Is this one of the biggest problems in traditional secondary school education?

This blogpost represents my personal views. While I do not wish to cause offence, I do genuinely wish to hear your thoughts about my wondering. I invite your comments.

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This week on The Mind Lab Postgraduate course (Certificate in Applied Practice – Digital and Collaborative Learning) we were talking about epistemology. In other words, we were discussing knowledge. What it means to know, the changing ideas about knowledge, the implications of what it might mean to be a teacher in the Knowledge Age when basically the sum total of all human knowledge is now available in your pocket. Rich, interesting, thoughtful, provocative stuff.

In the past, schools have positioned their students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Students would retain this knowledge in their heads for a time in the future when it would be needed. For a teacher under this paradigm, content is king.

Now knowledge is increasing at an exponential rate. Google and Wikipedia know far more about any given topic than I could ever possibly be expected to know. And even about topics I have studied in considerable depth, like Shakespeare. Students can access this information any where, any time, via their smartphones. As a teacher, I cannot possibly present myself as an expert receptacle of knowledge. We have moved from ‘just in case’ knowledge to ‘just in time’ knowledge. When students need to know something, they can simply google it.  Content as king is dead. Long live the… what?

Today, this article from The Atlantic was shared with me via Twitter: “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher“. In part, the writer mourns the loss of the role of the teacher as “content expert”.

I don’t remember the last time I’ve attended, or even heard of, any professional-development training focused on my specific subject matter. Instead, these experiences concentrate on incorporating technology in the classroom, utilizing assessment data, or new ways of becoming a school facilitator.

In many respects, I understand where this teacher is coming from. When I would become disillusioned with high school English teaching, I would take genuine comfort from the fact that I was being paid ‘to talk books’.

And yet, the world has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. The siloed approach to content knowledge, to the very subject-specific matter this teacher is mourning the loss of, needs to change with it. Skills and dispositions are critical. Exploring, discovering, creating knowledge is where the emphasis needs to fall.

This reminds me of a conversation I was involved in during our last eFellows hui, whereby we secondary teachers were explaining to a primary school teacher that high school teachers don’t see themselves as teachers of students first, but rather subject specialists.

And this is my big wondering today. Is this one of the biggest problems in traditional secondary school education? That I identify as a teacher of English [or insert subject here] and not as a teacher of learners?

What do you think? How might we encourage secondary school teachers to put students and not their subject first?

21 thoughts on “Is this one of the biggest problems in traditional secondary school education?

  1. robfam2 March 29, 2015 / 4:19 am

    I am a Social Science teacher. Yes it is the problem, but NCEA is based on teaching subjects so education becomes a compromise.

    • pnicoll March 29, 2015 / 8:49 am

      I hear what you’re saying, and yes, NCEA is grouped around subjects, but I also think there is more flexibility in the system than we generally give it credit for.

  2. Leanne Stubbing March 29, 2015 / 5:53 am

    I have read something recently (total mind blank sorry but think it was Claxton) talking about how Universities have dictated how we learn at secondary and primary. The University system focuses on obtaining particular knowledge as an apprenticeship type model towards obtaining a particular job. So true! So now I am going to rewind to my own foundations which are based in Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum. In that curriculum we focus on developing “lifelong learners” and learning dispositions. The new NZC took a lot from Te Whāriki around the whole learner and primary is beginning to head more in this direction. So what I am thinking is Secondary trying to be mini-universities and set students up for jobs or do teachers still want to create possibilities for their learners – that they can be/do whatever their heart desires? Sorry to end on another question!

    • pnicoll March 29, 2015 / 8:51 am

      I feel as though you’re onto something here. I do agree that it will be tremendously hard to shift secondary schools at a transformative level until the universities shift too.

    • Danielle Myburgh April 1, 2015 / 8:08 am

      Hi Leanne, you are definitely on to something here. Universities have been at the centre of knowledge, its dissemination and its production for centuries. However, that is no longer the case. Not only is knowledgeable now more accessible, there are many many other knowledge producers out there in the world now. And many more people that are much better at disseminating knowledge effectively. Knowledge no longer belongs to the elite. In other words, whether universities like it or not, their role in the world is changing too… Just think of a MOOC, and what value does this then place on a bachelors degree that are now the norm in many places.

