In Praise Of Entropy

Entropy, as I'm using it here, is a synonym for chaos or, at least, disorder. We strive against the onset of entropy in our lives, and nowhere is this more so than in our attempts to control the learning environment. That sounds eminently sensible. Is it?

What will they learn next?I was reading an article in the latest RSA Journal this morning, and it encapsulated for me everything I disliked about the UK's National Strategies, the Literacy Strategy and the Numeracy Strategy. The article is called "Making good mistakes", by Kathryn Schulz. Schulz argues that the scientific method, whereby an hypothesis is framed, and then tested until it's disproved, is much better than the alternative, which is to constantly strive to eradicate error. It's the so-called mistakes that ignite our curiosity and prompt us to delve deeper and find out more.

When it comes to educational technology, there are lots of ways to achieve an outcome. Who can predict which one will prove to be the best? And how is "best" defined in that context anyway? One of the best series of lessons I've ever experienced was when I set a class of 16 year olds a problem, and gave them six weeks to solve it, using whatever ICT (information & communications technology) approach they wanted to. They were working in pairs, and one pair of students told me what they'd like to have the computer do, and that they wanted to achieve it using Visual Basic for Applications, and asked me if I knew how they could make it happen. I didn't. However, nothing daunted, they scoured the online help whilst I pored through one of those mighty tomes on VBA until, together, we managed to work out what had to be done. The nice thing about that experience was that we were all learners together, the rest of the class got on with their own work whilst my attention was elsewhere, and nobody questioned the fact that I, the teacher, didn’t know the answer to something in my own subject. Best of all, each student learnt from the experience of solving the problem, and everyone learnt that there is not necessarily just one solution to a problem.

Could that lesson have taken place in the context of the National Strategies, in which lesson plans are provided for every lesson, including timings and PowerPoint slides? Could that lesson have taken place in a climate of fear in which any time spent not actively teaching is seen as time not used efficiently in the pursuit of certain targets? The materials produced under the auspices of the National Strategies are excellent. The ICT Framework (based, I like to think, on a spreadsheet I created whilst working at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), is a brilliant summary of the requirements of the ICT Programme of Study at Key Stage 3. What's missing is the freedom to experiment and to not slavishly follow the lesson plan. (The National Strategies were not, it should be said, mandatory. However, many schools regarded them as such.)

Lest it appear that I am singling out these central government initiatives for criticism, I think the same considerations apply to any situation in which teachers are required to produce detailed lesson plans for every lesson. Obviously, planning is a good thing on the whole – but so is flexibility. As I said in my article about creating a lesson plan bank, using a lesson plan template is good for the sake of consistency,

as long as adhering to the template doesn't become an end in itself: flexibility is always required.

What would happen, for instance, if at the beginning of every lesson one or two pupils addressed the class about an item they'd read about in the news, pertaining to ICT in some way, which was then discussed for 10 minutes. You would "lose" 15 minutes of that lesson -- but think of how much potentially richer the experience of everyone in the room would be.

Occasionally, the discussion would become so heated that the entire lesson would be taken over. So what? There would be items from the curriculum covered in the discussion, so when you actually come on to teaching those topics you will have something vibrant and lively to refer to. If the issue that fired everyone up so much was a local one, perhaps it could even lead to a group being formed to do some work with the community, or inviting particular people in to address the class or the school.

And sometimes, of course, the students charged with the job of getting the discussion started would not show up, or there would be no news that week, or the discussion would be like a damp squib. In other words, this approach would have been a "mistake" on that occasion. Would it matter, ultimately? Which is better, a series of perfectly planned and executed lessons which possibly result in students being bored senseless, or lessons in which, at least sometimes, things are allowed to take their course to see what happens?

I have always thought the latter, and my students fared just as well in exams in my subject as they did in any other. And I like to think, though I cannot prove it, that they also became much more rounded citizens as a result of the teaching approach I used.

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