Back to basics?

Flying home from San Antonio, Texas and the National Education Computing Conference (NECC), my head was full of ideas about pushing the boundaries of teaching and learning. Sitting next to me was an older gentleman from Texas. He was a grandfather nearing retirement, working in the banking industry. We exchanged the usual family and job facts, and as usual whenever I mention that I work with schools, he wanted to share some stories. Of course, everyone is an expert at school. They went, they have children — it’s the one institution that we all have in common. People like telling their stories.

This particular Texas gentleman had grandchildren ranging in age from babies to teens, and his daughter was a teacher too. “It’s not like back when I went to school,” he said after a time, and I braced for the rest of the sentence. I fully expected it to be something about getting back to basics, or how today’s kids don’t value education and the parents don’t discipline them.

But then he said something completely different. He said that when he went to school, his teachers encouraged him to think, and that they helped students do their work, not just memorize facts. He said that he’s often in his grandchildren’s classrooms and “the teachers talk all the time” from the front of the class and wondered how anyone could learn like that. “It wasn’t like that when I was young,” he sighed.

Later on, I sat there questioning all my assumptions. Of course not all “olden days” teachers were drilling students. How could I have had that image in my head? When people think about the past, of course we all have had different experiences. Talking about how school used to be is meaningless; it’s too dependent on your personal experience. Unfortunately, we hear this kind of language all the time, whether it’s to point at the “bad old days” or the “good old days” Neither of them exist in reality.

People are always searching for the new new thing – it’s human nature to enjoy stimulating new ideas. However, things like 21st century skills, where we try to define what students need to know “now” (as if creative thinking wasn’t ever valued,) is a solution to a problem that may not exist. It may just be a reflection of our vast, yet fundamentally faulty collective memory of things that never were.


5 Replies to “Back to basics?”

  1. Excellent story!

    Your last paragraph should be widely read, and should sound the death knell of all this “Education 2.0” rubbish! The ideas are not rubbish, but the notions that they are new and relevant particularly to these times most definitely are.

  2. Very topical post!
    In times that involve massive transformations in any system, people often yearn for times past, when things were better, easier … .
    They only ever existed in individual or “collective” imaginations.
    In a teaching repertoire, there is room for many tools of all eras (slates and ink excluded).
    I remember fondly the drill and kill of beginning each day with a rapid run through of the times tables in Year 4. In fact, what was that but a rhythmic approach to a relatively boring but valuable piece of mathematical knowledge.

    As Tom Barrett, is saying a “blended” approach as quality teaching may just help us get through these interesting times (old Chinese curse?) and at the same time, we continue to move ourselves and of course that “late majority” ever forward.


  3. Nice reminder that good teaching is good teaching. My father-in-law is a retired history teacher who had a reputation of being an outstanding teacher. He often comments to me about how he’d love to be teaching today knowing what he’d be able to add to what he did. Being able to provide his students with richer resources, more opportunities to demonstrate learning and the ability to connect with experts. But mostly helping work hard and learn lots. We’ve always been able to do that.

  4. Hate to leave the cheesy “nice post” echo, Sylvia, but jeez, I can’t help it:

    Nice post.

    It’s so much less about tools than about freaking getting students to want to grow and learn, instead of escape and stay ignorant.

  5. I really like the way this story focuses on the students and challenges our assumptions about “the way things were”. It is true that I tend to think of schooling in the past as more didactic. It’s an easy stereotype – I am even reading a text book which emphasises this very clearly right now! (there has been much class discussion around our text).

    I agree with Robert Jones that the principles of “new learning” have been around before the advent of e-learning 2.0. I think the benefit of e-Learning 2.0 is that it takes this idea of reflection and focus on the individual into a larger setting than the bounds of the classroom.

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