What exactly is needed for profound or systemic change to occur in education? When will education transform from a teacher-centered to student-centered teaching and learning environment? Why do we continue to accept and support traditional schooling as a place and a way of teaching and learning that has been the same for decades? How do we create conditions that will promote informed, thoughtful discussion about educational purposes among teachers, students, parents, and community members? This article shows and tells my educational journey as a quest to reform traditional education; that is, beyond superficial implementations. So, I posit two key areas that require further examination:
(1) There is a type of leadership that is critical for systemic change (transformation, rethinking, restructuring) to occur; and,
(2) The processes for development of reflexive leaders and practitioners with a willingness to see through the eyes of a child should ensure the best educative service of children.
The Allegory of the Cave
The current education system can be compared metaphorically to Plato’s prisoners bound in a cave in The Republic. The prisoners were comfortable with only seeing shadows projected on the wall in front of them. Reflecting on my life as a student in grade school, I often felt like a prisoner in a cave. I had twelve solid years of schooling with teachers providing models of teaching and learning and defining universal roles for teachers and students. Throughout my schooling, the classroom environment was predominantly instruction based with the teacher as the main source of information transmitting the knowledge to the students. As a student, I felt comfortable with a traditional teacher-centered environment. I imagine this may be similar to the comfort felt by the prisoners as they observed the shadows on the wall in the cave.
In contrast, as a student teacher, I experienced a paradigm shift from traditional pedagogy to student-centred pedagogy where learning became a ‘constructive’ process. Brooks and Brooks (1999) describe a constructivist classroom by identifying some guiding principles; such as: (1) posing problems of emerging relevance to learners; (2) structuring learning around primary concepts; (3) seeking and valuing students’ points of view; (4) adapting curricula to address students’ suppositions; and (5) assessing student learning in the context of teaching. (p. 33). Table 1 summarizes descriptors of constructivist teacher practice. ( Brooks and Brooks, 1999, p. 103-116).
Table 1: Descriptors of Constructivist Teachers
-Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative;
-Use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials;
-Use cognitive terminology such as “classify,” “analyze,” “predict,” and “create” when framing tasks;
-Allow students responses to drive lessons, shift instructional strategies, and alter content;
-Inquire about students’ understandings of concepts before sharing their own understandings of those concepts;
-Encourage students to engage in dialogue, both with the teacher and with one another;
-Encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other;
-Seek elaboration of students’ initial responses;
-Engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to their initial hypotheses and then encourage discussion;
-Allow wait time after posing questions;
-Provide time for students to construct relationships and create metaphors; and
-Nurture students’ natural curiosity through frequent use of the learning cycle model.
I graduated as a new teacher filled with enthusiasm and abundant ideas for creating an environment where students would work together discussing thoughtful, open-ended and complex questions; they would make discoveries and make sense of their world by constructing their own knowledge. I looked forward to the challenge of being a constructivist teacher with a focus on the learner.
In the Cave
In my first year teaching, I accepted an assignment at an urban school with many veteran teachers who provided me with guidance and mentorship. I quickly conformed to the school’s culture and eventually felt as though I was becoming a prisoner in ‘that’ cave again. Even though I knew what a student-centered environment should look like, I found it easier to revert back to the traditional teacher-centered ways that were accepted and expected by my colleagues. I was ready to practice constructivism, a widely accepted educational philosophy and pedagogy in theory, but required the readiness and support of my colleagues and the community to progress confidently as a new teacher. My vision of teaching and learning in the classroom was clearly different from my colleagues as well as the expectations held by the school administration and parents in the community.
A few years later, I applied for a position in a different school. It was the leadership of the principal at the school that made it easy to accept a position in a new teaching and learning environment. I experienced a ‘turning point’ in my career by having an opportunity to practice the student-centered teaching and learning that I once imagined would have been my practice as a new teacher. The leader of this school provided a supportive vision and an environment that was conducive to personal and pedagogic growth and authentic progress for all learners. It was my first experience witnessing the power of such leadership. It was as if someone provided me with a re-orientation and removed me from ‘the cave’ once again.
It’s interesting that it took the first twelve years of my schooling experience as a student to learn about teacher-centered or traditional school environments. Then, it took twelve more years of teaching, becoming a school administrator, and working at the district level to realize that I still was not witnessing a ‘true’ student-centered environment. I was no longer in the cave, but I did not yet see the light. I re-located to another city due to family circumstances and decided I would start all over again as a temporary contract teacher in a new city and seek the light again.
Seeking the Educative Light
I accepted a teaching position at a non-traditional school that embraced a student-centered approach. An extraordinary leader provided inspiration that empowered others to see more than would ever be possible on their own. This leader encouraged everyone to soar. It was the leadership in the school that improved communication with the community to ensure the ‘non-traditional’ school was accepted by the parents and students alike; the barriers were removed to allow the teachers and students to truly experience a constructivist environment of student-initiated learning and habits of mind as described by Costa and Kallick (2000).
Costa and Kallick (2000) write that: The Habits of Mind are most evident when we ask students to manage their own learning. Consider all the different habits of mind involved when we ask students to choose the group they will join, the topic they will study, and the ways they will manage themselves to meet a deadline. Every occasion of self directed learning is a rich opportunity for students to practice the habits of mind. (p. 5)
It was a moment of serendipity when I realized the light I was seeking had always been right in front of my eyes – the students. I opened my eyes and became blinded by all the shining lights that crossed my path each day! In a student-centered environment, it is necessary to include the students as partners in the teaching and learning process; it is essential to involve students in their learning by seeking their input. The students are the educative light and the leadership in the school cleared the path of any obstacles which then permitted the light to be revealed and shine brightly. I learned how important it is to be connected with the students in the classroom; to engage and seek input from the students; to focus on student learning from the perspective of the student; and most importantly to serve the student.
The prisoners bound in Plato’s dark cave only seeing shadows projected on the wall parallel to those that are unwilling to alter from traditional practice where the teacher is the provider of all information and students are uninvolved participants. Leadership, both bottom-up and top-down, are necessary for the prisoners to successfully leave the cave and see the bright light. What is required in order to build leadership capacity where leaders are open to the ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm of the children and are willing to support new methods for teaching and learning? Fullan (2005) argues that “capacity building involves developing the collective ability – dispositions, skills, knowledge, motivation, and resources – to act together to bring about positive change” (p.4). How do we create an educational environment that promotes reflection and development of the collective ability and sustains educational reform?
In summary, educational reform in the classroom occurs with supportive leadership at all levels, leaders who are willing to remove the barriers that are associated with change. In addition, it is when the leaders and practitioners become reflective and desire input from the children they serve, that profound change is made possible. There is a need for more research and study on reflexive leadership and the impact of student input when implementing change. What are the possibilities when leaders, educators, parents and communities begin to view education through the lens or eyes of a child?
Brooks, J. G., and M. G. Brooks. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms, with a new introduction by the authors. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Costa, A. and Kallick, B. (2000). Activating and Engaging Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Fullan, M. (2005). Leadership & Sustainability: System thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Plato. (360 B.C.E.) The Republic, Book VII (B. Jowett, Trans.) Retrieved September 18, 2008, from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/platoscave.html