My students and I have been steadily focused intensely on problem-solving skills for some time now. It’s the third week of school and we haven’t talked about the philosophy of the class in while. It’s time to get them thinking about big ideas again.
I want to show you two very different models of a classroom. The first is what I call the Curriculum Transfer Model.” I put this diagram on the projector.
“The idea behind this way of thinking is that the purpose of school is to make sure that you learn a well-defined set of standards — things you should know and be able to do.
“At the top of the diagram is the curriculum you are supposed to learn. In most classes, you can find it in a textbook. Below that there is the teacher, who is an expert. He has an good understanding of his subject, but it may not perfect. For instance, I know a lot about physics, but I am completely lost when it comes to String theory. I don’t have the mathematical skills to understand it.
“So the teacher, with his imperfect knowledge of the truth, transmits the received wisdom of his discipline to his students. That’s you, down here along the bottom row. You don’t know much about the curriculum yet - your job is to absorb as much of it as possible. Some of you do a great job of that, and some don’t.
“In this model, there is a flow of information in one direction only, from the curriculum, through the teacher to the students.
“Does this look familiar?”, I ask. It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Everyone in the room understands this diagram immediately. They’ve been living with it for a decade.
“But here’s where it gets interesting. It doesn’t have to be this way. This model doesn’t work all that well, for a bunch of reasons. Students being passive receivers of curriculum, like you are in this picture, sounds pretty boring. And boring is not an effective approach to learning. “So here is a different way to describe a classroom.” I put this diagram on the projector.
“What do you notice right away about the difference between this diagram and the last one?”
“All the students are connected to each other. It’s not just about the subject you are learning.” Alicia is smiling. She clearly likes this image better.
“There are arrows going in both directions - everybody’s are giving and taking in this picture”, Sam says.
“That’s one of the things I like best about this model; students are active in this picture. This is definitely not a picture of you sitting in rows passively absorbing what the teacher is saying. This picture is describing a community of learners, and it’s what this class is going to be like.
“So does anyone notice anything else unusual about this diagram?”
“Wait a minute - the teacher is just another person in the circle.” Sam is confused. “Are you saying you’re not going to teach us physics?”
“Don’t worry, Sam, I will definitely be teaching you physics. But this model is describing a different relationship between the teacher and students. You’ll notice there are a collection of learners surrounding a subject. There is no special place for the teacher, because he is another learner. He’s a very well educated and knowledgeable learner, but he’s still learning the subject. (By the way, you’ll discover in this class that being a teacher is one of the most powerful ways to actually learn about something.)
“There will be times when I am delivering new ideas, teaching you new skills, and that will look a lot like the first diagram. But the place where the rubber hits the road is what happens next, the part where you take over and work with each other to figure it out together.
“The current research being done on the brain and how it works is saying pretty clearly that we are hard-wired to talk to each other, to socialize, to tell stories. There are even some researchers who say that the only way we really learn is through stories. But in any case, learning as a social activity is deeper and more meaningful than learning, say, by reading a book alone. Our emotions play a role in how we learn; it’s what makes the learning meaningful. That obviously is going to happen much more in a community of learners than it will in the traditional top-down model.
“One of the things that this diagram shows clearly is that learning physics is only part of our work. While the curriculum in this class is at least as deep and challenging as it might be in a more traditional class, we, all of us, will also be learning about ourselves. This is what I call genuine learning because it incorporates learning physics with personal growth and exploration of ourselves as learners. Genuine learning is more meaningful because we are in the picture, we are part of what we are studying.”