Category Archives: Teaching and Learning

‘Old School’ Makes a Comeback? Opening a Dialogue Between Conservatives and Reformers

Science Teacher Writing on Black BoardRecently I’ve come across a couple of posts in support of ‘old school’ teaching styles.  This one presents the ‘latest findings’ of recent studies that tend to support ‘tough’ teaching methods.  This one, written by a prominent political scientist, laments the ‘demise’ of traditional education.  It’s worth noting that these traditional voices are still relevant and in fact the arguments are becoming more prominent as educational technology upends the traditional teaching model in unexpected ways.  It is completely understandable that educators might long for a more comfortable past, where authority was intrinsically respected (at least in our minds’s memory) and the power of the educator could be more easily leveraged to convey a universally recognized canon. One could also point to the ‘generation gap’ between ‘digital natives’ and others.  However, I feel the heart of this debate is less technological than it is philosophical.

I’d like to use the next two posts to analyze this phenomenon. I’ll state from the outset that I remain an advocate of learner-centred teaching, which I understand to draw from constructivist and connectivist learning philosophies that contend: 1) that learners be held responsible for their learning process and goals; and 2) that teaching be attentive to the specific needs of learners.

I’ve noticed that considerable misunderstanding arises when learner-centred teaching is counterposed with ‘traditional’ teaching methods.

Do we need to choose between ‘the guide on the side’ instead of the ‘sage on the stage’?

Learner-centred teaching is not the ‘opposite of’ traditional teaching.  Learner-centred teaching does not mean upending the relationship of respect between the learner and the teacher. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how instruction could be at all effective in the absence of mutual regard.

The defenses of those advocating ‘old school’ methods are therefore founded on a mistaken impression of what the ‘reformist’ alternative philosophies and methods are fundamentally about.  It is, appropriately, the job of those who advocate changes to make their case.  With the goal of opening a dialogue, let’s examine the arguments of the conservatives and some of the possible responses.  What is precisely the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from several main premises, which I will extract from the two blogs posts described above.  In this post I will address 2 of these, and in the next post I will talk about the last few.

‘Old School’ Arguments

  1. Standards matter.  Grades represent a real measure of accomplishment and effort.  High levels of accomplishment deserve reward, and lower levels send an important signal to the student about their degree of learning, which can either motivate more effort or help the student realize they are unsuited. Standards are best determined by the experts in a field, who are best-placed to judge what skills and knowledge are necessary to succeed.  To fudge on or de-emphasize grades is to rob students of the opportunity to excel or fail, both are necessary in the process of learning, and both will help students to advance.
  2. A well-rounded education based on mastery should be the goal of learning. It is clear that a ‘well-rounded’ education for Barry Cooper (see his blog in the Calgary Herald) does not include things like anti-discrimination training or sustainability education, or explicit attention to soft goals like ‘well-being’. But what might a well-rounded education include?

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:stick_figure_book_pile_800_clr_9092

  1. With respect to standards, learner-centred teaching emphasizes that the expectations of teachers must be high.  There is no real disagreement on that. The disconnect arises I think when the emphasis is solely on meeting the standards set by teachers and other authorities.  The assumption is that students will always set their own standards too low, and require the teachers’ intervention to achieve.

Students will choose high standards for themselves very often if given the chance, and will benefit from a learning environment in which the material is advanced, sometimes very advanced.

When students do choose high standards, requiring a teachers’ intervention actually robs students of the ability to be more conscious, and yes, more self-disciplined and persistent. This is because these external standards give the message that teachers are their sole source of feedback.  Lipman mentions an interesting example: music students who chose teachers that would be tough on them.  The point is that the students chose those standards and were therefore more self-motivated to learn as a result.  Here I would cite work done by Ken Bain and other educators and psychologists who emphasize that an intrinsic interest in learning can be compromised when the focus is on extrinsic rewards and punishments.  The result of ‘learning for the grade’ is that learners will do just enough to earn the grade and no more.  If part of the goal of education is to learn self-reliance, why compromise that goal by removing any chance to be accountable to oneself.

