Sometimes Our Professional Development is like Grade 8 History

Often in history class, students are asked to rank causes or results of an event in order of importance; this kind of laddering causes the students to engage the material and aids understanding, retention, and helps develop their critical reasoning skills.  Inevitability, when asked which is the most important reason or cause, the majority of answers posit why a particular reason is important, but rarely do they address why it is the most important?  Why is it more important that the other reasons.  This is a comparative question and much more complex; thus ignored!  We have a very similar tendency with pedagogical strategies.

Every workshop i have ever gone to or book on teaching I have ever read has done 1 of 2 things.  The work shop, like the grade 8 history student, explains all the advantages of their teaching strategy or outlook without ever arguing why it is better or advantageous over the approach that is currently being used.   Because no comparison is ever presented, teachers are rarely convinced by the presentation; however, they are typically instructed to adopt the new approach anyways.  Teacher’s don’t have to be convinced if they can be compelled…”progress” continues.

If this doesn’t happen, then the rare comparison is made; however, this is little better.  A strawman of the current approach is typically used and, as expected, easy to dismiss as ineffective, by the presenter.  Teachers, even if unconvinced, are given the vocabulary to pay lip service to a new approach, even if they remain unconvinced.

Since pedagogies are never compared, they are never permanently dismissed; they are free to be repackaged and presented at a later date in the name of student improvement (or profit…or promotion).  Experienced teachers often complain about the cycles of change within the profession.  They argue that they have seen approaches before, come and go, only to return again.  The names change, the pedagogical approaches recycle.  Because we never argue comparatively, concepts in education are free to come back; all offer some advantages; all have some degree of success and research behind them.

This cycle produces some obvious negative consequences.  One of course is teacher’s buildup resentment to change in technique, but more importantly, our growth as a profession is hampered, and our ability to instruct students is stagnant.

About 7 years ago, our discussions in Ontario were around differentiation and teaching to student’s unique needs, styles, levels, etc.  Taking students as they are and working from there-we called it student centered.  It had a lot of advantages.  Then, within Student Centered Learning, a concept called Inquiry Based Learning began to be developed.  At first, it was a strategy to help deliver Student Centered Instruction-it was part of an overall strategy.  It had many advantages.  Over the last 5 years, our language has changed; Inquiry Based Instruction has taken over the discussion-it’s being presented as having many advantage; however, sadly, we haven’t convincingly argued why it is better than the more robust and divergent approach of Student Centered Learning.

I have argued in an earlier post (https://tuckerteacher.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/is-inquiry-based-learning-student-focused/) that inquiry can’t work for students like my son.  I have hinted that this will impair our ability to follow an integration mandate for special education students.  Even though my son may represent an extreme case, he represents the possibility that an Inquiry Instruction method might not work for all students.  We must ask, “who else wont it work for?” “how many?”  Not only will he, and very likely others, fail to achieve the curriculum in this model of instruction, it will make integration for him and his classmates unsuccessful.  It will keep him from his neurologically typical peers.

It is time for us to stop the cycle of education reform.  We must compare the relative advantages and disadvantages between pedagogical approaches.  We must answer which is a better system; is it better to have inquiry as a possible option or part of a Student Centered Approach, or is Inquiry so powerful, it should be adopted beyond all other approaches?  One day, we might go through the 182 teaching strategies found in the ministry document housed here: (http://faculty.nipissingu.ca/darleneb/Relevant_links_docs/telrsta2002.pdf) and order them by overall effectiveness.    Then we can end the “cycle of change” and start a “cycle of improving” in its place.

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