Doing a little scattershooting about what I believe will have to happen to get education to a better place…
- Scrap the existing accountability system. Bankrupt the testing companies while you’re at it, right up to those AP and college entrance exams. Accountability if okay, especially if taxpayers are footing the bills, but tests were not invented to drive the bus. Create a new system based upon a variety of standards, not just bloated tests of obsolete or low-level performance. New criteria might include such things as randomized evaluations of the curriculum by student portfolio/performance assessment, student/teacher evaluations, community evaluations, or post-graduation student outcomes (jobs, trade school, college, etc.). Allow local districts/schools and communities to create their own systems.
- Scale the curricula back. Way back. As the standards exist today in our state, teachers hit the classroom running and keep running until they collapse from exhaustion at the end of testing season. Meanwhile, students have been exposed to far too many facts, figures, and formulas to explore in depth or practically apply, meaning long-term retention is highly unlikely. Focus on broader, disciplinary skills and give teachers and students more freedom to set the contexts of those skills based upon interests, current events, etc.
- Re-train our teachers, and re-design pre-service teacher programs. The role of the teacher as a brilliant dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, well-versed in everything from phonics to plate tectonics, needs to be laid to rest. Our kids have more knowledge in the devices in their pockets and purses than we could ever hope to achieve. Create a new generation of educators who set the stage for learning and doing and make brilliant adjustments, redirections, and clarifications on demand.
- Rethink the fundamentals. Grade levels were designed to ensure every student followed the same curriculum at the same age and at the same pace, as we prepared robots for factory work. Does anyone who has ever studied human development think all kids develop cognitively or emotionally at the same time and pace? While we’re shaking it up, why have separate subjects and class periods at all? If school learning is ever going to reflect real, human learning, it will have to be much more integrated and messy. And let’s abandon those letter and number grades, which are as useful for learning as gasoline is for putting out fires.
- Ensure all students have access to specific, fundamental technology resources, especially high-bandwidth internet. The form can vary, but students without fast speeds and capable devices are at a disadvantage, as more learning moves online, and video and video streaming resolution continues to increase. A student’s access to the knowledge and resources available online should not be determined by their zip code.
I really am confident that the future of education will be exciting and drastically different than it is now–it drives me to get to work every day. Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I anticipate a period of rapid change, probably within the next decade, as policy makers and educators finally recognize the futility of doing the same thing, just a little bit more intently, and expecting better results.
There are more I’m sorting out, but I wanted to get these out and perhaps stimulate some responses/discussion. What other catalyst events/changes must we see to get where we want to go?
Wired magazine recently shared a great story about Sergio Juarez Correa, a teacher just across the border in Matamoros, Mexico. Mr. Correa was young but already disenchanted with teaching and in search of new pedagogies and more professional fulfillment. He took the radical step of taking control of his own learning, finding professional books to read that exposed him to new ideas. He became particularly enthralled with the work of Sugata Mitra and his learner-centered ideas. The Wired story relates what happened when Correa committed to changing his practices, and he began to make learners the central focus of learning. His story is really an amazing account of what can happen when a teacher is willing to get off the stage and put students squarely at the center of the classroom. It’s also something that most teachers are unwilling or unable to do (often due to mandates from above to teach this and do it this way). This is despite the fact that in the vast majority of pedagogical debate, the majority of educators would likely wholeheartedly agree that this is the ideal way for kids to learn. In reality, of course, classrooms are rarely places that are either exclusively teacher-centered or exclusively learner-centered, however. They usually at some point along a scale between the two, and very often in a different place from one day to the next or even one moment to the next. Teachers dip their toes into the learner-centered pool whenever the curriculum allows it to fit naturally and comfortably.
I would like to offer the following (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) quiz to assess how far along the teacher-centered to learner-centered spectrum your practice falls. For every “true” response, give yourself 1 point.
- The district or school curriculum is faithfully and thoroughly followed in my classroom. We have walk-throughs, you know. (True/False)
- The arrangement of classroom furniture is a carefully crafted, scientific plan created by me for maximum discipline and efficiency. (True/False)
- My students are well-behaved. My voice is the most frequently heard voice in the classroom. (True/False)
- You can have my interactive whiteboard and document camera when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers. (True/False)
- I work hard to master my subject area knowledge and skills, so that I can impart my brilliance on to students. (True/False)
- Time is precious, so the day must be planned down to the last detail in order to ensure we cover the material. (True/False)
- Students should study what interests them, absolutely. Right after their homework is finished. (True/False)
- I take pride in being a magnificent lecturer. Students have literally cried after my recount of the Gadsden Purchase. (True/False)
- Risks are the natural results of poor planning. (True/False)
Scoring: The higher the score, the greater the likelihood you prefer a traditional, teacher-centered approach. The lower, the better the chance your students have greater influence over teaching and learning.
Now do one more thing. Close your eyes (after reading the rest of this). Picture your favorite teacher, the one who inspired and engaged you and who you strived to be like when you started teaching. Rate them using the same quiz. Where do they fall? Who we respect and admire speaks volumes about who we eventually become, doesn’t it?
Finally, if you didn’t before, read the Wired article. It will take a little while, but it is a really compelling argument for giving learners more control over what is learned and how it is learned. Also of interest to me was the reaction of a Mexican bureaucrat to the happenings in Mr. Correa’s classroom (Shows how alike our countries can be.).
What’s your take on teacher-centered versus learner-centered instruction? Is it a valuable shift in practice, or is it a fad that will likely fade and be replaced by the tried-and-true teacher leader practices we’ve employed for centuries? What barriers exist to becoming more learner-centered?