2. With respect to ‘mastery’, there is again not really a disagreement here about the goal.  For Cooper, though, mastery means a specific thing: the ability to be conversant in a specific culture.   While one may argue about the content of that culture, I think we can agree that certain habits of mind underlie all forms of learning: the ability to be open-minded, critically-minded, curious, thorough, persistent, detailed, even-handed, thoughtful and reflective, a problem-solver, expressive, and/or skeptical.  How we acquire these habits is still a question in hot debate in educational circles.  It is far from resolved, but there is no reason yet to believe that mastery is any less likely to occur in a constructivist than in a traditional setting.  There is also really no reason to believe that tolerance, commitment to community, or even self-development are incompatible with mastery learning.  If we uncover the conservatives’ focus on a ‘well-rounded’ education, I think we will see something that very closely resembles ‘character-building’ or ‘service to the community’ as well as the acquisition of skills.  These values underlie a lot of the ‘old school’ philosophy and are implicit values of education.

In my next post, I’ll look ahead to other components of the ‘old school’ argument: discipline, stress, and failure.  Just what we look for in a well-educated individual.

Student Showcase 2013

Political Science students at Okanagan College this past Fall term have worked very hard to prepare work on cutting-edge political topics and issues.  Students were challenged to analyze a political problem, consider various policy options, and come up with creative solutions.  Students prepared  blogs, analyzed images, presented their work in class, analyzed key actors, reviewed films, and prepared timelines, among many other things.  This showcase is a sampling of some of the best work done this term.  My thanks to all of my hard-working students.  I am blown away with the outstanding work that you do!

Aska Nakamura has put together a timeline of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute as part of her work in the class Global Politics here at Okanagan College in the Fall 2012 term.  Her timeline is detailed and she relates the dispute to some of the themes of the course, particularly the importance of national interest in creating the conditions for conflict.  For anyone looking for a comprehensive yet detailed history of the dispute, this timeline is a great resource.



Chris Munger prepared an image analysis of a pivotal event in the history of world politics: Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev’s famous ‘shoe banging’ incident.  What is interesting about Chris’s description is the way he relates this picture to the larger context of world politics as fundamentally conflictual and anarchical.  Chris has taken a well-known incident and used it to make a valuable point about world politics.


This image, taken in 1960 of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Premier Nikita Khrushchev while at the United Nations General Assembly, was a short time before the alleged (and infamous) shoe-banging incident. Khrushchev supposedly waved around or banged his own shoe on the desk during the assembly itself. Details of the event are debated (as evident by the wealth of conflicting versions circulating on the internet), but the incident and this photograph of an obviously unreceptive statesman illustrate a key issue in global politics. This issue is the adversarial attitude of global politics. The effectiveness of this international institution will not be argued here, but it is true that the United Nations is the most inclusive international political institution in the world and among the most extensive. Any incident involving shoe-banging (or any version thereof) would hardly be respectful of the institution’s goal of respectful debate, and continued vetoes by permanent security council members stymie the efforts at cooperation that the UN should facilitate. The USSR is an historic example of this.

So what is the greater connection to global politics as a subject? Adversarial attitudes within the UN are easily explained by realist theory to be a natural result of power struggles between sovereign states. However, it could also be a symptom of the realist approach itself. The United Nations, as an idea, is far closer to constructivist thought, as it depends upon norms and histories of cooperation between states to function. When a realist mode of thought is applied, the system breaks down and means such as veto power are employed to prevent cooperation. Realpolitik is incompatible with cooperation toward universal gains, and this is seen again and again as states see issues as divisive or as diplomatic wars to be won. Despite the prevailing paradigm of a state regarding political theory, attitudes should be in line with the agreed to means to achieve goals. One can little doubt the United Nations would be far more effective if members subscribe to a political theory that supports its intent, and constructivism should be more widely acknowledged to achieve this, if nothing else.

Works Cited

Leffler, Warren K. Nikita Khrushchev 1960. 22 September 1960. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons, 2006. Web. 28 September 2012.

URLlink to source:

Kassidy Hoffman’s map of Canada’s forest cover uses information from the World Resources Institute’s website to visualize the progressive loss of forest cover in Canada.  She prepared this work for the course Canadian Environmental Policy. In her description, she emphasizes how Canada must balance the use of forests with forest protection, a difficult call when economic activity demands the use of natural resources to boost GDP.


Source Link:

A Map of Forest Cover in Canada

This map shows the distribution of forests within Canada. The green colour scheme indicates whether the forest is dense or sparse. The areas that are less dense in Canada are mostly alpine areas. I chose to produce a map of forests in Canada in order to demonstrate the importance of preserving Canada’s forests. British Columbia and New Brunswick tend to be the most logged provinces in Canada. Forestry is a very important industry for Canada because it helps the Canadian economy. This coincides with the Staples Theory because lumber is a raw material that Canada highly depends on for economic wealth. This map shows all forested areas; this includes natural forests and replanted forests after logging and/or a natural disaster, such as fires has occurred. Canada’s forests are slowly depleting and eventually the forests in Canada will be nonexistent.

