Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"__BL" : Education's Obsession With Labels

Last week there was an interesting twitter discussion on the nature of projects versus the nature of problems.
It occurred with specific reference between the differences of PBL (project-based learning) and PrBL (problem-based learning). If you follow this blog or scan the provided tags you will find PBL does occupy some space here. There is also a large amount of posts detailing "tasks". This is a rather artificial term I use to refer to a piece of mathematical work to be done or undertaken.

To me, the potency of all of these ideas is lost on many teachers. Not just my work, but the work of math educators worldwide. (and yes... even some textbook writers. Shock). Teachers love to label different approaches and then subsequently develop (or collect) resources that carry that specific label. Some labels just repackage old ideas while others aim to describe a pedagogy as much as their content. I think such is the aim of both PBL and PrBL. The only problem is that the label shifts the focus away from what is important: the pedagogy.

It is probably easiest to lay out the harmful effects of labels in a bulleted fashion.

  • Labels create commercialization.
Once there is an established "type" of resource, the entire educational machine revs up to churn out books, memberships, sample materials, presentations, and professional development. It isn't long until the original inputs for the label is diluted to suit mass production.
  • Labels attract connotations.
It doesn't take long for the rich understanding (and well meaning) behind a label to become simplified and vilified by those (as ignorant as they may be) opposed to the idea. Just today a chart was tweeted that labeled PBL mathematics as "fuzzy" and opposed to memorization. Ignorant over-generalizations take on lives of their own, and labels create easy targets. 
  • Labels put the focus on one stakeholder.
Whether it is PBL, PrBL, student-centered, or teacher-centered (to name a few), labels highlight but one piece of the educative puzzle. You can't honestly say that a certain type of room is teacher-centered? Or student-centered? An isolation of one of these players renders the entire process null. It never begins. All the players (including the content and culture) are co-implicated in an educational setting. Lecturing is not teacher-centered, if anything the teacher is just a passive mouthpiece void of any initiative. Their role is then to pass on pre-conceived knowledge. That doesn't sound teacher-centered, it sounds more like teacher-proof. 

People sit in the middle and say that their classrooms are "learning-centered". Well... duh. What well-meaning teacher doesn't want (and even think) this to be the case. A "deceit-centered" or "ignorance-centered" classroom is either non-existent or pathological. Why even label that?

Finally, and most importantly:
  • Labels often highlight the resources at the expense of pedagogy.

In the specific case of PBL and PrBL, we are debating what attributes make a educational artefact a problem rather than a project (or vice versa). What that does is pull the focus away from the pedagogy behind the label (the spirit in which they are to be encountered by the students), and place it on the specific instance of content. This means that teachers attempt to collect these artefacts, and once their repertoire is robust enough, they can then execute the "type" of classroom under that label. (i.e. If I can only find enough good problems, I could run PrBL).

This generates a mindset of attainment in teachers. We see it during curriculum renewal; we see it during internships. Teachers scrambling to attain the "stuff" needed to keep up. Labels pull us away from an attunement to the pedagogy behind the resources. Some do a better job at embedding the two mindsets. Recently, the phenomenon of 3Acts has generated a whole new label. The inherently great thing about these problems is the pedagogy was built within the content. It created a potent mix that could take relatively humdrum things like stacking cups and printing paper and create engaging classrooms. It wasn't the content (like the label might insinuate), it was the pedagogy behind it. 

I continue attempt to throw off labels; I try and describe to others how I teach and run my classroom (or at least attempt to). Maybe "Occasion-based learning" (OBL) or "Discourse-based learning" (DBL). Something that resists definition and implies that learning happens in the places where content, pedagogy, and curiosity meet.