Experiential learning in Alberta
Does a knowledge-rich curriculum imply a particular style of teaching?
Recently, I blogged about the new draft curriculum in Alberta and analysed a blog post by Dr Carla Peck that was critical of this draft curriculum. Since then, I have had quite a few negative comments but few directed to what I actually wrote, with most of them being personal criticisms or assumptions about my politics (again, I like to point people to Paul Graham for his advice on how to disagree).
However, one substantive point has been raised. A couple of commenters have essentially accepted that background knowledge is important but have questioned whether this then implies that we need the sort of content rich curriculum being proposed in Alberta: Surely, chess players gain knowledge of chess from playing chess and not memorising long lists of facts, they argue. Surely, the knowledge of cricket required to read the passage I quoted in my previous post would best be acquired by playing cricket.
This is an interesting point to unpack.
Firstly, a curriculum is not meant to imply a style of teaching. However, most people seem to think it does. A lot of the opposition to the new draft Alberta curriculum appears to come from people who assume that it will ensure that children receive explicit teaching. They don’t put it that way exactly. They tend to couch explicit teaching in pejorative terms like ‘drilling’ or ‘rote memorisation’, but it is clear that they are concerned that the curriculum will squeeze out the more experiential forms of learning of which they approve.
In essence, this is a tacit admission that experiential forms of learning are not very effective at teaching knowledge, and that’s true. By knowledge, I would include all subject-specific skills that become automatised through practice, such as the ability to use the standard addition algorithm to add two-digit numbers together. Inquiry learning, problem-based learning etc. are simply less effective and efficient because they tend to overload working memory.
We don’t even need to appeal to cognitive science research to understand one of the reasons why. Imagine you are a soccer player and you want to learn how to take corner kicks. In one game of soccer, you may get a handful of chances to take a corner kick. It would be far better to go on to an empty soccer field with a coach who instructs you in how to take corner kicks and gives you feedback as you practise. The educational equivalent of just playing games of soccer would be something like project-based learning or inquiry learning. The educational equivalent of practising corner kicks would, of course, become characterised as ‘drill and kill’ by its critics, but it represents the first stages of a sequence of explicit teaching.
So, what of those chess experts? Nobody sat them down and explicitly taught them how to play chess, did they? They just acquired that knowledge through experience, right? I am not so sure. I have seen kids being explicitly taught how to play chess in chess club. We also have to bear in mind that most children don’t learn how to play chess - it is a topic for enthusiasts. Enthusiasts are more likely to seek out their own explicit forms of instruction, such as books or YouTube videos and they are more likely to devote hours to the less efficient process of learning through experience. For any given expert, their expertise could derive from a number of different experiences.
Similarly, the cricket example I gave in my last post involves knowledge that may not be taught in school. In my case, I had pretty poor PE teachers who were not interested in teaching cricket and so I gained most of my knowledge while playing cricket or watching matches with my father who explained the rules to me.
By contrast, what we are attempting to do with a K-6 history curriculum is teach history to all student, including those who may not be intrinsically motivated to learn. To do this effectively and efficiently, we need the most effective and efficient forms of instruction. And those involve explicit teaching and the gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student, with lots of practice along the way.
What about that intrinsic motivation? Some argue that experiential forms of learning are more motivating for students. I don’t really buy this. Although initially fun, struggling with something you don’t fully understand is likely to lead to demotivation over time. Children aren’t silly and they realise when they are not making progress. This is why studies tend to show at least a reciprocal relationship between motivation and achievement, with some showing that achievement precedes motivation. In other words, there is no conflict between forms of teaching that lead to the most achievement - i.e. explicit teaching - and the goal of building motivation.
Some worry that we then lose out on the more generic skills we may gain from experiential learning. This is a hypothesis in need of evidence. If we know that explicit forms of teaching are clearly superior for imparting knowledge and domain specific skills then we need a sound reason to depart from them.
In fact, abilities such as critical thinking are founded on the subject knowledge that is taught so efficiently through explicit teaching. So, there is no conflict here. In fact, there is some doubt as to whether generic skills of critical thinking or problem solving that can be transferred from one context, such as science, to another, such as history, can even be taught at all.
Clearly, feelings are strong on these issues. People have views based on their own experiences. People also use the shortcut of politics to assume that if a curriculum is proposed by a political party they dislike then it must be flawed. As a profession, we need to move on from that. We need to become evidence-informed.
If you think a knowledge-rich curriculum cannot be taught using your preferred teaching methods, then you should ask whether that is a fault of the curriculum or a fault of your methods.
Knowledge is a wonderful thing and we as teachers should not be the keepers of the knowledge, but what happens when the knowledge that is taught is factually incorrect, or from a perspective of only one side of history?
Historical stories is what has been interested in history, but understanding perspective is also an important knowledge piece.