When I started teaching, I taught the way I had been taught.
In fact, regardless of the quality of teaching in a faculty of education, most teachers start out this way, because that first year of teaching is a trial by fire and when under stress, people fall back on what they know. So, having come through a school system where grades were used to determine who was smart and who wasn't, where the only way to prove your knowledge was to write about it, where marks were taken off for poor spelling or less-than-perfect handwriting or not underlining the title in red with a ruler, I taught that way, too.
The paradigm was deeper than those things, which were just a surface expression of it. The paradigm said that school needed to teach the basics to everyone as a baseline for the middle class, but it also said that some people would never achieve in school because they were not smart enough. It said that basics had to be taught before enrichment, and that enrichment - as the name implies, which is why I no longer use that term very much - was for the top students, the ones who proved they could do it. If you hadn't mastered the basics, you were doomed to read books and regurgitate their information, practise handwriting and multiplication, and get more and more bored of the whole thing until you eventually dropped out of school, thankful that it was finally over with. The only ways to master the basics were through rote learning, called "drill and kill" by its detractors. You had to learn either orally or through reading or writing - but orally didn't mean talking, it meant listening or repeating by rote. The whole class was given the same things to learn and it was the students' job to keep up with the teacher.
It worked for a lot of people. It worked for me. In fact, I was probably one of the kids for whom it worked best, because I had a good memory for lecture-style learning and I loved to read and write as my primary modes of learning. There were a lot of other people for whom it worked sufficiently, like my brother, who managed to come out of school with a massive chip on his shoulder from the methods used on him that didn't work, but also with a good education to take with him to university. (I'll talk more about this second group further down.) It worked all right for a lot of people in the middle - people who assumed that B's and C's were fine, they were just that kind of student, and they could get what they needed out of education so long as they were allowed to drop math (or some other subject they were having trouble with - math was the most common example but not the only one.) Many of this group did just fine in university later on - they'd learned to play the game of school and they'd learned enough about how to learn to make up for the deficits in their actual knowledge and problem-solving skills. In fact, having to work hard and work through boredom usually worked to their advantage later on. (Again, more about them later.)
Then there were the ones for whom it didn't work. Some of these people would have been invisible to me as a student. It wasn't until the early 1980's that Ontario law even required that this group all be in school, so some of them wouldn't have been part of my primary experience until much later - middle school, IIRC. Some of them didn't appear different, and I know I didn't really notice most of them when I was a student, but they were there. There were the kids labeled as stupid because their learning disabilities were such that pencil-and-paper, drill learning was the worst possible way to get them to learn. There were the ones who spent most of the time in the principal's office for not doing the homework, or for acting out in class, or whatever it was. For whatever reason, an estimated 20% of kids did not receive enough education to be considered literate when they left school. A further 10-15% were able to function at literacy tasks, so long as they weren't asked for anything too strenuous. The system's answer? Of course some students aren't going to do well. It's normal, and we can't give them intelligence if they have none. They'll find perfectly good jobs as workers and they'll be fine. (More on this later, too.)
The paradigm shift started just before I entered teacher's college. Most of it hadn't made its way into the faculty of education at that time; it was still new enough that the research was being done but the application wasn't. It was being applied in Australia, consistently, via a program called First Steps - an early developmental model of learning that has had profound effects on the research over the last two decades, though Australian teachers don't use its specific formulae anymore. The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics had come out with a document some years earlier that espoused the new paradigm - and it was met with such stiff resistance by everyone involved that it's still being slammed nearly twenty years later.
In Canada, textbooks were being written that would work well with the new methods, but since the new methods were not yet being taught to teachers with any consistency, many teachers didn't know how to use them to best effect (if such a thing were even possible - it's actually really hard to use a textbook as a primary resource in the new paradigm, but those textbooks were a good starting point to do so.) It took several years for the paradigm shift to make it as far as the revised Ontario Curriculum, which started to be released shortly after the current Liberal government took power in 2003. (This paradigm was in the documents that the Harris government released starting in 1997, but it was not fully-developed in them and that government didn't support the teacher learning that would have been necessary to ensure full implementation.) I've looked at similar curriculum documents for three provinces and half a dozen states, and all of those that have been revised within the last ten to fifteen years contain varying levels of the new paradigm. (Interestingly, the further south one went, the less of that paradigm was evident in the curriculum for the public school system.)
The new paradigm states that all students are capable of learning, given high expectations and high support. It grew out of psychological research begun by Piaget and continued in theories of multiple intelligences. (One of the great tragedies of the former paradigm was that it looked to Skinner's behavioural model instead of Piaget's developmental model for its research base.) The key points in this model are:
1) Students learn in many different ways. It's the teacher's job to find out how his students are learning and design lessons that will activate as many different ways of learning as possible, so that the maximum number of students will be able to access the learning.
2) Students bring a great deal of knowledge and experience of the world into the classroom with them. The corollary here is that all new learning is built on previous learning (this is called "constructivism" and it's the central tenet of this educational paradigm.) The teacher's job is to find out what the student already knows and help them build on it, again by accessing as many modes of learning as possible.
