I was very fortunate to view the movie, ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ last Monday. It looks at the state of education in the US, in particular what is happening at schools like High Tech High in San Diego. It also takes into consideration the changing nature of work in the 21st Century and what impact that is having on the value of a College degree.
High Tech High is one of a number of schools in the US that use a PBL or CBL approach to learning. As I was watching I started thinking about the obstacles that stop schools from going down the same road. Why have so few schools in Australia moved towards this type of learning? Marist Parramatta are one school that has taken the leap of faith and embraced this style of learning. This has been primarily due to the drive and vision of Br Pat Howlett.
Br Pat’s journey has been one of constantly looking for better ways to do things. In his days as Principal at Marcellin College, Br Pat was always thinking about the future. His building program involved creating a ‘learning centre’ that was really a centre of innovation well before anyone had termed that phrase.
It is pointless creating innovative learning spaces and then not investing the same amount of money ensuring teachers know how to use them. Br Pat realised this was an essential component of the process, and through his brilliant entrepreneurial skills, he was able to raise enough money to send a team of teachers to the US.
There are very few leaders who could do what Br Pat did. To take a very traditional systemic school and transform it into a 21st Century vision for learning requires someone of great strength to overcome the many barriers staff, parents and systems place before you.
So what are the obstacles and where do they come from?
There are way too many to list but some I have heard most often are:
- ‘We tried this in the 80’s and it didn’t work.’ Usually this comes from older staff who quite rightly are pessimistic when it comes to changes in pedagogy. They have usually seen a lot of ideas come and go, and as we have always come back to a traditional model of teaching, they feel this is the safest and most successful model of teaching. It is a tried and proven method for most students so why change? Resistance to change is one of the biggest obstacles.
- Parents want the best possible education for their children. They are very suspicious of anything that does not resemble the type of education they had. As there is very little longitudinal data about the value of a PBL approach, it is hard for anyone to say that PBL is a better approach to learning than more traditional proven methods.
- Students are sometimes the most conservative when it comes to school. They expect to have content delivered to them by a teacher standing at the front of the classroom. Having to make decisions on their learning, working in groups, presenting to an audience are all aspects of the PBL approach that students find quite confronting. Some can find this very stressful and believe this type of approach is not ‘teaching’. They would much prefer to be ‘sponges’ because it requires little effort and thought.
- Systems can on one hand be actively encouraging a more ‘student-centred’ approach in their schools while working against this process by over-burdening schools with endless compliance documentation.
So where to from here? How can a systemic school incorporate a PBL approach successfully? Well that is something for a future post!