You Cannot Teach a Child You do Not Know

“Children learn at their own pace. It’s inconvenient. It’s terribly inconvenient.”

Renowned educationist, Ted Sizer, made this comment, among other thought-provoking statements during his speech at the Australian National Schools Network entitled “I cannot teach a child I do not know.” Sizer goes on to express the need for teacher collaboration on a daily basis to get to know students, the importance of teamwork and flexibility, and why we need to stop categorizing children by their ages. Years on, a similar conversation is still thriving as ‘personalization’ again takes center stage, and we continue to ask if it’s possible to reach out to every student in a classroom. With technology now stepping up to the plate providing more plausible solutions, we seem to be moving ever closer to achieving this ambitious goal. Yet, Sizer’s argument still resonates. 

Why do we need to know?

Referring to a student of his, Sizer comments “Unless I know how his mind works, I do not know why he made the error.” He goes on to explain “I have to know that young man well enough to know if there is a pattern to that error, whether the error he made was simply a chance, a goof, or whether in fact he fundamentally misunderstood the idea.” This idea of understanding how a student learns best, where a student struggles, and hence why support is needed is in essence the key to great education. Yet, one obvious and unfortunate flaw still renders educators incapable of achieving this: a lack of mind-reading ability. This is where adaptive technology comes in. With a system pinpointing where a student stumbles, showing you the resources a student uses to reach every learning objective, the exact area that causes confusion, and the time taken to complete each task, educators can see more than ever into the mind of the student, receiving an ‘aerial view’ of learning as it progresses, through learning analytics.

Is knowing enough?

Now that we have a way to better understand every student, what’s next? Is knowing enough? Sizer argues “It’s not enough just to know about the youngster. You have to have the authority to adjust the programme to accommodate that youngster. If she needs to move this way, while the syllabus goes that way, the team has to have the right to go this way because the point is to do right by Sarah, not right by the curriculum.” This is a significant point Sizer makes. We’ve made it thus far, we have the tools to understand our students, so what’s stopping us from making the next move? Very often, the answer lies in a rigid curriculum that fails to cater for student needs. As we wait patiently for the introduction of a more inclusive, flexible curriculum, adaptive technology has come up with an alternative. Here, a student progresses on a personalized learning path that provides tailored resources, and assessment through competency-based progression. This way, students take the path that suits them, with educators walking alongside, knowing exactly where and when to offer support and guidance.

While technology cannot provide all of the answers, adaptive technology is at least offering the stepping stones to effectively scale 1:1 instruction, and provide deeper insights into student learning. Yet, the suggestions made by Sizer remain as relevant today as they were then, if not more so.

Without regular collaboration between educators and room for movement, the technology essentially loses its effectiveness; The teacher remains the primary instructor, equipped with the tools, without the training. Through regular professional development, educators can, and are, making a difference with technology such as this. Yet, many others remain reluctant to take a chance out of skepticism or disbelief, or in an attempt to cling on to times gone by, teaching in the way that we ourselves were taught. Without a shared ideology, and a combined movement towards new wave education, positive change is far from reach. To those who insist no change is needed, I re-pose the question: Can you teach a child you do not know?

Image credits: Pratham Books / CC BY 2.0
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