Examining Traditional Approaches to Education
Dr. Sharon Friesen from the University of Calgary discusses how the origins of modern schooling drew inspiration from the factory model of production.
When universal schooling first began in North America in the beginning of the 20th century, in order to help young people take their place in industrial enterprises or within highly stratified bureaucratic organizations, elites of this era created an education system that emphasized following prescribed sets of rules and memorizing content. Underlying this model of education is a series of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and knowing, the purpose of education, the role of the teacher in the classroom, as well as how academic success should be determined. Sawyer (2006) summarizes these assumptions as follows:
• Knowledge is a collection of facts about the world and procedures for how to solve problems.
• The goal of schooling is to get these facts and procedures into the student’s head.
• Teachers know these facts and procedures and their job is to transmit them to students.
• Simpler facts and procedures should be learned first.
• The way to determine the success of schooling is to test the students to see how many facts and procedures they have acquired. (p. 1)
Within this framework, learning is understood to be a linear process of either getting a pre-given body of content into the students’ minds or breaking down any complex task into its basic parts and sequencing these in a way that can be easily assimilated into the mind of the learner. David Perkins, author of Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education (2009) calls these two assumptions about how best to learn any subject, from mathematics to history, elementis and aboutis. To explain these concepts Perkins uses the game of baseball as an example. In an elementis approach to learning baseball, students encounter the game by learning elements of it (i.e., throwing the ball or fielding grounders) in sequence and in isolation from each other. However, they are never given the chance to put all these pieces together to play the game as a whole.
Taken to the classroom, within this approach students learn the elements of a discipline in fragmented pieces, usually in the form of a prescribed set of rules and operations. Inspired by the factory room floor, curriculum is thus conceptualized as a mass assembly line delivering “those not-further-divisible bits” (Friesen & Jardine, 2009, p. 12) out of which any discipline or field of study is comprised. For instance, as Perkins (2009) argues, in learning math students are often presented with procedural problems that have only one right solution and have limited, if any, connection with how this particular mathematical procedure lives in the world. Similarly, students study grammar with the “idea that the knowledge will later coalesce into comprehensive, compelling, and of course correct written and oral communications” (p. 4). However, students are often deprived of the opportunity to produce powerful pieces of writing for a real audience.
Whereas elementis tends to dominate how the subject of Math is taught in particular, Perkins argues that history and science are most often taught using aboutis. While in elementis students are exposed to parts of the game, within an aboutis approach to learning students do not even get the chance to take to the field. Rather, to again use the game of baseball as an example, students learn about the sport in the form of being lectured on the history of the game and its rules.
Sadly, this approach to learning is all too common in schools where students learn about a topic or concept rather than learn how to take part in the process that created that knowledge. In the case of the discipline of history for instance, students are most often presented “an account – unquestionably framed as the true story of the events – which students learn by absorbing the relevant factual details laid out in their textbook” (Denos & Case, 2005, p. 2). However, students are rarely given an opportunity to do actual historical inquiry reflecting how historians construct and verify knowledge about the past. This phenomenon also occurs in science where students learn about, for instance, the steps involved in mitosis, but are rarely invited to undertake genuine scientific research that does not involve a pre-packaged lab.
The problems with these two assumptions about how learning should occur in schools have been well documented in the educational literature. However, a few points are worthy of repetition. Within an elementis approach to education, students gain an incomplete and fragmented understanding of a discipline as it is actually practiced by professionals in a field. As such, areas of study such as math or writing, become divorced from the way they live in the world. Similarly, when students learn concepts through aboutis, Perkins (2009) notes that a large body of research “demonstrates that learners show very limited understanding, bedeviled by a range of misconceptions about what the ideas really mean” (p. 6). In both cases, students leave high school often unable to perform the kind of work undertaken in a discipline in which they have completed twelve years of study.
Elementis and aboutis are so deeply ingrained in how we think about education that ongoing attempts at educational reform often fail to question the efficacy of organizing education around these approaches to learning. This can be seen, for example, in the flipped classroom movement that is often held up as a paradigm shift that will reinvent education. First popularized by Salmon Khan, in the flipped classroom students do not spend class time passively listening to a teacher lecture, as this part of instruction is assigned for homework through a video posted on-line (e.g., on YouTube). This could take the form of a lecture around a particular historical event or a scientific concept, or alternatively how to complete a particular mathematical procedure. Students then spend class time applying and practicing what they learned at home within an environment where they can ask questions and receive one-on-one feedback from the teacher. Although this model of education may be preferable to many current educational practices where students spend a great deal of their time in school listening to teachers talk, it is important to note that the flipped classroom approach continues to leave intact the core assumptions of elementis and aboutis that underpin traditional models of education.
Denos, M. & Case, R. (2006). Teaching about historical thinking. Vancouver, BC: Critical Thinking Consortium.
Friesen, S. & Jardine, D. (2009). 21st century learning and learners. Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/media/1087278/wncp%2021st%20cent%20learning%20(2).pdf
Khan, S. (2011). Let’s use video to reinvent education. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education
Knewton (2013). Flipped classroom. Retrieved from http://www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom/
Mconnors. (2011). Puzzle pieces. [Image]. Retrieved February 11, 2014, from: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/734817
Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sawyer, K. (2006). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.