More recently, I’ve heard the term “balance” come up in education circles, and sometimes it rubs me the wrong way. Some balance, I’d argue, is good; other balance could be dangerous.
Balance with Screentime
I took part in a conversation recently with some teachers and one offered this sentiment: “Learning through a screen all the time isn’t what’s best for kids; sometimes they need to learn in a different way, maybe, by building something with their hands.” I found the idea easy to agree with, and even though my work is often tied to learning through screens, I think we learn through experience, not through glass. Balance in this regard is apt, when it comes to any one thing we do directed at learning. Learning should mimic the full range of human capacity for experiencing our world.
Balance with Assessment
A number of folks recently visited us here in Goochland to learn more about our Balanced Assessment Project. This effort, organized originally by Dr. Geyer in 2013, set out to re-engineer how we conduct and do assessment within Goochland. In short, we now use a variety of assessment types to provide a more holistic view of student progress with learning. Balance in this regard reminds me of a balanced plan for more healthy living. A doctor wouldn’t likely recommend heavy, strenuous exercise alone, while we could eat all the junk food we might find. We also might not fully benefit from a super-healthy diet when our activity level is low. Balance in this regard is a healthy diet, moderate, regular exercise, and balancing our day to day activities to include things that help us reduce stress and find happiness.
Balance with Instruction
I actually do not have one specific example here, but this is will illustrate the more dangerous interpretation of balance we might make. I am sure there is a name for what I’m trying to describe. It’s when you take a general concept and apply it to something else, but the comparison isn’t entirely congruent. The example I have is with coding, which is the contemporary term for computer programming. (It also extends to things that are technically not programming, like HTML creation for webpages, but to most folks, the interpretation is the same.) We are currently offering two after school coding clubs at Goochland and Randolph, led by Ms. Parrish. She took this on completely on her own, and I know eventually, she’d like to have the experience available to all three elementary schools. I think what she has done is a dream come true and give her 100% of the credit for the success of these programs. Students come to these weekly sessions excited and energized and the types of learning taking place is deep.
The idea behind a liberal education, which is more apt a description of many undergraduate programs today, centered on having a well-rounded (balanced) exposure to a number of different disciplines of learning. That same idea is certainly echoed in our state standards. We don’t just teach math to kids who seem to like it. We teach it to all of them.
We do sometimes marginalize some subjects/disciplines. Band or chorus. Or, music or art. We do let kids choose with some things in middle and high school, but the “core” is always there.
The one thing that has stayed with my training years ago as a future music teacher was that music, and really all the arts, belonged to humankind, not just kids who seemed to like music, or show an aptitude. I could say the same thing about coding. Coding as an educational method helps the learner develop skills around how to think in logical ways. I’m so happy there’s an opportunity for some kids to develop coding skills through an extra-curricular club (and for parents who are interested, I can point them to a number of excellent online opportunities for learning, too, that are free). But balance in this regard is dangerous.
The same goes for a “balance” between student-centered and teacher-centered instruction. So many of us were taught how to teach (or it was modeled for us as students ourselves) on how to present and rehearse information to/for students. When the sole source of information is the teacher, we are robbing kids of the opportunity to be self-directed learners and human beings. I think if we’re being honest, we are currently balanced in our schools here in the United States. As general practice, we mix up (balance) our instructional delivery methods with different instructional design models. But it’s the student-centered ones that we ought to be considering. The wholesomeness of balance is apt, but not when it’s between spoon-feeding and inquiry.
I want to be honest – I rely upon a lot of teacher-centered methods in my own teaching. But I’ve been getting better. I love to lecture, I love to present ideas. I’ve seen teachers who are so talented at it, too. It’s not that kids cannot learn this way, they can. We all can. But if our vision is focused on something we’re calling deeper learning, with incredible focus on learning from students (which we’re calling engagement), and we’re learning how to better collect and utilize assessment, we need to be careful about the promise of a simple word like “balance.”
Balance Should Require Us to be Reflective
If you’ve made it this far, it’s probably obvious I’m reflective of my own role in the field of education. One way we can really use the term “balance” without it failing us is to make it personal. We’re hopefully not balancing one really good strategy for learning with a bad one, instead, we’re taking the time to stake stock of our tools, our abilities, and our effectiveness and how we are able to balance those. For example, I might love to lecture, but realize it’s not the best way for students to learn. So, I might balance by using my own experience as an entry event to a project where I turn over the learning to students. Or, a “bell-ringer” for an interactive debate in class. Or I balance my assessment strategy by giving students the ability to self-assess their learning on an upcoming assignment. The reality is, learning and teaching is a mixture of both art and science and with extreme limits on resources (among them, time), we are always attempting to balance the experiences we provide students. My ultimate point is to consider what we’re balancing, not to be satisfied alone with the idea that balance is, in itself, a virtue.