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Spoon-feeding students – hand it out, or let them starve?

Posted by Tilly Stevens on June 8, 2017 at 1:32 PM

boy spoon fed.jpgThis idea of “spoon-feeding; students gets kicked around a lot these days. But what really is meant by this phrase? Is it a bad thing and should we stop it? If so, how can we?

In an interview on The Learning Capacity Podcast, learning specialist Richard Andrew described spoon-feeding as:

“Any process which robs students of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning.”

According to Richard there are two types of spoon-feeding – explicit and implicit.

Explicit includes behaviour such as providing notes to students so they can “pass” an exam (here Richard really emphasises the idea of merely passing).

Implicit spoon-feeding includes the teacher-centered learning approach that many schools have in place. Through this, teachers teach to or ‘at’ students – “do what I do and know what I know” as Richard puts it.

The problem

In this way, students are taught content but are they really learning? If we merely give students information, are we actually helping to further their learning? Richard Andrew advocates the creation of opportunities for students to become more independent in their learning. If an assessment is lost, do not give the student another copy but instead point them in the direction of how to obtain it themselves. Do not “preach” information at students, but encourage discussion groups to come at it themselves.

However, this touches on an interesting issue within the school curriculum. That is, the content-based system of learning. 

As a high school tutor, I used to both love and dread the first session with a new Year 12 student. This is when I would show them a copy of the NSW Board of Studies school curriculum. I loved it because their eyes would always widen in shock due to the mountain of content they were expected to tackle, but I would dread it because I’d then have to spend the next hour explaining to them that they could tackle it.

Richard Andrew argues that we must provide students with the opportunity to engage with learning this content themselves. I would argue that instead we must engage them with why they are learning it in the first place.

When will I ever need to know about Shakespeare?

I cannot tell you how many times I (and countless teachers ) have heard the accusation “When will I ever need to know the themes of Shakespeare’s Othello?"

It is easy to dismiss this question as being merely an expression of frustration and naiveté. However, I would argue it is perhaps one of the most important questions to answer. Of course students are right to question why it is they are learning this content. After all, this is exactly how we learn – by questioning. But teachers need to make it clear that it is imperative students understand the lesson behind the content.

I am not teaching you about the tragedy of  Othello because you will be asked about it in a job interview. I am teaching it to you because it is about the exercise of exploring the themes, not the themes themselves. Othello is merely a tool to encourage you to think independently and critically. Students must analyse the behaviour of the characters (and the author) and then be able to communicate it effectively.

Learning how to learn 

The syllabus and its content are a pathway to learning how to learn. Of course, it also provides key content that students will need in the future (no matter how much they may doubt it) – writing, spelling and reading; financial and spatial mathematics; biology, physics and chemistry as well as the history of how the world came to be the way it is.

More than this, education plays the role of being a conductor to creativity and independence. Or at least, it should.

Perhaps this content-oriented syllabus encourages teachers and students to dawdle along the path, to focus on the things themselves rather than the why of it all. I don’t want you to be able to write an essay because it’s your final year of high school year and you have to. I want you to be able to write an essay so that you can communicate confidently and clearly as well as be able to understand how to comprehend another’s written work effectively.

That’s why you have to figure out how Shakespeare’s Tempest explores Discovery  (the compulsory unit of English all students must undertake in the final year of high school in NSW). Interpret complex ideas and then figure out how to express yourself in a way that allows you to be understood. Use your powers of independent criticism and then make your voice be heard.

How to employ this in education?

The answer, it seems, is Finland. This country has recently done away with the idea of “subjects” altogether. Instead, students learn “topics” or “phenomenon-based teaching”. Here, students study events, topics or scenarios which incorporate several subjects at a time.

For example in an “English” lesson, students look at a map of Europe and must match common weather patterns with their respective country. All whilst using the English language. Here we have an exercise where the students incorporate knowledge from geography, science and English all within the same lesson.

More than this, the Finnish system seeks to more directly prepare students for working life. Students can take subjects such as “cafeteria services” where elements from maths, languages, writing and communication skills are all refined.

In this way, the Finnish education reforms seem to tackle Richard Andrew’s question of how to move away from the teacher-centered “spoon-feeding” system. Shadow Education Secretary of England, Tristram Hunt says there is a need: 

“…for education to promote character, resilience and communication skills, rather than just pushing children through ‘exam factories’”

Richard Andrew touches on the outdated nature of the teacher-centred learning system. Lessons organised by subjects made sense in the early 1900s when students needed to learn specific information in order to perform specific tasks or jobs in the future. But 65% of today’s students will be employed in jobs which haven’t been invented yet. How can an education system prepare students for something which doesn’t yet exist?

By teaching them how to learn and think.

The Finnish system takes into account the growing technical nature of the world and incorporates it as early as the kindergarten years. Teachers use technology to make learning fun and interactive, rather than stagnant and unobtainable. Add to this the opening of the student’s mind to allow it to think critically and creatively and you have an individual who is ready to tackle the ever-changing world after high school.

So, is spoon-feeding students a problem? Absolutely. This practice robs students of their true potential by providing them with “answers” rather than encouraging them to ask questions.

Is this an unsolvable obstacle? Absolutely not. With a bit of creative thinking and an understanding of the modern world, students can be instructed not in content, but in the art of thinking.

In a future where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty, a critical mind and creativity are a student’s best bet.  

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