It’s very easy to present a false dichotomy to make our own beliefs and choices seem more desirable than the alternatives. Consider this infographic from the Hewlett Foundation which has been doing the rounds:

What’s being implied is that the ‘deeper learning’ classroom somehow better prepares children for being scientists in the ‘science lab’ than ‘traditional’ classrooms. Maybe we’re also supposed to assume that the ‘deeper learning’ classroom is a better preparation for all workplaces?

The infographic’s designers use heavy-handed attempts to make the ‘traditional’ classroom’ look less appealing. The walls are grey, there are fewer windows and there’s a shelf of boring old books and, of course, the students are studying that most traditional and dull of subjects: maths! Now look at the ‘deeper learning’ classroom: not only are the walls brighter and the windows more numerous, the children wear brighter coloured clothing and there’s even a girl in a wheel chair! Is this a fair comparison? Are we supposed to assume that wheelchairs wouldn’t be welcome in the ‘traditional’ classroom?

In the ‘traditional’ classroom the teacher, clearly identified by his suit (Obviously only men teach in traditional classrooms!) – is explaining some mathematical concept concerning angles. The students face front and concentrate on what the teacher is saying. Paying attention is a prerequisite for learning, so this is likely to be a classroom in which students are developing abstract mathematical knowledge. In a traditional setting, children learn as they have for generations: by receiving instruction. We might not like this tradition but we ought to acknowledge that it’s endured for a reason.

But what of ‘deeper learning’? What does it actually mean? We have to take our cues from the captions in the image: for instance, the student on the computer has “mastered and can use content knowledge in real world situations”. Should we infer that this transformation took place as a result of sitting at the computer? If not, then how did it happen? Then the girl with the space shuttle shows off her ability “to make presentations to express [herself] and receive feedback constructively.” Does anyone really believe that children don’t present their ideas or receive feedback in traditional classrooms? It’s not clear from the image that any of the other students are interested in giving her feedback – constructive or otherwise – because they’re busy ‘collaborating’. This involves “cooperat[ing] with others to solve problems together and learn from my peers.” Everyone can cooperate, solve problems and learn from peers – these are all basic evolutionary adaptations. These things are, if anything, the most superficial types of learning – what would demonstrate real depth of understanding would be if they were able to solve problems and collaborate on the mathematics being taught in the traditional classroom. To suggest that looking at a bell curve develops critical thinking or that sitting around a table with some models induces a ‘positive mindset’ is all a bit disingenuous. Is the claim that no one in the traditional classroom will develop these attributes?

We are clearly being presented with a false dichotomy. Our choice is being reduced to either a boring traditional classroom in which children sit in rows and listen to their teacher or a fun, vibrant space in which children do whatever they fancy but still somehow ‘master content’. But what if the traditional classroom is also fun and vibrant? What if the ‘deep learning’ classroom has peeling walls, graffitied desks and disaffected students?

What you believe determines what you see. To me, the ‘traditional’ classroom appears a comparative oasis of calm and purpose next to the ‘deeper learning’ classroom in which children play with spaceships, chat about stuff and the figure to the far right of the image – maybe a teacher – slouches disconsolately as the chaos unfolds.

A lot of disputes in education are of the duck/rabbit variety: we’re all looking at the same thing but some of us see a duck while others see a rabbit. The thing we’re all liable to forget is that there isn’t a duck or a rabbit, there’s only a squiggle. As human beings we’re desperate to see meaning and feel belonging. Our behaviour is fiercely tribal and reality is a lot more complex than we like to admit.

Maybe some of the aspects of the ‘deeper learning’ classroom are desirable. And by the same token, so might some aspects of the traditional class room be worth retaining. The mistake would be to believe that by giving our classrooms the superficial appearance of workplaces we somehow make learning more authentic, or indeed that such authenticity is in any way desirable. Novices benefit from explicit instruction whereas as experts learn more through discovery. As the most recent PISA data suggests, if we want children to genuinely aspire to work in laboratories it would probably be a mistake to imagine that classrooms should – in general – be more like labs.

For a more detailed critique of ’21st century learning’, see this post.