Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reforming Reform

A train has advantages over other types of vehicles. It is a highly efficient, consistent, and relatively cheap way to get a lot of people to the same place at the same time. If schooling is like riding a train, as I described in my last post, then schooling is an efficient way to make sure that all students will "get to the same place," educationally, riding on the same tracks at the same pace, right?

Most top-down education reform plans take for granted that the "train model' of schooling is inherently all right. They assume that tweaking the current system will be enough to fix it. The plans usually include at least one form of each of the following points:
  1. More time on the train: start younger, extend school days, extend school years, more homework, etc.
  2. More rigid timetables: more standardized tests, harder standardized tests, more focused standardized tests.
  3. Fancier trains: better technology in classrooms, think "smartboards."

But what if the problem is the model itself? Then no amount of tweaking will make the kinds of big differences people are hoping for.

Even if it were an achievable goal, to make sure all students actually learned and retained everything they were taught in school, and could all end up with the same base of knowledge, would it be a desirable goal? Why do we want everyone to know the same things? To think the same way? Some people think a goal of education is to produce creative, innovative individuals. If this is true, then it is difficult to see how the train model would get us there. Is it possible to encourage students to think creatively while insisting that there is only one right path to follow?

It reminds me of my college application process. If I wanted to go to the college of my choice, they told me, I had to have perfect grades, excel at a sport, be a leader of a club, participate in community service, and hold down a job. Oh yeah, and also be unique. As if it was another item on the to-do list. What time did I have to "be unique" in between all the activities I was doing so I could be easily compared with everyone else? Even when I was sleeping, I dreamed about school. A lot.

The changes that are needed to improve the school experience for our children are big changes, mostly requiring that the train model be thrown out. Speaking as a former child, I can think of a few changes that would have actually made school better for me:
  1. Make school less "all-consuming" of a child's life. Try LESS time in school and NO homework. Children could have time to find out what makes them tick before they turn 22 and are expected to be supporting themselves.
  2. Expand the list of subjects deemed "appropriate" for study and give children freedom to choose how they spend their time in school.  Each child could spend more time getting really good at the things she really likes to do, and waste less time struggling with subjects she doesn't care about at all.
  3. Give children freedom to choose their teachers. There is no reason any child should spend time in a classroom with a teacher he doesn't like, or one who does not like him. Imagine if teachers were not judged by standardized test scores, but instead by how many students would choose to spend time with them. I know which teachers from my past would have had full classrooms, and which ones would have no longer had jobs (deservedly).
  4. Give teachers freedom to teach things they are passionate about. This might make school more interesting.
  5. Stop expecting everyone to be good at all things academic, and STOP giving grades! Especially before high school. This might encourage kids to try different things without being "failed" for making too many mistakes. Remove the culture of fear around making mistakes.
My highly idealistic list of changes would not work with the train model, because all of the children would not be moving in the same direction at the same pace. But I don't see any problems with that.


    1. Also as a former child, and the daughter of two teachers who teach beyond the "normal" classroom setting on the Navajo reservation, I have to add to your wonderful analysis by saying that cultural sensitivities also play a key role in learning. Society reiterates that we "should celebrate differences," but that's lip service. In reality differences are scorned and the marketing campaign to celebrate them is as real as reality TV.

    2. I don't know how I missed this post. Could not agree more.