Vice President for Education,
National Geographic Society
Students using crayons and a map of the world can draw their best guesses of what the distribution of temperatures is like all around the world in the month of July. This activity can be engaging to students, giving them a chance to draw on what they know in a way that makes them curious about what they don’t know. This lesson is based on research that says that if students are asked to articulate their current understanding of a phenomenon before they are taught something new about it, then they learn the new material more effectively because they can connect it to their existing understanding.
Giving people an image of what learning could be like is a really important part of improving education. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, policy makers, and community members have remarkably similar views of what education looks like, and those views have not changed much since we were in school.
Despite the fact that the dominant image is in conflict with much of
what we know about how children and adolescents learn best, it is
deeply ingrained in our culture. It is so ingrained that approaches to
education that differ from this model are typically met with resistance
by participants and stakeholders.
If you want to make students and teachers uncomfortable, ask them to
work in a configuration that goes against convention. Ask most American
high school students to sit in a circle or to share their work with
others in small groups, and they will squirm with discomfort. Ask most
American principals to evaluate the quality of teaching and learning in
a classroom in which students are moving around the classroom, talking
and arguing, and making messes, and they will conclude that the teacher
is unable to control the students and that learning is being undermined
by the disorder. And yet, these are precisely the kinds of conditions
that have been shown to maximize learning.
In the second half of this article, Edelson describes two different approaches to teaching about global climate. The first, led by “Mrs. Brown,” follows a traditional model. “Mrs. Scarlet,” on the other hand, experiments with a more innovative pedagogical technique. Read the two examples and tell us your reactions:
Do you think students would be more engaged in Mrs. Scarlet’s classroom, or in Mrs. Brown’s classroom?
Do you empathize with Mrs. Brown’s concerns about trying the new approach, or not?
Do you have any experience with innovative approaches to teaching such as these, yourself? If so, please share your stories with us!