  3. ibpossum March 29, 2015 / 6:26 am

    I think a bit step in breaking down this perception is breaking down the traditional subject silos. It is so easy for students to forget any other skills when they enter into ‘Science’ – eg so we have to ‘reteach’ paragraph writing from English, or graphing skills from maths. If we could break down those barriers for teacher and students I think it would make a huge difference.
    I definitely see myself as a Science teacher though – but a teacher first and foremost. And sometimes I don’t really teach ‘Science’ at all, but rather group work skills or occasionally ethics or history.
    Great post, thanks for sharing – it has made me think about some hard questions

  4. Raewyn Donnell March 29, 2015 / 8:51 pm

    Interesting stuff! I think you have to make the shift as an individual. I seriously used to see myself as an ENGLISH teacher – mostly shoving content at students. But now Im much more a facilitator – still dealing with the same content but encouraging the students to find the information and share it with me – and each other. Still have the love of the books and still enjoy the discussions but am more aware now of the way my ‘subject’ relates to the whole scheme of things. How knowledge we gain from our English classes is spread throughout the curriculum. My partner is a maths teacher and envies the discussions we can have with our students – but has recently adopted our seminar approach to one of their assessments…As I wrote in the blog for my final assignment for Mindlab Auckland –
    I think this has been encapsulated by my feeling that I am no longer the ‘sage on the stage’ in my practice – but I am endeavouring to become ‘the guide on the side’ – facilitating learning rather than proving myself as the disseminator of all useful information. Sometimes this frustrates my students. Sometimes it would be easy to TELL them what they need to do to get an Excellence grade – but it’s not teaching. They are not really learning. If they have to DISCOVER what they need to do then they are learning. And they will retain that information better as it will relate directly to them – if I have done my job well.

    • pnicoll March 30, 2015 / 4:48 am

      Beautifully put. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Raewyn 🙂

  5. Stephen Eames March 30, 2015 / 6:11 am

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
    Albert Einstein

    Thanks Philippa, Spot on, I agree and I could go out on a limb and say it is debatably one of the biggest problems remaining in a lot of primary classrooms where teachers are teaching to an Industrial age model.

    I like the paragraph from “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching” By Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert
    “New meanings for “knowledge” The terms “knowledge age” or “knowledge economy” refer to a reorganisation away from an Industrial Age economy, where exploitation of natural resources, primary production, mass production and bureaucratic management hierarchies were the standard model for economic development. In the Knowledge Age, the ability to generate value through innovation (and the rapid creation of new knowledge) has become the basis for economic development. It is argued that education for the Knowledge Age must foreground the development of learners’ dispositions, capacities or competencies to deal with new situations and environments, including those with high degrees of complexity, fluidity and uncertainty. This does not mean that knowledge no longer matters, or that the school curriculum does not need explicit goals for students’ knowledge development. Rather, the future-focused education literature suggests we need to adopt a much more complex view of knowledge, one that incorporates knowing, doing and being. Alongside this we need to rethink our ideas about how our learning systems are organised, resourced and supported. ”

    Ka Pai


    • pnicoll March 30, 2015 / 7:05 pm

      Great quote. Thanks for including it here, Stephen.

  6. littlegoldnz March 30, 2015 / 7:20 am

    Interesting ideas. I’ve been having some of these discussions with teachers recently as, having moved from Primary to Secondary, I cannot overlook the person. I can’t see them as a student without seeing their pride, pain, ballet results, stress around soccer trials, anxieties, past, potential, emotions, tears and smiles. It’s who I am and how I teach. I can’t, and won’t change that. Knowing a student’s name isn’t enough. They are people, just like we are and they deserve to be known.

    That’s my 2 cents worth 🙂

    • pnicoll March 30, 2015 / 7:05 pm

      Here, here. Nicely put.

  7. Tony Cairns March 30, 2015 / 10:33 am

    I think you are on to something.

    But it is worse than that.

