Learning, Teaching and Education Research in the 21st Century: An Evolutionary Analysis of the Role of Teachers
reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight - November 30, 2012
Title: Learning, Teaching and Education Research in the 21st Century: An Evolutionary Analysis of the Role of Teachers
Author(s): Joanna Swann
Publisher: Continuum, New York
ISBN: 1441163174, Pages: 288, Year: 2012
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Pivotal to Joanna Swanns book, Learning, Teaching and Education Research in the 21st Century: An Evolutionary Analysis of the Role of Teachers, is the theoretical relationship she tightly weaves throughout her book. The attention of the author to Karl Poppers evolutionary theory is carefully tied to an analysis of the role of teachers and how knowledge is gained.
As a veteran educator Swann brings over 30 years of experience that enriches the discourse at a very elegant and sophisticated level, but is able to speak to all teachers in her book as she insists that we all can move forward in the direction she is taking us. Swann exudes such a passion for change in the educational field that it is almost palpable. As a reviewer of the book, I was intrigued by Chapter One, in which Swann dedicates 16 pages to the purpose of the book. She carefully reveals the importance of Popperian philosophy to understanding the main issues of the book. Swann provides us with a cheat sheet in order to read the chapters more fully, including: the core of her argument, commonsense ideas about learning, the use of student-initiated curricula, and a broader definition of what we might call teaching. She then divides the book into three major parts: 1) learning, including what happens when we learn and some problematic ideas about learning; 2) encouraging learning, including what promotes and what inhibits learning and developing student-initiated curricula; and 3) developing teaching, including research and the development of teaching as well as the improvement of our practice as teachers, which assists in creating a better world.
Through many of the learning issues Swann discusses, she helps the reader to understand that learning is not a passive process. She believes that it is an entirely subjective experience, which takes place as the student interprets an external environmental problem. The interpretation takes place through the elimination of mismatched expectations. This is a revolutionary idea in regard to the teaching of mathematics, where educators usually give the learner the tools to use without providing an accompanying problem! Some of this is alleviated with the promotion of math games in the math classes, which incorporate many of the tenets that Swann supports. Swanns core argument offers the idea that there needs to be a problem to solve in order to have learning take place, and that the student can come up with the tools as the student sees fit. In general, in order to deal with our own way of learning we need to engage in exploratory activities. This is in tune with the notion of lifelong learning as adults, where we attempt to solve problems by exploring various strategies. Swann propels us to think in a new way about learning that is contrary to many of the ways weve participated in previously. Swann continues to develop this argument throughout the book, specifically in Chapter Nine.
Further consideration of the teaching/learning paradigm focuses somewhat on the teacher. Swanns definition of a teacher is a person who is [given a Popperian account of learning] to encourage would-be learners to engage in autonomous, open-ended trial and error-elimination (p. 96). She feels that when we take up the time of the learner with an agenda set by someone else, what happens is that the person becomes somewhat distracted from his/her life work and loses the impetus that encourages interactions that are beneficial to the community in which they reside. It seems that in educational systems this phenomenon comes about early in the life of the child (around 3rd grade), but, before that, early childhood education can often be characterized as exploratory learning, with a recognition of the need for understanding mismatches. Swann points out that children often learn something when they are taught, but it is not necessarily the prescribed agenda that the teacher set out to teach. The prescribed agenda according to Swann does not foster the imagination or criticality (p. 103) that is desired. This creates a new kind of assessment that promotes a sense of solving problems that students are interested in.
In reading the text, the reader becomes aware of the work Swann has done to stay true to the tenets of Popper while explaining a rapidly changing educational scene and the complexity of the bureaucratic stronghold. She attends to this very specifically in the discussion about teachers relationship to policy makers and what the outcome of that relationship is. Swann finds that teachers attention to the governing bodies somewhat tapers their desire to teach a particular subject and therefore holds them hostage to certain aspects of the curriculum. This position creates less creativity and critical thinking. It also inhibits activity in regard to developing self-awareness and self-assessment in the students. This top-down model, according to Swann, strains the engagement of the student, as well as reducing empowerment in regard to the knowledge under consideration. Basically, Swann points out that true understanding comes only through students actively constructing their own understanding by using their prior knowledge and the desire to put some hard work into learning.
In the final chapter, Swann investigates the idea of teaching as creating a better world. Primarily, however, her focus is on transcendent learning in which there is a deep and abiding respect for the way others learn, and how we use the resources of our world. This is not to say that all prescribed curricula should be abandoned, but that we could find some aspects of the curricula that would include some measure of student-initiated curriculum. According to Swann this might happen once or twice a semester or even once a week. The emphasis on problem-based initiatives is one that encourages the transcendent learning she supports. This book is enlightening to read as an educator. Many of the points get us to think in creative and imaginative ways. Swann did the hard work of creating a poignant argument for educators.