School

Discussions of Quest Forward Learning move from an education approach, designed for the industrial age, to one designed for the information age, which stresses how the different features of our tech platform deliver a problem-based curriculum to a diverse group of students.  Amid the talk of apps and software it is easy to follow the misconception that every aspect of the Quest Forward Learning approach is informed by technology. This would be a mistake. While technology is used intentionally throughout, there is much about Quest Forward Learning that is well grounded in the history of best educational practices. This then proves the old adage, “What is old is new again.”

Consider the following two statements, both true:

  1. Quest Forward Learning challenges traditional assumptions about school and learning.  
  2. Quest Forward Learning makes real the best aspects of traditional learning, while freeing students from the drudgery of the traditional classroom experience.  

While the first statement may be catchier, the second better captures the truth. The most revolutionary thing about Quest Forward Learning is that what has become the dominant classroom experience is the result of historical changes brought about during the industrial revolution. It has nothing to do with how students should learn or how students want to learn.  

A teacher standing at a chalkboard dispensing information models a mode of teaching rooted in the fact that colleges predate publishing. Lectures served  as a designated time for an instructor to read to students while they frantically wrote down what was said. With the ubiquity of cheap books, the simple lecture as a distribution method/approach to teaching is no longer warranted. The information that comprises a course can be distributed in books form or in other discrete resources, and the teacher can shift her focus from the dissemination of information to the process of learning.

Consider these two statements:

  1. I went into teaching because I enjoy helping people learn.
  2. I went into teaching because I like giving lectures.

While the first statement here is almost universally true, the second almost universally false. A casual observer, however, could not be blamed for reaching the opposite conclusion.  No one goes into teaching because they feel called to stand at the board and impart their wisdom. They are driven by a desire to share their knowledge and love of a particular subject or of learning in general, and are happiest when they connect with their students and see those lightbulb moments of insight occur.

How, then, should a teacher conduct class? Consider the following question.  

The most important thing a teacher can do is:

  1. Tell students the answers.  
  2. Teach students to ask questions.

While answers may hand someone the key to knowledge, think about what happens to answers when the questions change. Educating students means that we equip them to ask questions and to find their own answers. This is a sentiment easily forgotten in the classroom, where the desire to be efficient in instruction can lead to thinking that the best results will come from sitting everyone down and telling them like it is. And while this may seem more efficient, and  may seem tortuous watching students struggle to find the answers themselves, ultimately the latter approach is better for cultivating students who will be able to speak for themselves when they enter the world.

The lingering effect of the industrialization of education cannot be understated. In 1912, John Franklin Bobbit published his essay, “The Elimination of Waste in Education,” in which he advocated applying Frederick Winslow Taylor’s principles of scientific management to the management of education. Taylor, one of the first management consultants and a pioneer of industrial engineering, was a leading intellectual of the Efficiency Movement—which sought to improve efficiency in all aspects of American life. While much can be said about the impact that the application of scientific management has had on education over the last 100 years—and how its effects linger today—what is most noteworthy is its view of education as a process that should be driven by efficiency of outcome and the standardization of approach. This is quite a contrast from the student-centric approach at the heart of Quest Forward Learning.  

How does Quest Forward Learning provide new ways to be old school? By moving away from the notion of learning as an efficient, factory-driven process, where everyone must do the same thing at the same time in the same way. Instead we embrace student differences and allow each student a path through knowledge that they blaze for themselves. The classical example of Socratic teaching is given in the dialogue The Meno, in which a child discovers the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. Quest Forward Learning, through the quest model, achieves a classical approach to learning by allowing this sort of individual discovery to happen, with mentors serving as guides to let the students make the learning their own.  

The drive for uniform efficiency happens when a teacher is no longer able to attend to individual students in the act of learning, and instead worries about teaching the group and using statistical methods to determine if the group has learned. Because technology makes it possible for mentors to attend to individual students, keeping track of where each student is without demanding that they all be at the same place at the same time, the result is a classroom where each student can progress individually—discovering, exploring, having successes and failures, and learning from the process with a mentor intervening when optimal for the student. When done properly, the result is old school at its best.

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