Two Keys to Profoundly Changing Instruction in America’s Classrooms

Two Keys to Profoundly Changing Instruction in America’s Classrooms

Transform the classroom into a place where learn-by-doing is practiced.

Let’s be honest. Flipping the classroom and using clickers and other new products can only have a modest impact on student achievement. Why? Because the underlying pedagogy of such innovations is still direct instruction, with a teacher telling students stuff and then students working to remember that stuff. Direct-instruction pedagogy may well have been appropriate for preparing America’s children to take a place on the assembly line, but its intrinsic focus on factual knowledge is not appropriate to prepare today’s students for a global marketplace where knowledge workers need to know how and why and need to be problem solvers who can work collaboratively.

We Learn by Doing

We know how children (and in fact all people) learn: They/we learn by doing. John Dewey, an educational philosopher of astounding vision said about a hundred years ago, “They [teachers] give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.”

Of course, it’s easy enough to say that our classrooms should be places where learn-by-doing is practiced. Indeed, a few artisan teachers—a term used by Tom Carroll, president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), to refer to those individuals for whom teaching is a mission and not a profession—can enact a learn-by-doing pedagogy. Learn-by-doing is a very challenging pedagogy for the everyday teacher, however, who has a life outside the classroom and who teaches the way he or she was taught—by direct instruction.

How then do we go about making it easier to enact a learn-by-doing pedagogy? The first key is to empower the students to engage in active learning, problem solving and teamwork, and in so doing to take more ownership for their own learning, which in turn, takes pressure off the teacher as the fount of all knowledge.

Again, this is easy to say, but now, as we are racing full tilt into the Age of Mobilism, it is easy to see how to empower each and every student, to enable each and every learner to engage in a learn-by-doing pedagogy, 24/7, inside the classroom and outside the classroom. Let students use their own smartphones or tablets (BYOD—bring your own device). Frankly, this first key is the easy part. It is going to happen, no question. By 2015, each student will be using a mobile learning device, 24/7, for curricular purposes.

Develop New Curricula

What are the students supposed to do with those devices? Play Angry Birds? Watch movies? Add entries to their Facebook page?

The second key to enacting a learn-by-doing pedagogy is the real challenge. It may happen—and it may not. The 800-pound gorilla underlying the shift from a direct-instruction pedagogy to a learn-by-doing pedagogy is the need for a new curriculum. We can’t expect everyday teachers to take textbooks that are designed to support direct instruction and modify them in the evening to provide a new roadmap for how to “give the pupils something to do,” as Dewey suggests, that then “demands thinking.”

The curriculum must include a whole pile of new apps that support all that doing by the students inside the classroom and outside the classroom. There is more to educational software than Inspiration, great as that one piece of software is.

Right now, unfortunately, we do need to ask our teachers to step it up. School leaders need to organize their teachers into working groups to develop learn-by-doing curricula. And we need to put pressure on the textbook publishers to create true digital curricula that support both the teachers and the students as they enact learn-by-doing.

America is at an inflection point. Either we use the mobile technologies to transform the classroom into a place where learn-by-doing is practiced, or we do as we have done in the past with the desktops, with the laptops, with the Internet: We integrate the mobile technology into the existing direct-instruction curriculum and continue to go virtually nowhere, as far as increasing student achievement is concerned.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past 10 years, Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.


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