The recently released PISA results have many Asian countries scoring substantially higher than the US, UK, and Canada on math, reading, and science. Some people are saying this shows that the latter countries need to place more emphasis on “the basics” (such as times tables, formulas, spelling, etc.) rather than problem solving and relevance. My response is threefold:
· Part of the disparity in scores is due to typical features of Asian schooling that I don’t think are desirable: high-stakes national exams, cram schools, and enormous pressure on students to learn the basics at any cost. I rarely meet people from Asia who are glad they experienced this kind of schooling.
· Part of it is because we’ve asked teachers to teach for meaning and relevance without showing them how. In math, for example, we give them an 36 hour math methods course in teacher education and send them out to reverse a lifetime of experience and cultural initiation.
· Clearly, teachers need to do BOTH – teach the basics AND meaning, relevance, etc. And I believe this is entirely possible. But we need to figure out how to do it and systematically teach and model it in pre-service and in-service (in the context of the various subjects), rather than just making general pronouncements about constructivism, discovery learning, and teaching for understanding.
As many of my friends know, I love fitness. I did an aerobics class that left me talking to myself. The instructor is extremely fit and loves fitness but …. The class was so chaotic that I felt like I had been on the spin cycle of a washing machine – running this and that way, twirling every which way. What is so frustrating is that the instructor has been given so much feedback on her class — stop all of dashing about because no one can follow you. But she has not heeded any of the advice. This experience with the aerobics class is so much like teaching. Even if you know your subject well, you have to set up the class so that the students can follow your direction and then actually apply what they are learning. Being attentive to learners to ensure that they thrive should be uppermost in the teacher’s approach. Whether it is a fitness class or a grade one reading class or a high school physics class or a literacy methods course in teacher education, students should not leave the session frustrated. Aerobics is hard. Learning is hard. Teachers need to focus on the students whatever the context. And my aerobics instructor should be mindful of the participants. We got up early on a weekend to do a workout (and in Toronto it was mighty cold this morning) so we were all keen to do a workout. What more could a teacher want? This might be something for policy-makers to consider. Engaging the learner should be the first priority! Teacher knowledge of content is important but there is so much more to teaching. Clare