Monday, June 14, 2010

Trivial educational reform

In his book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson urges us to rethink school:

This is especially true in high schools, where school systems base education on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labour. Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments:"some teachers install math in the students; and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardized tests at set points and are compared with each other before being sent out onto the market.

Too often the changes made over the years to education have been simply trivial. In his book The Red Pencil, Ted Sizer writes:

Most of it is not only recognizable; it is still fully accepted and honored today as a representation of what we call secondary school: a class of twenty or so adolescents gathered by age into grades to learn together a subject both for its content and for the skills embodied in that content taught by a single teacher who is responsible for delivering that material, assigning homework, and assessing each student's performance in a uniform manner, all this proceeding in sequential blocks of time of forty to sixy minutes each in a specialized school building primarily made up of a succession of identical rooms taht are used for six hours for fewer than half the days in a year... This is what school is.
What makes the persistence of this routine even more interesting is that its effectiveness has long been known to be weak, "effectiveness" defined as the students' ultimate resourceful use of the content and skills being studied. Nonetheless, the form of such a "good" school is widely accepted, and today's students assembled in classes... surely have palms as sweaty as mine were. The red pencil has, perhaps, been replaced by the machine-graded standardized test, a trivial difference. Tradition in the framework of schooling has remarkable momentum.

School simply has not changed very much since the turn of the century - and I'm not referring to 1999 to 2000. I would wager Sir Ken Robinson's description of school would ring just as true for my grandfather who was born in 1916 and my father who was born in 1953, as I who was born in 1978.

My greatest fear is that my daughter, who was born in 2008, will understand all too well the system that Sir Ken Robinson describes.

If she responds to the above descriptions of schooling with anything less than shock and awe, we will know we have failed her.


  1. I have to admit that I'm not a fan of the "it doesn't work perfectly, so let's scrap the whole thing" type of mentality that it present in many ed reformers. There is no reason to do a complete 180 and scrap the current system in favor of a new, untested, and purely theoretical replacement.

    When I was a student, I enjoyed the rows of desks, limitations placed on us, and listening to a teacher's lecture while I took notes. What about students like me who actually enjoyed the current model of education and thrived in it? Why should students who do well under the current system have to deal with a student centric freer form of education that so many reformers propose?

  2. @J.Jones: Under the current education system, sit and get type learners may indeed flourish, but are we really doing students a service by having them learn things like the periodic table by just sitting and getting the paper version of the table?

    Actively constructing understanding may not be appealing to some students, but I don't see this as a learning style to be accomodated, but as a problem to be solved.

    Regardless, progressive education doesn't necessarily eliminate lecturing, but it does encourage far more broader kinds of teaching and learning.

    I'm not advocating for a kind of "Robin Hood" education reform where we rob one learning style for another - rather we need to focus on far less standardization and more personalization.

  3. It really is a joke. The latest "innovations" at the college where I teach include tests that students can take online and are automatically graded, and offering the same, often poor-quality courses virtually. The focus is "efficiency" and getting tuition from as many students as possible while spending as little money as possible.

    Meanwhile, any suggestions made that are too different from what we've always done are simply dismissed. I really think the only reason new technology ever makes it into our classrooms in the first place, is because instructors don't have to use it, and even when they do, it doesn't change the way they teach.

  4. Joe, I would like to think that there are many great teachers out there and that they are great not because they teach using only one medium. Great educators are those that use a variety of mediums not only to impart information, but to engage and assess individuals.

    I must state that I agree with you in some aspects that there does need to be a TRANSITION in the manner in which we present information, but we can not move from one end of the spectrum to the next. By doing so you limit the achievement and ability of those that learn in the traditional manner.

    In my opinion, I believe that there is only one way to to settle this question. You should set up three classes. One that teaches in the traditional format, one that teaches following your passion and one that has an equal mix of traditional and 21st century. At the end of the year compare the results. Then the next year offer the three choices again, but allow students and parents to choose which method they would like for their instruction. This will determine the answer to all of our questions as to best practice and what is best for the students.

    I have one final comment, your first quote is about the batching of students and teachers only teaching a select specialty. I then pose another challenge for you or your theory I challenge you to teach a Level 6 coded student Math 30 Pure in a mainstream classroom with 25 others. I am a trained Biological Sciences teacher, I would never attempt or professionally justify teaching grade 12 Language Arts.

  5. Anonymous, we should be careful here not to be trapped by tradition. Because some students thrive in traditional schools doesn't mean they could not do even better if the limits of traditional instruction were removed from their learning. Moreover, if we transform school entirely, comparing a passion-driven class to a traditional class would be a rote exercise. While the traditional class would do better on the traditional test; the passion-driven class would have far more evidence of authentic learning to show through student products and performances.

    The point of a passion-driven education system isn't to pass tests; it's to help kids find the lives they want to live in pursuit of their interests and in service to their communities. It's about learning all we can about all we want to know and do; it's not about learning all the state tells us to.

    Also, we'll all need to work together - teachers, students, and expert mentors - in a passion-driven system. Labels like Algebra II don't serve authentic learning, which is messy, interdisciplinary, and reliant on a community of learners to explore and share thoroughly. Groups and "classes" form in a passion-driven system, but they include adults and students co-learning about shared interests and applying their learning to shared problems.

    We will always need to attend to the needs of all our children; we don't need to limit their learning or separate them arbitrarily to do so.

    As a sometimes language arts, sometimes history, sometimes Spanish, sometimes technology teacher/mentor, I would love to be able to teach arts and math and science, as well, and would consider it no professional disservice to do so as long as I put my students in touch with their learning and their world - so long as I got help when I needed it, too.

  6. Chad passion driven education is not a specific form or pedagogy that is used within a classroom. Passion is something that an effective teacher possess, and it is this passion that drives teachers.

    I enjoy a great debate but I wounder what would happen in a classroom of kindergarten children that were simply to determine their learning and pacing as well as the direction they would like to go. I understand fully understand that it is not the components of a students education that are important, but the students competencies with those components.

    But I am still bothered with many peoples transformation and revolution ideas, because many appear to forget that somewhere along the line someone had to teach them the components.

    A colleague and I had a great conversation about this. Lets say I have a recipe for a great Coq au vin one student follows the recipe to the letter and makes a great dish, but only uses the exact ingredients as required. The second student makes the exact same dish and it is just as great, but because she didn't have the exact ingredients she used other ones that would have the same end result.

    Both receive an A+, but which student is the better cook and which one is the more competent cook. To know what to have and modify a recipe you need to understand the components. So what do we do?


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