Let me be entirely frank. In many Australian schools, the insistence on student-centred learning has led to a crisis. Literacy and numeracy skills continue to founder. The metaphor of the moment describes some students as having ‘fallen through the cracks’. From my vantage point, there’s a veritable chasm in the floorboards of most classrooms. The cracks are many, and the time to resolve each student’s crisis too limited to prevent the fall in many cases.
When people ask me what goes on behind Coach House’s secret bookcase door, I give them our three pass-phrases: structured inquiry, explicit instruction and synthetic phonics. These terms may have you breaking out in a cold sweat but fear not. The methods they describe are very simple.
After almost thirty years in the classroom, I’m seeing the effects of leaving the responsibility for learning in the hands of the student. It is a bad idea. And unless the student is that rare breed of individual who can forge their own path to success without adult intervention, it doesn’t work. What does work is structured inquiry and explicit instruction.
Structured inquiry involves presenting the student with bite-sized pieces of information. In teaching literacy and numeracy concepts, the tutor works through the material methodically. We don’t move forward until the student has mastered the work in each phase.
Working one-on-one, it’s surprising how quickly students can grasp, practice and master new concepts. Years ago, teachers were discouraged from this approach. It was called ‘spoon-feeding’, as if teachers who practised it would turn out robotic automatons instead of free-thinking, creative individuals. Instead of giving students information in the form of facts and content, we were exhorted to let kids think for themselves; find their own truths; decide what was most valuable and learn by exploration.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? But in practice, it is vague and self-contradictory. Imagine teaching a toddler to form solid eating, sleeping and toilet training pattern via self-guided exploration alone. The entire educational enterprise is founded on the shared belief that our history, culture, language, literature, arts, sciences and patterns of behaviour and experience are inherently valuable and worthy of transmitting to the next generation.
Not all knowledge is acquired through the learning of facts, of course, but a good deal depends upon that foundation. From that starting point, creativity can spring to life and give rise to exploratory learning.
Structured inquiry still allows students to discover things for themselves. It isn’t rigid. There’s lots of questioning, discussion and immediate feedback. But we use tight scaffolding to ensure kids never feel alone and unsupported when encountering a new idea or skill. We give incrementally harder challenges and activities, just like Socrates did with his students. And as a result of this approach, we’re seeing students transform.
Ally Chumley, May, 2020.
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