    The traditional role of teacher is redundant in the NanoTech world. It was an attempt by the community, group, elites to socialize and control and enculturate the young. Students now have more access, more awareness and more familiarity with the knowledge skills and memes of the postmodern age. The paradigms break down under the strain of the new info, data and awareness and switch in a kuhnian sense to better map reality as it is currently perceived and create or recognize a new paradigm the centrality and agency of the learner as ako? (though why i am using that term apart from fashion and ministry speak i know not) information is redundant, content superfluous and skills undervalued.

    No sage on the stage or thyme in the bottle to rue today my misconceptions, no rosemary, violets or daisies. Our garden bare.

    Secondary is beset on all sides by the rise of primary relevance – holistic, siilo free inquiry based learning – by intermediate – keen for its junior high classes, squeezed by the cost, ubiquity and certification of universities and pushed by the caregiver, community, employer dialectic into a credit based catch up and extension service.

    The tension – between NCEA a credit driven slog fest for point on the board and the long game built on dispositions to life and (l)earning – has reached breaking point. The credit system is too hydralike, and exposed to variance in papers, units, topics, examiners, verifiers, critiques, moderators, faculties, schools, areas, cohorts and years to be anything but an approximation of a stable system and one lacking in validity, reliability or currency but alas not bias.

    So why as a wit once asked me “do I get out of bed?” to queue for the dole, to rail against the dying of the light, to chronicle our slow slide into irrelevancey? It matter not – just that i do.

  8. Tony Cairns March 30, 2015 / 11:36 am

    I love this blogpost as its clear crisp and asks the key questions – and it makes me think – i really love things that make me think and make me want to respond and this one was perfect – love it – t

  9. Paula Hay March 30, 2015 / 9:32 pm

    Thanks for you thoughts, Philippa. Great discussion! When I meet new people I tend to introduce myself as a teacher first, then as a secondary teacher, and then as a science teacher (and lastly as a Chemistry teacher).
    I have been having a few musings and chats around these ideas for a wee while, and it is like I have a little itch that is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger! I would love to have more flexibility in the way secondary schools go about the learning (and the assessment around that learning) and I COMPLETELY echo the idea that Leanne has posted – that Universities seem to dictate what goes on in Primary and Secondary schools. Whether this is a conscious or subconscious problem is not what I am arguing. I find it incredibly frustrating that secondary schools are often focused on getting students to university, and are therefore all about the content/”knowledge”. I find it even more frustrating when specific courses at university spell out the external Achievement Standards that they require as entry to that course.

    When are we opening our own school, Philippa??

    Thanks for your thoughts – I really appreciate them.

    • pnicoll March 31, 2015 / 7:52 pm

      Yes – let’s talk. Our own school indeed 🙂

  10. Melanie March 31, 2015 / 10:17 pm

    Interesting post. I have a good friend that, after a number of years as a primary teacher and principal, took a role as HOD of Learning Support in a secondary school. Her students are primarily behind the eight ball in terms of learning due to issues as wide as poverty, family violence and learning disabilities.
    Often students will come to her and complain about teachers not meeting their needs or plain throwing them out of class. On the other hand she has the teachers coming to her complaining about the behaviour of the students. So in her non-contact time she spends a fair chunk of time in other classes supporting students and observing teachers to support them.
    One term I did a fair chunk of relief teaching at that school. It allowed me an insight into what she had been saying for ages: These teachers know their subject, but can not teach.
    I think if teachers have been game enough to look at the way they teach and make changes, good on them. But if they are only concerned about their content and not HOW they teach, then they sell themselves and their students short.
    During my time at this secondary school I scaffolded the learning of the students like I would in my primary classroom. In one class, an economics one, I treated it like a guided reading session, because it was the only way I could think off at five minutes notice to get the material across. I thought the students would think I was babying them, but they actually went away satisfied that they understood the material and could do the task. To over hear them say that was a real boost.
    The attitude of teachers to what they teach can also make a difference. One teacher asked me while I was there to support him as he introduced a new topic to his class that I had already started successfully with my classes. I can tell you that starting off with “We’re going to be working with Microsoft Publisher and I think it’s a dog of a program” is not how you inspire a tough group of year 10 students who already think you’re a plonker.
    So my challenge to secondary teachers is to be proud of what you teach, but to also critically analyse how you teach it.

    • pnicoll April 4, 2015 / 11:00 pm

      Nice challenge – thank you for providing it.

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