All you need is on-line learning

I was just about to reach out for my one hundred and first mince pie the other day when I caught sight of this article:

“The Kindle and Nook may make for not only the most important advance in reading since Gutenberg, but also, quite likely, a major lesson in unintended consequences.  Especially for the educational establishment, because for the first time in history, Americans should be able to envision a future without public-school teachers — indeed, a future without public-school administrators or state departments of education with their rigidly enforced, politically correct social-transformation curriculum.  A future without onerous school taxes, “education president(s),” self-preening school boards, or million-dollar classrooms.  But most happily, a future without a single supercilious finger wagging in our face as we’re forever lectured about how much a securely tenured, part-time, self-important, overpaid class of public employees “cares” about our sons and daughters.  Really, really, really cares.  And, of course, knows much better than we do how to bring them up.”

Of course, this sort of thing could never happen in the UK (?), but this is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been concerned about. It feeds the public myth that all we need now is on-line learning. There’s no doubt that on-line learning has a significant role to play in our future education system, but to my mind, there’s still a long, long way to go before artificial intelligence systems are good enough to replace a real teacher. One day, they probably will – but until then we’re going to have to prepare a really convincing argument to persuade the bean-counters that anytime, anyplace access to the Khan Academy on its own just simply isn’t going to do the job.

And then there’s the nonsense suggestion that, unlike today’s textbooks and teachers, on-line resources are going to be free of indoctrination and propaganda and bias of all types.

“But suddenly, with a Kindle or Nook in hand, children can skip the propaganda.  At the fingertips of parents armed with a one of these electronic reading devices, there are eight hundred thousand free books — and a million for sometimes as little as ninety-nine cents.  They can find their own lies if they want to.  Or, more importantly, the truth.”

To be fair though, the article does make a number of valid points that cover the inappropriateness of existing schools and the potential value of one-to-one tuition and home-schooling, while carefully ignoring the costs of these essential ‘extras’ that will quickly get cut out of the calculation to save public funding in times of recession. But the main problem remains – that we are being led to believe that teaching is something that anyone can do.

Recently someone who was not an educationalist casually asked me how do you teach someone something? After a moment’s blankness in response of the complexity of the answer required to answer such a simple question, I remembered AIDA. No, not the opera, but the mnemonic used by the advertising industry. The letters stand for:

A – Attention (Awareness): attract the attention of the customer by using unexpected, exaggerated or puzzling words and images
I – Interest: raise customer interest by focusing on and demonstrating advantages and benefits in a context they will be familiar with, often using analogies and metaphors, and telling a story
D – Desire: convince customers that they want and desire the product or service and that it will satisfy their needs.
A – Action: lead customers towards taking action and/or purchasing.

Not that long after I started teaching I realised that in many ways I was applying the same approach.

Attention: attract the attention of the learners by using unexpected, exaggerated or puzzling words and images that make them curious.
Interest: raise learner interest by focusing on and demonstrating the key points clearly and simply and putting them in a familiar context, often using analogies and metaphors, and telling a story
Desire: convince learners that they want and desire to know, understand and be able to successfully apply the content
Action: lead learners towards taking action, through some sort of practical activity.

It’s a general approach I still use today. Take the photo and first sentence of this post, for example. What have multiple mince pies got to do with it? Nothing really, except that it places it in the current context of Christmas. And surely a hundred and one is an exaggeration? Or course it is. But, assuming you’ve read this far, it clearly got your attention and raised your curiosity.

Of course there’s a great deal more to teaching than just applying AIDA, but it begins to demonstrate what makes it a complex, sophisticated and professional job. It also provides a reference to evaluate a Khan Academy video, or for that matter, the vast majority of similar content being rapidly produced by new media companies and increasingly by learning institutions themselves. And the on-line learning experiences I’ve seen tend to focus on just presenting the facts in a passive way, without much in the way of stimulating attention, interest, desire or action. Until they start to do so they are likely to remain a poor substitute for the passion and infectious enthusiasm of a good teacher and the chance to learn first-hand about team-work and collaboration.

Finally, of course, all that remains for me to do is to now encourage you to take action by responding in the comments box below! And to eat my hundred and second mince pie.

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