3) All students can and need to learn to think critically and present their thinking to others in a variety of ways. Critical thinking and problem-solving are not add-ons for after kids have mastered the basics; they're vehicles through which the basics can be taught. Bloom's taxonomy has pride of place in this model, because the upper levels - especially synthesis - are where student should spend the overwhelming majority of their time.
4) When students aren't succeeding, the correct response is to increase the support through group work and/or individual help, paired with resources that meet the student at their level. It is not to dumb things down, go back to low-level questions, or limit the student to drill and practice. Those things perpetuate the problem instead of solving it.
Now, I'll be the first to admit this is a dramatic shift in focus. It changes the entire purpose of public education, which has traditionally been to prepare the middle class to be worker drones in an industrial society. The new purpose of education is to maintain the middle class while also preparing students for an information-based economy. In other words, it's not good enough now that nearly 50% of our students will graduate unable to function in an information-based economy. Our society will collapse in on itself in a few generations (if it's not already) if we continue to teach in ways that encouraged that rate of failure. At its best, this paradigm should allow students to acquire basic skills while pursuing the topics that are of interest to them, developing a deep level of reflective learning to support future learning - starting from the very beginning. (Yes, I do ask my three-year-old reflective questions about what she's reading, starting with, "Why do you think x happened?" And yes, she answers them in a three-year-old way. I'm not expecting rocket science, but I am definitely expecting that she will learn her ideas have value and should be expressed and used as the basis for new knowledge.)
It's not surprising, though, that the people for whom the old system worked just fine are up in arms about it. They don't see the need for change, because it worked just fine for them and would probably work just fine for their children. (If their kids turn out to be LD, they often change their tune on this.) Their worldview when it comes to human intelligence and psychology leads them to believe that basics first, enrichment second, works better than a problem-solving approach. They're building on their previous knowledge, which isn't broad enough to support the need for change. They didn't see the kids for whom the system failed, or they did but felt it was acceptable, or inevitable, for them to fail. Or they blamed the failing students for their failure rather than the system. Or some combination of the above - I've known them to switch back and forth on these points, apparently not realizing that some of them are contradictory.
The second and third groups - the people for whom the old system worked all right - may see the need for change. They may also have a lot of trouble with certain elements of the new model, especially the bit where advanced students get more independent work while less-advanced students get more individual attention. They're right to have concerns about this, because it's one of the stickiest areas of the new model. When they express those concerns, they often fall back on what they know again, which is streaming into advanced classes for those who are capable of handling it. Most of this should be unnecessary if the new model is being implemented fully - only the top and bottom 3-5% should need more than the classroom teacher can provide. But this group is also the group with stable jobs, the group most likely to vote, and the group most likely to write to their political representatives or their newspaper. They're the group most likely to show up for parent-teacher interviews or to take concerns to the principal. And they often don't realize that they're operating under a different paradigm from their children's teachers. So when they ask for something that would have been forthcoming under the old system and find that it's no longer available, they get upset. It's a lack of communication on the part of the school and school board, but it's a serious one because it leads to parents thinking the new paradigm isn't working.
The last big problem: paradigm shifts do not happen quickly. They take a bare minimum of fifteen years, according to some business theory experts. So far, in education, we're at 12 years and counting in Ontario, and we're not there yet. My student teacher last year had a placement in a grade two classroom before she came to me. That teacher had her class sitting in desks arranged in rows, doing worksheets and then being tested on their contents. Sound familiar? That's the old paradigm in action. My student teacher was totally flabbergasted to realize that the number of fill-in-the-blanks worksheets I gave in a year could be counted on one hand; that kids sat in groups not because it made better use of space, but because I paused lessons every three or four minutes to get the kids to discuss an idea or problem amongst themselves; that anytime she suggested a drill-style activity, I was going to veto it and suggest ways to add higher-order thinking into it.
The reason I am so well-versed in this paradigm is quite simple: my school used to be one of the ones failing under the old paradigm. The Ministry and Board of Education decided to pour money and training into our school and others like it, to make them models of the new way of teaching. They did this right across the province, with the result that perhaps 20-30%% of Ontario teachers have now been immersed in the new model for several years running, and have seen its results. Teachers' colleges are actually teaching it now, though they still have trouble finding mentor teachers who know these methods well enough to mentor all the new teachers. (My school was approached by three different teachers' colleges for this fall, and I've got two who want me to take a student teacher this year. I know of another school where teachers have taken on three or more student teachers EACH per year, so great is the need for teachers who understand these methods and apply them well.)
I used to teach the old way. I did not simply accept everything I was told by a faculty of education. I am not a parrot. I worked through the old paradigm, and it did not work for what I needed it to work for - educating my students. Gradually, I switched to the new paradigm, adding pieces, discussing, reading, arguing about pieces I felt were wrong, and eventually coming to the place I'm at now. I can look back at the route that brought me here and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'm serving my students far better than I ever did before; that I'm serving my students better than any of my own teachers ever did; and that the shift of paradigms must continue, because it works. I look at the road ahead of me and know, again beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my career will be spent teaching within this paradigm and teaching other teachers to implement it; that my master's degree will investigate this trend and suggest ways of speeding up the implementation process; and that at the end of it, I may not win accolades in the profession at large, but I will have contributed to society at large on a much broader scale than a classroom teacher gets to do.
That's not arrogance, as some have alleged. It's professional expertise, and it was hard-won.