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C'est la Z

In Education, What's New is Old

I noticed a tweet the other day talking about gamification of education. It got me thinking.

Gamification isn't specifically the hot trend right now, at least not as "the one true way" to teach but every few years it surges as this great new idea to fix education.

When it surges, it's always the hot new thing but it never really is.

Gamification has been around at least since I was in grade school and it was never a magic bullet. It might not have been called gamification but it was there.

Back in grade school, those stickers you got - gamification. Earn a pizza party for the class gamification. Even those leveled readers were gamified. I mean, you literally leveled up.

I remember early in my career I had to take a number of education classes and gamifying was a big strategy that the professors all taught to engage all the students. Contrast that with the advice I got in schools by pretty much every experienced teacher who took me under their wings - some kids are motivated by stickers but many aren't. It's a superficial trick and you'll only get so much mileage out of it. It's not the be all and end all.

Of course, ed tech companies can thrive on gamification because they're specifically catering to customers who thrive on it but it's not a magic bullet by any means. On the other hand, it can also be low effort to implement so there are plenty of times when it's worth a shot.

This got me thinking about other teaching techniques that were the new hot thing but were in fact around back in the day and more often than not, nothing special.

Let's take a look at a few:

The Flipped Classroom

This is a big one the big way to fix education. Have the kids watch videos before class and then do other things in class.

New idea?

Not so much.

It's called homework.

Homework can be used to review past concepts and also to introduce new ones.

So, not a new idea at all but does it work?

Not really. Sure, anything that moves from college style lecturing to active learning during class time is good but "flipping the classroom" has the same issues as homework.

Not all kids do or understand the homework and if you're class activities depend on what's done the night before, you're in trouble.

On top of that, there's been a recent movement against homework that's also been gaining traction an that's certainly contrary to flipping the classroom.

So, flipping the classroom - new? Not so much. Effective? Sometimes but like anything else, it's not a magic bullet just a tool that can be usefully or poorly deployed.

Code Tracing

Another practice I've seen hyped more is Code Tracing. This one's easy - it's a good practice. It's not new though. Code tracing - you write out a table of variable values and you play computer, going through the code line by line.

This is actually very similar to how students learned to graph linear and quadratic equations. Make a table for x, and y, trace through the algorithm, and chart the results.

Good practice but not new.

Subgoal Labeling

Another good practice that's cropped up in the past few years. Once again, not new.

I didn't call it subgoal labelling but I was writing code that way back in the 1980s.

Discovery Learning

Back when I started teaching, cooperative learning was the true way, more recently discovery learning took the mantel. Fortunately we're swinging back to more generic active learning which can incorporate discovery learning and other techniques so maybe where actually getting somewhere.

The thing about discovery learning is that even when I was a kid, we were in classes where some of our teachers developed experiential units where student groups worked at their own pace through activities that led them through learning a topic - discovery learning.

Now, this practice can be good but it's also not "the way." I read posts and articles from acclaimed schools and teachers about how they do everything using discovery learning. Then you look further. They're almost always in rich private schools with small classes and almost unlimited resources. Yeah - try that every day in an overcrowded under resourced public school.

Parsons Problems

Let's close with one more. Parsons problems - scrambled lines of code

Like code tracing and subgoal labeling, Parsons Problems appear to be a useful teaching technique and like the former two, nobody has claimed them to be the be all and end all - all are just tools in the tool box for a teacher to use as appropraite.

Parsons problems though are also not new - they're a CS take on scrambled paragraphs.

Final thoughts

Now, just because these new ideas aren't new doesn't mean they're bad. My big complaint about the ones I don't like is that they're mis-applied as a cure all not that they can't be effective when used appropriately.

The point is that these new ideas that you'll hear about from your ed professors or read in the research aren't necessarily new.

To be honest, most teachers will get their best tools from their peer group - fellow teachers, frequently more experienced ones or if they're lucky, In service or pre-service instructors who are in fact experienced K12 teachers who are sharing their practices. This is as opposed to when those teachers are employed to teach someone elses canned curriculum.

In any event, I always get a kick out of seeing a "new" practice and then thinking about how old it actually is - if you've got some to share, please do.

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