On February 21, I had the privilege of attending a dinner hosted by Houston A+ Challenge, featuring Will Richardson. Will is a well-respected educator and speaker and I was quite interested to hear his take on the current situation in educational technology.
He didn’t disappoint. Will talked about five realities that affect education in America today and we were to have table discussion after.
I used the wrong word in my Twitter post afterward. I said “disappointed” when I should have said “disheartened.” My tablemates were friendly and cordial but seemed to me to evince the “yeah but” mentality of the current decision-makers. It was frustrating. Will made a statement that struck home for me. He said, “there’s old school, then there’s bold school” (or words to that effect).
Responding to my tweet, and raising me a “yes and…”, my friend and colleague Michelle Bourgeois asked a simple question:
“What’s your bold school thinking look like?”
Clearly, the 140-character limit of Twitter wouldn’t suffice to answer this, so here goes…
I think often about how I, and others of my generation, was educated. Then I contrast that memory with what I know to be the reality in the vast majority of schools in this country today and I’m understanding something of the problem Will described. When I graduated high school, I was ready to enter college. Today’s students, for the most part, are not.
Nothing about my education was out of the ordinary. I went to school, did my homework, paid attention in class and got the credit. I did have the advantage of being educated in a private school until seventh grade but, after that, it was all public education. My wife, however, went to high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico and enjoyed a remarkable high school experience in her gifted and talented program, so it’s her experience I am drawn to to shape my thinking about what education needs to look like.
I was enrolled in the gifted program at the beginning of my fourth
grade year. In fourth and fifth grade I went to my gifted classroom
for three quarters of the time, and to my “regular” classroom for the
remaining quarter. My “regular” classes were traditional, rote
learning and very boring for me, and I just endured them until it was
time to go to my gifted class. In gifted class we worked on many group
and individual projects and there was a huge emphasis on collaboration
and demonstration. We gave oral reports on topics ranging from foreign
cultures to family history to animal and plant studies. We were
encouraged to give presentations using creative methods–I remember
hand-illustrating a short film strip for my presentation on greek
myths, and learning how to make a French cake for my presentation on
France. We explored a variety of different careers, including
archeology and film making, and we had a lot of guest speakers and
went on some amazing hands-on field trips. We also did a lot of logic
puzzles and word games that were designed to increase our critical
thinking skills and to introduce us to deductive reasoning.
In middle school the gifted education curriculum was presented during
the language arts and literature blocks. If we showed the aptitude for
it, we were also enrolled in enriched math and science classes, which
were taught separately from the gifted curriculum. There were 13 of us
in the program, and we had the same teacher all three years–Mary
Mendlesohn. We all hated her when we had her because she was
incredibly strict, but we all thanked her later because she taught us
so many skills that we used well into our college careers. Like our
elementary school gifted class, the curriculum was stimulating,
challenging, and always interesting. Our focus all three years was in
four major areas: improving our reading comprehension (we all went
into the program at well above a high school reading level), shaping
our writing styles, increasing our vocabulary, and sharpening our
critical thinking skills. She used the old-school method of teaching
grammar with parts of speech, parts of sentence, phrases, clauses and
diagrams. The majority of our projects were collaborative in nature,
the majority of our tests were essay exams, and, also like elementary
school, there was a strong emphasis on oral reports and presentations.
We read college-level books, and at the end of our three years she
told us that she would have been comfortable giving us a college-level
In high school the gifted curriculum was primarily converted to
Advanced Placement classes in English and Math, enriched science and
language classes, and a separate class in the ninth grade devoted
strictly to gifted curriculum similar to the curriculum in elementary
and middle school. In English, the emphasis was on reading
comprehension and writing. We gave oral book reports, and were again
encouraged to give them using creative methods. All of our tests were
essay exams, and we were expected to know the material and be able to
analyze it clearly and comprehensively in a short period of time. We
were expected to make and defend arguments for or against certain
principals, and to be able to clearly explain our thoughts and ideas
from start to finish. Our writing skills were sharply honed, and our
teachers expected and received the highest quality in every sentence
we wrote. For math we started with Algebra I our Freshman year, then
went on to Geometry as Sophomores, then Algebra II/Trig as Juniors.
Some of the students in our class had taken Algebra I in eighth
grade–those students started with Geometry, then went on to Algebra
II their Sophomore year, and had a full year of Trigonometry their
Junior year. All of us were funneled into AP Calculus our Senior year.
