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Changing Contexts

May 22, 2015

Yesterday, on Twitter, I read about a fax that was received at various schools around the province. The individual who wrote the fax is a passionate parent who obviously wants the best for her child. I disagree with the methods she is using to achieve this and I disagree with the message she is sending. You can see an image of the fax at the bottom of my post. Rather than refute the content of the fax that was sent out yesterday, I thought I would write about why I am in favour of the many changes that have been undertaken by teachers and Alberta Education.

Historical Context

For hundreds of years, western society has valued an education system which enabled students to memorize a cannon of information. Those students who were successful in this system attained a high level of mechanical memorization of facts, formulas or ideas. Success meant the capacity to memorize material and recreate the material when requested. Many people, myself included, refer to this as the factory model of education. Students were given information through direct instruction from a teacher. Not everyone was successful with this model but that was deemed to be satisfactory. After all, the prevailing belief was that not everyone could be successful in school.

However, this industrial or factory model of education has changed over time. There have been many attempts at revamping the system, some more successful than others. However, the advent of the Internet; the widespread adoption of technology, both personal and school based; and the proliferation of high speed, broadband connections have immensely altered the education landscape. Now, more than at any point in human history, individuals have access to a wealth of information about any topic. That is not to say they know what to do with that information. It does however mean that we need to reexamine the value we place on mechanical memorization of information.

Mechanical Memorization vs. Memorization with Understanding

John Hattie’s name is synonymous with research in education. In 2002, Hattie coauthored a paper with Australian researcher Nola Purdie titled: Assessing Students’ Conceptions of Learning. In this paper, Purdie and Hattie (2002) suggest, through research from various cultural groups, that there are six conceptions of learning (p.27). They are:

  1. Learning is gaining information
  2. Learning is a duty
  3. Learning is for social competence
  4. Learning is for personal change
  5. Learning is for remembering, using and understanding information
  6. Learning is a process not bound by time or place

The traditional concept of mechanical memorization valued in western education can be seen in learning as gaining information as well as learning as a duty. Those that were able to give information back during testing situations were the ones who were traditionally the most successful and who saw a duty in learning in this way. Western society valued this capacity and therefore the institutions of learning reinforced this process. This idea is brought up by Purdie and Hattie (2002) and the research of others (Säljö, 1979, 1989): “Different educational environments will define learning according to different socially and culturally established conventions with respect to what counts as learning” (Purdie & Hattie, 2002, p.18). Our environments valued mechanical memorization so that is what was defined as learning. However, as access to information has increased, the value of simple mechanical memorization is diminishing. Now, more emphasis is being placed on learning as remembering, using, and understanding information as well as a process which is no longer bound by time or place.

Students have access to an immense amount of information. However, they do not always know how to use this information. In addition, some of the tasks they are asked to complete require a certain amount of memorization. I am not suggesting that memorization of certain processes should be removed. I believe that we need to continue to promote environments where students have strong foundational literacy and numeracy and have a deep level of understanding. I want students to think, problem solve, build networks, create, and share their work. To do so, they need teachers who can help them activate their foundations. That is the crux of Inspiring Education, the Ministerial Order on Teaching and Learning from May 2013, and the High School Redesign program. All of these pieces are designed to create environments where learning is valued and defined as remembering, using and understanding information and where learning is a process which is not bound by time or place.

The Myth

Opponents of these documents such as the individual who sent faxes around the province will suggest that the documents and programs mentioned about promote a focus on discovery learning in that students will be left to their own devices to discover information and build knowledge on their own. This is simply not true. In an environment where mechanical memorization of information is valued, direct instruction as the only pedagogical approach is acceptable. However, in an environment where learning is for remembering, using, and understanding information and where learning is seen as a process not bound by time or place, a variety of pedagogical approaches is necessary. This approach will include direct instruction because there are times when that is the most appropriate approach. But it will also include a wide array of other pedagogical approaches because that will ensure we can maximize the success of all students, not just those who can memorize and regurgitate.

Final Thoughts

As a teacher, I want my students to be able to think. I want them to be curious about the world and find their passions. I want them to be successful and engaged. I believe schools should be environments where all students find success. I want a system described by Piaget: Education for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society…But for me, education means making creators…You have to make inventors, innovators, not conformists.”


Tran Davies Letter


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