The Reflective Educator

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Tag: inquiry

Wikipedia & the Magic School bus

Magic school bus
(Image credit: XKCD)

 

In many ways this comic from XKCD describes to me the dichotomy between the neo-Liberal 21st century personalized learning model, and the constructivist learning model.

The Magic Bus uses an constructivist approach to learning. In each episode, Ms. Frizzle leads the students through investigations of different scientific ideas through magical field trips. The students lead the process, and Ms. Frizzle uses her questions to draw out their thinking, and to help students decide on the direction of the bus. Often she leads the students through the scientific principles, but she lets them come to their own understanding of the science, while helping to correct their misconceptions.

In the neo-Liberal model, students absorb content through online courses, and the personalization comes in through what pace they are learning the material, and what resources they need to be indoctrinated. One of the primary purposes of technology in this mindset seems to be to reduce the role of the teacher in leading the child through learning, both for a cost-savings effect, but also to reduce the natural tendencies of teachers to indoctrinate children with their own moral values.

Personally, I’d hate to see the Magic School bus model of learning derailed to meet a corporate need for compliant citizens. Videos used to help explain concepts, or as part of a pedagogical approach of individual teachers is okay with me, but as a vehicle for dehumanizing education is entirely inappropriate. If we are going to use technology in our schools, I think it behoves us to recognize both of these arguments for what they are, a fundamentally different approach to education.

Learning through Guided Inquiry

My son has started to learn how to ski. He tried last year, and failed miserably, in fact he gave up in the first five minutes of the lesson, which ended up being a pretty expensive day for a 5 minute skiing lesson. It wasn’t his fault the lesson failed, he wasn’t ready for it. He was probably too young, and had strong expectations about what he should be able to do when we started skiing.

We had been to Science World in Vancouver, where they have a simulator that lets you pretend to be a professional skiier. You can race down alpine slopes at frightening speeds, but whenever you crash, the simulation resets and pushes you into the right direction. The problem with the simulation is that my son tried it, and at his age, that’s what he thought his first experience of skiing would be, and when he wasn’t immediately racing down the mountain, he got upset, and his lesson ended.

Now he’s a year older and we’ve tried a different tact. We bought skis and ski boots for him and put them in his play area. Periodically he’s put them both on and walked around our little livingroom. He hasn’t played the simulation at Science World in a long time, and so his expectations are different. We’ve talked about the need to practice to get good at something, and he’s learned a lot of patience. We set up a private lesson for him, instead of the group lesson which failed so badly last year.

He’s learning through what I would call guided inquiry. If we had just put the skiis on him and set him loose, he wouldn’t learn very much about skiing because there are some subtle things which are not obvious, like how to stop or turn. On the other hand, we can’t tell him everything about how to ski, he has to learn through practice and trying it out for himself. His private instructor, a friend of ours, guides him instead of instructing him. He doesn’t go through an experience with the other ski instructors in the big group which I liken to the factory model of education, instead his instructor spends most of the time skiing backward and asking Thanasis to "come here" without telling him too much about how to do it. Periodically she would give him pieces of advice and feedback, but by and large he figured it out himself.

More of our education system should be like this. Guided inquiry as opposed to factory instruction.