02 April 2007

Innovative vs. Traditional Teaching: A False Opposition

After writing What's Elementary In Education? (formerly titled "Is Teaching Literacy Overrated?") I received a very thoughtful reply from a friend of mine who is both a teacher at a local alternative school and a parent with a child in a local private school that is fairly traditional as far as I know. The response was sympathetic to my point but also cautionary about the possibility of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” in the sense that children need both the traditional 3R’s and my new 3R’s, or as he put it, all 6R’s.

In order to achieve that real goal of a healthy baby we need to take a broader view of the whole process. To take his metaphor into the realm of systems thinking, my point about making optimal states of mind the measure of success is meant to ensure that we have a healthy baby, which means that taking care of her includes making sure that we are not using toilet water for washing and when we discard the dirty wash water we don’t pollute our drinking water. When the goal is not just a clean baby but a healthy baby, then the broader goal requires us to look at broader issues.

The problem with the opposition between traditional and innovative teaching methods is when it requires too narrow a view of what benefits teaching produces for learners and tends to result in each side laying exclusive claim to certain benefits as if the opposing method is incapable of helping the learning process. It only appears to be true when the surface features of the different teaching methods are compared. But, the opposition is false if the primary benefit of all teaching is, as I propose, access to optimal states of mind. It is those who make exclusive claims to learning benefits that are using toilet water in the bath by propagating false information and then polluting the well by rejecting the possibility that other options can provide similar benefits. Of course, throwing the baby out can be a problem, but so is using toilet water for the bath and polluting the drinking water.

I wholeheartedly agree that children need “traditional” skills, as long as they are taught those skills in a manner consistent with achieving optimal states of mind. Unfortunately, many schools that use traditional methods may be using them in a manner that leads children to be bored, stressed, and in many other ways driven to non-optimal states of mind when they are introduced to these skills. The result of repeatedly associating certain skills with negative states of mind is that those associations may become hard-wired in the brain and then that child will have a significant challenge overcoming the unconscious aversion to using those skills created by their early associations.

What I am suggesting is that all teaching methods should be evaluated according to their ability to provide students with reliable access to optimal states of mind regardless of the knowledge, skills, and information that are used to facilitate that access. In my previous post about literacy I was exploring the concept to distinguish a way of framing it to meet this challenge. If literacy is narrowly defined as only the old 3R’s and the old 3R’s are the primary benefit of schooling, then I have grave concerns for how well we are caring for our babies and disposing of bath water. On the other hand, if literacy is given a much broader meaning to include all the different ways that we humans have found to provide reliable access to optimal states of mind plus optimal states of mind are considered the primary benefit of schooling while the knowledge and information used to facilitate that access are secondary, then I am confident about the long term health prospects for both us and our babies.

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