I was skimming my Twitter feed this morning just before I headed out for a run (in a hale-storm it turns out!) when I came across a tweet asking for advice on whether the author should pursue problem based learning, inquiry based learning or some other learning approach. While I was busy trying to keep my hands from freezing and anticipating routes under as much cover as I could, this tweet kept coming back to me. It struck me that the question itself was the wrong question, at least as it was posed in the 140 characters or less – I will admit to not clicking on any links (if there were any) so I may be missing the rest of the question.
The problem though is not unique. I constantly hear the question of what cool new tech tool should I use? What learning approach is in vogue today? The questions should not be about the tool or the pedagogy, the question should be about the students and the context of the learning. There is value to focusing on a particular tool or technique in an effort to learn about it. You need to learn what it is capable of and what situations it would be best used in, but that is not the same thing as “Should I be a Problem Based teacher or an Inquiry Based teacher.” Two parallels from my life as a musician come to mind.
As an improvising musician (and I’m using this term to denote anyone who is spontaneously creating music on their instrument regardless of style), there is an unwritten rule that you do not use the stage as your practice room. Your practice room is used for working out ideas, patterns and techniques. These skills then become part of your vocabulary. You don’t not force them into a performance, but, when truly integrated, they will appear in your performances. As a musician, you may not even be aware that you are using these skills because the focus of your attention is on responding appropriately to the circumstance that you are in. Teaching is no different. You read. You blog. You talk to people. You might even try something with students in a lab situation. But over time, these ideas gradually become part of who you are as a teacher. You respond to students differently. You set up learning environments differently. And often, you don’t even know that you are doing it.
The other parallel involves record shops. Remember those? OK, CD shops? I hated the fact that the bins had these arbitrary style names on them and the stock people often couldn’t agree on where to a put a certain disc. Is Sinatra Jazz? Easy Listening? Adult Contemporary? Big Band? The reality is that they are all right, depending on your definitions of the genres and which recording your listening to. And at the end of the day, an artist often doesn’t show up on stage and say to himself, “OK, this is going to be a Retro-Punk Fusion performance so I will be limited to doing these stylistic things.” They show up to play their music wherever those influences have come from. Teaching is no different. The concepts of Problem Based Learning and Inquiry Based Learning have a lot in common and some differences. I don’t think the question should be how am I going to fit my unit of learning into a prescribed style. The questions should be, who are the learners and what are they trying to learn? Knowing this, what ideas can I pull from anywhere to set up an engaging and effective learning environment so that the learners I am responsible for will learn what they need to. Tools and techniques come from a need, not the other way around.
It is great that we have folks who spend their lives researching different approaches to teaching. We need those people. Society is changing and we all know that education needs to make some major changes to keep ahead of the game (or in many cases catch up). These folks, usually in academic institutions, are tasked with playing with these ideas and studying their effectiveness. Our role as practising teachers is to learn from these people so that when appropriate situations present themselves, we have access to the tools to that will be most effective. Our role is not to get on a bandwagon and label ourselves as this kind of teacher or that kind of teacher. We need to keep the learning and learners at the centre of our thinking and pick appropriate pedagogies, tools or combinations thereof to serve.