by Jane Healey, Ph.D.
A troublesome contradiction exists between innovative trends in education and the need to sell outcomes to prospective parents.
Experts encourage teachers to implement learning scenarios like experiential education, decentering the classroom and authentic assessment. They advocate teachers becoming coaches or mentors instead of the traditional experts lecturing to rows of studious children. Bring on the tables, devices and projects! The students’ obvious engagement—and lack of boredom—suggests teachers are making an impact that will support students through their future educational.
When teachers design experiential projects, they anticipate the outcomes very carefully. Many start there and work backwards, planning for a range of possibilities, including students who may exceed expectations and the many who will proceed in developmentally appropriate ways.
Specifically, teachers don’t aim for students to create brilliant or perfect outcomes; they expect the results to represent the messy process, the hands-off pedagogy and the lack of professional resources. They teach skills through carefully engineered processes and examining the outcomes as teaching tools to debrief with the students and reflect on the lessons they learned creating it.
But when many adults view outcomes like posters, essays, videos and more, they judge them out of context because they didn’t experience the process and may not even be aware of it. They tend to be more critical than teachers, and they often express the desire to find ways to improve the presentation.
They see finished products instead of glimpses into the work the students slugged through to create anything at all. The outcome is a small percentage of the project, but some viewers see it as the whole and judge accordingly. When these viewers intend the outcomes for purposes other than guiding students through an evaluation of their work or making learning visible, the response that teachers hear is, “What can we do to the process to produce better results?”
The adults want to help and improve. They tinker with careful protocols, inserting access to greater resources, outside experts to consult and even fancy materials. The students create prettier posters for the walls or more fluid videos for the website, but don’t learn as much about tackling challenges by muscling up on these comparatively minor skills.
Educational experts spout mantras like, “Failure is a good thing; you learn from it.” But when others see less than perfect results, they tend to see the “room for improvement,” or worse, “failure.” Thus, adults in the students’ learning environments encourage pretty outcomes over the icky and often downright groping in the dark of real critical thinking and creativity.
Learning is not perfect or precise or pretty; it is difficult, painful and often ugly. At its best it produces long-term and sometimes invisible results, few of which can be illuminated with the types of products (e.g., letter grades or polished presentations) that parents and other stakeholders expect to see.
So to impress, learning–especially within particularly innovative approaches to learning–is often packaged and sold, tied up with a bow to entice people to develop positive impressions of places. But must authentic and innovative learning be subjugated to the needs of selling an education and looking good?
Image attribution flickr user vincealongi; The Troublesome Contradiction Between Transparency & Learning Innovation