11 March 2009

Five Changes to Education (This One's for You, President Obama)

It's a meme. And I don't do these often, but this isn't your typical one. And I've read a couple of great entries: Lisa Thumann and Paul Blogush, plus I've been thinking a lot about Tricia Buck's "Paperless Tiger" post, and education conversations on Twitter.

Blogush says two things that I love: "Get rid of age level grades, mandatory year-by-year curriculum, and graded assignments. Let’s mix up the ages. Even put the pre-schools and senior centers in the schools. If a kid really want to spend a year learning about DNA and doesn’t learn about Saturn, will society really crash and burn? Or get a kid with a passion for science. Graded assignments! Nothing is worse…but that is another post."

And, "Last but not least, Make a law that says whenever anyone is writing, talking, or meeting about changing the educational system that they start off with no school buildings or teachers in their plan. It restricts creativity when you start brainstorming about how to improve a system but keep the two largest components of it."

Thumann suggests two more: "I would like students to play a larger role in the writing of curriculum. If we give our students more opportunities to take ownership of their education, then maybe there will be more success stories. Students need to invest in their futures as well and this is one way for them to do so."

And, "I would like all teachers to “be teachable“. Mandated professional development is not always the way to go. Educators, and people in general have to WANT to learn in order to truly learn. I would love it if all teachers were open to trying new things, open to doing what they already do well - more, and willing to share resources. How do we accomplish this? Well, I do believe that enthusiasm is contagious…"

And Buck? Well, "Does this jettisoning of time-honored titles mean that the paperless classroom is also lacking a creator, controller and grader? Is the paperless classroom also a teacherless paradigm? The answer is in some regards, yes. I have removed myself from center stage. I have relinquished the need to control every class. I have stopped seeing work as stagnant…completed and submitted by students and then graded by me. I have let go of my need to pre-plan months at a time, in favor of following the path that unfolds as we learn together. My classes are not, however, teacherless, just less about the teaching and more about the learning. The students know that I am ready and willing to be student to their insights, that they can teach, create, control and even evaluate their own learning. This shift has inspired a true spirit of collaboration, critical thinking, and communication in B304–it has been an amazing semester and has changed the course of my career for good!"

So there are five I could easily steal and grasp as my own. They all move toward breaking our ties to a failed industrial educational formula. But I don't just want to "steal," I want to contribute. I want to suggest to our new US government that they must think much bigger when they think about education, that they must think in transformational ways. I want to suggest that "tinkering" will not get us anywhere.

"Merit pay" is ridiculous until we understand what "merit" means. Is it better test scores this year? Or is it an evaluation of student progress ten years after they've left school? (Isn't that the only real measure?) Is it based in some "absolute achievement"? Or is it based on individual student progress?

"Charter Innovation" can also be nice, but it tells us nothing until we know what it is that we're trying to achieve. "I thought [teachers] were supposed [to] develop grown-ups but [the President] wants us to develop better students. We don't need a nation of competent testees," tweeted SpedTeacher. And that is the point. Up till now all US educational reform efforts since Ronald Reagan have been aimed at the idea of creating students who do "better" in school (behave better while sitting in a chair all day, do better on multiple choice tests, repeat information better). But none of that improves "actual education" which must be geared toward helping people reach their own life goals and potential - outside of school. Which is why we're never offered real choice in classroom style, instructional paradigms, and assessment for every American student. And we have no attempts to match students to the most appropriate environment. No efforts to empower (and train) student decision making. And no attempt to truly allow the kind of personalization which the British government at least claims to be committed to. Instead they let us choose between disastrous poverty-wracked public schools and KIPP boot camps or between local untrained teachers and Harvard-educated untrained teachers or between stupid tests in New York and stupid tests in Texas. Faux choices because America's leaders (including Barack Obama) still can't really explain why education matters, or what we want it to be.

So what transforms?

1. Eliminating age-based grades and grade-level expectations. We can not truly embrace individualized education,or true inclusion, until we get rid of the absurd notion that all students learn all things at the same rate and progress in the same way. Neither can we truly allow project-based learning until we accept that in projects, students will follow paths outside of grade-determined subject areas. The return to the K-8 "one room schoolhouse" model, typically with multiple teachers and larger classrooms, is the first change we need in primary education. The interdisciplinary, no grade-level, structure is what we need in our secondary schools. And only a massive trial will start to prove this.

2. Universal Design must be universal. For education to "work" information and communication must be routinely, and efficiently, available to every student. And whatever the school environment is must be welcoming and safe for all students. So this is not just about laptop and tablet and handheld computers and smart mobiles everywhere, linking students to the world's resources and converting media into personally effective formats. It isn't just about going paperless most of the time to create flexibility. It isn't just about teaching students how to make the best choices for themselves. It is also about recreating educational environments so students can work, move, relax, and communicate safely and comfortably, changing those environments, and offering choices of spaces, so that cognitive energy is not wasted on comfort issues.

3. Labels Jars not People. Students are individuals. They need help sometimes and they need encouragment other times. On some tasks they need supervision, but most of the time they need freedom. We need to stop labelling. Students aren't "Special Needs" - unless we apply that to everyone - the slow runner as well as the slow reader. The one with poor rhythm identification and the one with poor numeral identification. The one who can't understand an urban street scene and the one who struggles with writing. And students aren't "gifted and talented" unless we apply that to everyone... well, you get the point. When we diagnose we pathologize, and that is completely destructive. Instead, we must simply support all of our individual learners. Opening our classrooms up, trading control for the wonder of learning across the spectrum of child and adolescent development. (Lisa Parisi)

4. Change teacher training - and change those who train teachers. Today, most educational planning and design lies in the hands of the minority of people who have succeeded in "education as we know it." That's a problem. From the US President on down to your average classroom teacher, the leaders "see" a model which has "worked" for themselves. When you get to the faculty at most teacher training institutions - their entire lives, since they entered pre-school, have been spent - mostly successfully - in school. So while they may "understand" the problems - the problems are mostly abstract - and typically - the solutions are doing 'the sames things better.' Thus we worry about everything from pedagogical fidelity to the silliness of "well qualified teachers" (as opposed to creativity and "very effective teachers"). So we need teacher training focused on student individuality - not curriculum and control, and we need teacher training institutions focused on fundamental change and prominently including those for whom school has been a struggle. New teachers need to hear what's wrong with school from the failures, not just the successes.

5. Assessment must change. Stop talking about standardized scores. Stop talking about "grade inflation." Stop talking about how schools are doing "on average." There's no average student. No one knows what "B" means. We should not be in the business of producing "standardized" humans. Assessment must be individual, detailed, and student-centered. This is essential, because two fundamental attitude changes are essential: First, the "customer" in every school must be the student - and our students need assessments which help them move forward, not which compares them to some unknown "norm." Second, "failure" must be understood to be of real value. It is not a bad thing, it is how humans learn. When failure is perceived as "bad," people will not risk it, so they will not extend themselves the ways they otherwise might.

What are your five? What would you tell the Obama Administration to focus on?

- Ira Socol


loonyhiker said...

I loved your whole list but I really love #3. We need to stop teaching our students according to their labels. To me, labels help schools with federal funding and whatever other moneys they can get for this. As teachers, we need to teach students according to their needs. I read in someone's blog or I heard it on a podcast (sorry I can't remember where) but we need to remember that we teach students - we don't teach subjects or standards. We can teach students by following standards about certain sujects/topics/units etc. but the students what we need to focus on. Thanks for a great post!

loonyhiker said...

Sorry for all the grammatical errors, my brain was going faster than my fingers! :)

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