I made this map by using data sources off of the World Resources Institute website and converted it into ArcGIS and converted it into a map. I then manipulated the colour scheme and created a proper legend; I added all of the necessary map elements.

The production of this map is relevant to the course because the map helps to visualize the forestry issues in Canada. The map shows how only parts of Canada are forested; there are no forests in the prairies and in the north where there is too much snow and ice. Sustainable Forest Management is a way Canada looked at sustaining and developing forests in Canada. There have been a lot of conflicts with forestry policies and this map proves forests are essential to Canada and that they need to be protected. Forestry is a big part of environmental politics because Canada needs the lumber; however, it’s a question of how far is Canada going to go when it comes to destroying the forests and realizing it is too late to protect Canadian forests.

The Unbroken Line between Games and Education

University learning is often like a game.

Let’s play a game: I’ll set the rules.  Your goal: to perform various complex and skilled tasks in an adventure-style first person game involving personal quests, team cooperation, and writing, speaking, and recall tests.  Your goal: to achieve a sufficient level of accomplishment in each task to advance to future levels, with the ultimate goal of leaving the game.  Points are earned by passing tests or performing set tasks.  Extensive instruction is required to accomplish each task, and more time will be spent absorbing the instruction than actually performing the task.  Failure is severely punished, and results in setbacks to your progress in achieving the task.  There are no shortcuts, and the schedule of tasks is predetermined.   There may or may not be rewards for participating.

How many of us would wish to play this game?  Well, this is exactly what we ask students to do throughout their university careers.  Education is very much a game—if we understand a ‘game’ as a competitive activity with rules to test various skills and produce outcomes, such as winners or losers.  But gaming is associated with play, diversion, recreation, and less so with learning.  Nevertheless, because university learning is a poorly designed game, it does not do a good job of motivating people to learn.  The point system (marks) is often inconsistent, punishment is too severe, and too much time is spent absorbing information and not enough time is spent in applying the knowledge learned.

This can result in an inordinate focus on extrinsic motivators, which psychologists tell us can actually reduce initiative, creativity, and intrinsic motivation, which are all necessary to learning.  As Jane McGonigal points out, well-designed games work to enhance these traits, by using a feedback system that lets players know where they are in the 101433076process, setting up rules or limitations (sometimes unnecessary ones) that offer meaningful stakes, and allowing for ‘fun failure’ (spectacular failures that actually reward effort).  Frequent feedback and active learning techniques are already widely acknowledged as effective teaching strategies that enhance both motivation and deeper forms of learning.

Well-designed games allow players to progress at their own speed, with an awareness of how they compare with others, and foster social connection that helps players identify their contribution to a larger project.  Admitting that education is a game is not pejorative, neither is it to say that education should only be reduced to a game and nothing else.  Nevertheless, admitting that the game elements of university education tend to make it less motivating seems only a statement of fact.

Further Reading: Jane McGonigal Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World Penguin, 2011

Student Showcase

Political Science students at Okanagan College this past Fall term have worked very hard to prepare work on cutting-edge political topics and issues.  Students were challenged to analyze a political problem, consider various policy options, and come up with creative solutions.  They prepared a blog, poster or paper to present their work.  This showcase is a sampling of some of the best work done this term.  My thanks to all of my hard-working students, it was a close competition among some outstanding submissions.  I am blown away with the outstanding work that you do!

Continue reading Student Showcase

Table of Educational Functions and Technologies

I have focused on those that are free, semi-free or web-based.  I have also focused on those that are best suited to educators’ purposes, or are customizable for particular functions, or are particularly inspirational examples of what is possible.

For a list of online educational resource libraries, visit:

Delivering Course Content

Improving Engagement

Encouraging Critical Thinking










Learning Objects/LMS


Student Opportunities

Directional Signs SlideshowFor a great listing of Student Opportunities in the field of International Development, check out the Okanagan College International Development Careers page here.

  • The Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training offers training in disaster and humanitarian response training.   Interested applicants can apply directly on our webpage  or send their inquiries to the Program Manager, Melanie Coutu at
  • World Student Environmental Network hosts an annual conference. More information:
  • Looking for a job in the environmental field?  Check out ECO Canada (Environmental Careers Organization):