In all of our math classes we were expected to show our work, and we
were expected to show that we understood not only how to do the rote
calculation, but also the principal behind it. In all of our classes
we were encouraged to collaborate and to help each other work out
problems. For example, in Calculus, if we had a problem that were were
not able to solve, we wrote the problem on the board when we came in
to class. If we saw a problem on the board that we had solved, we got
extra credit if we showed the solution to the class on the board. The
theory was that to teach someone else was to truly master a subject,
and it certainly had merit: there were about 30 students in that
program, and all of us passed the AP English and AP Calculus exams our
Senior year, most of us with a four or above on a five-point scale. I
don’t know of anyone in the class who did NOT go to college, and many
of us have gone on to pursue graduate and doctoral degrees as well.
Much of what you notice about her experience is how similar it is to the way constructivist classrooms are envisioned today. Any educator worth their salt knows we need our children working in the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and you saw several examples in Stacey’s experience, above. Students need to be creating, discussing, sharing and synthesizing words, concepts, creating projects, working in the world of photos, audio and video. Moreover, they need to be contributing to the world’s knowledge base, not just consuming it! I know how a student’s eyes light up when they realize that the podcast they created was listened to by someone from a foreign country. Suddenly, the lessons of the four walls immediately surrounding them are expanded to a much larger world. They get it. And the learning becomes authentic. All because someone noticed.
In the past twenty years, American education has shied away from these ideals toward one of consumption and rote memorization. We’re already paying for that decision and we’ve lost at least one generation of students to it. Before we lose another, we need to build the school system that will once again serve our students in the way we’ve long expected.
We need to get away, too, from the idea that every student must go to college. Higher education is a fantastic path, but it’s not today’s HS graduates’ only one. Our students are falling behing their peers in other countries and it’s showing up in some startling places. I spend a lot of time programming and learning about it online. It was a heavy realization, years ago, that the vast majority of truly innovative coding creations are coming from overseas; not America. If you examine the nationality of the programmers on a site such as phpclasses.org, you’ll find that most are not American. WordPress theme creators? Mostly overseas. While these examples aren’t necessarily representative of all aspects, it brings some sobering realizations into stark focus: Our kids will increasingly have trouble competing in a global marketplace.
So my bold school looks like Stacey’s.
- It’s cross-curricular. It’s widely known that music teachers can help teach students math. There are so many ways that a cross-curricular approach can improve schools, it’s hardly worth noting here.
- It’s multi-path. By “multi-path,” I mean that there’s no one linear approach through the material. Today’s schools don’t differ significantly from a factory in that the processes that exist today are linear and regimented. A multi-path school is free to devise the appropriate processes to guide students along.
- It’s interest-driven. When I need to learn a new skill, I give myself a project in which to learn the skills. That’s how I learned to program years ago and it’s how I learned web design. It’s how most of us learn. Why not apply it to schools? Yes, project-based learning has been around for a long time.
- It’s mastery-based. Students learn at different speeds. We need to move beyond the notion that all students in the same grade have to be the same age. Sure, there are socialization factors involved, but I’d argue that the collaborative processes in place at a bold school would nullify most of the negative impacts of differing ages in the same classroom. If a student is moving along at a level justifying it, why not adjust the curriculum to the student instead of holding him or her back?
- It’s technology-infused. I ask adult educators all the time: “When you need an answer, how do you find it?” Almost without exception, the answer is “I Google it.” Let’s face it, if the answer to a test question is to be found by a web search, then kids don’t need to memorize it. You might question the role of technology in your own life, but it will be an immutable fact of your children’s lives. The bold school will have a rich set of online resources, activities and mechanisms to support a 24/7 culture of learning. Digital textbooks and online educational environments are already here but they will need to become an integral part of the educational process, not just an afterthought.
You might notice that I’ve not said a lot about assessment. I assure you, it’s taken a significant amount of self-control to get to this point! Say what you will about assessments (and I have plenty to say on the subject!), a product of the bold school I describe above will handle any standardized assessment you throw at them with ease.
I wish we were closer to being able to implement bold school thinking in America. We’re not. As long as legislators who have never been in a school since they graduated continue to shackle them with burdensome rules and lawyers attack every innovative initiative, we are doomed to continue our downward spiral.
Stacey’s gifted program? That awesome program that gave her and her classmates an incredible jumpstart into the world they now inhabit? It was cancelled the following year because of parental complaints about elitism and equity. What a sad commentary about what we as Americans desire for our children.
We owe it to them to do better and it’s going to take bold thinking and bold leadership.