Thursday, October 21, 2010

RSA Animation Vid: Changing Education Paradigms

It's another great speech on ed reform above, and with a very clever delivery. All the points Robinson brings up are all logical. I'd bet that everyone understands what he's saying... why education was crafted into it's current form, and why it's logical for things to change.

But how do you 'change' education?

Reform is difficult. When some seek reform, others seem to dig in to keep things... stable. Pretty common dilemma throughout history really. When some call for reform or to reinvent education a backlash occurs. Some dig in and call for a more traditional education model, even calls for more standardized testing.

In this case though, it seems to me that both camps seek reform, some motion... some way to improve things. 'Disruptive Innovation' of sorts... seem to be going in polar opposite directions. Call it a hunch... but the national news about mass firings, performance / merit pay and a national call for more rigorous standardized testing doesn't seem like a great solution. The folks who are driving this angle of reform though... think it's necessary.


Both parties are frustrated. Speaking to teachers over the last decade, I've met far more who would like to change things but often fall back to 'this is the way it's always been.' Interviewing students over 15 years now... they seem to be craving some changes. Here's the salt though: Changes in education move at a snails pace most of the time if they move at all. We currently sit in what some folks call the 'knowledge era.' The internet has changed education and I think it's safe to say we are in one of the most rapidly changing, most communicative eras in the history of civilization. Education is struggling to adapt. Most of the time when we discuss reforming education... folks get busy... education gets busy with the pace of the year. A year slips by, then years slip by with little or no action... just cycles of meetings to discuss changes. All the while, some keep striving for change. Others who were active, trying to improve things often give up. The same discussions year after year, decade after decade wear them down. Many of those folks who do try to push innovation are shunned as troublemakers. Many who try to innovate get frustrated and give up. It's true... just ask someone who's been in education for a long time. All the while... debates, frustrations and apathy escalate.

Of course, there is a middle ground. Incremental changes can happen. Progress can happen. It seems that it just takes less legislation and more common sense. It takes some motion forward to keep innovators moving. Bottom up initiatives serve a purpose... but it takes leadership to make changes happen. Talk to teachers in education... and I'd say the vast majority would love to change how things operate. Ditto for students.

Total reform is tough. Discussions on total reform often lead to gridlock and ultimately no movement at all. Here are six steps that I think that can help get things moving:

1. Leaders must understand that teachers loathe senseless busy work. There's always another initiative that ends up in a binder on a shelf... until the next one surfaces. More work gets piled on that teachers feel challenges the time to actually work with students. There's always another initiative to demand more time. Leaders must direct their efforts to making positive changes that make a difference in learning... that the people in the trenches, so to speak, can see. Replace a current initiative with something better rather than pile on. Get rid of initiatives that don't work.

2. Teachers must be flexible. Change is necessary... and it takes effort. Teachers must demonstrate a willingness to keep learning. Teachers must educate students for their future... not just how they themselves are comfortable teaching.

3. Start changing pedagogy to be more interactive. All the buzz words are out there: Differentiated instruction, project based education, etc. Constructivist ed theory has been around for a long, long time. Dewey... etc. Getting students involved... helps shift their desire to learn and folks desire to teach.

4. Schools are increasingly asked to provide more and more services to increasingly diverse clients (students). Institutional models only can stretch so far and I think most schools seem to be stretched to the limit. Adding services is not really an option in most places, especially in this economy. If schools focus on being flexible instead of providing rigid, traditional services... you can meet the needs of more students without adding services. Many folks are starting to see traditional 'Educational Institutions' evolving into a 'Community Education Center' model. Promoting diverse schedules and course offerings will reach more students and provide more opportunities. Not all families, not all students can conform to a traditional 8am-3pm school model. Think of the message that more traditional schools send to students:
  • 'If you can't get here on time, you're out. 
  • If you can't take advantage of the extra-curricular programs we offer at the times we offer them... you're out.
  • If you can't commit to the scope of homework these classes provide, you shouldn't take the class.
Promoting diversity in schedules and offerings can open the door for many students, and all the while it promotes responsibility and personal growth. It also builds discussion between students and teachers. Discussions on preparedness, responsibility and integrity take on a whole new meaning when everyone can launch from a platform of equal opportunity... so to speak. A flexible schedule may be that equal platform. Schedule diversity, online course options, rich internship / coop opportunities, travel programs (mandatory or voluntary) are all possible and being practiced in many institutions around the globe. There is no one block schedule, no traditional course listing that can provide students with the opportunities to explore 'their' interests... in a traditional school model. If we are truly preparing students for their future, it will take more flexible approaches in our perception of what 'a school day' actually is.

Here's what item 3 boils down to for me: Flexibility... makes school relevant and meaningful to all participants.

5. Homework management procedures / policies are needed.

Many students, especially in high school education, grades 9-12, are truly buried in homework. If you do not have a home life that supports excess amounts of homework you are immediately cast into less challenging courses. I think if schools are serious about having students involved in the community, if they truly want students to have social interactions with family and friends, if they are serious about students overall health and wellness... a homework management policy should be considered... a right.

One student story comes to mind. I know, one out of many, but I think many students and adults alike can identify with this example:

This student was on an 'ivy league' collegiate track. Her course load consisted of 4 classes, 3 AP courses and one traditional academic course and one elective. She participated in an extra-curricular sport and routinely reported she had 6-7 hours of homework per day.

So sketching that out:
  • School 8-3: 7 hours.
  • Extra-curricular sports: 2-3 hours (including travel time to practice, practice itself and travel home). Even more time for games, especially away games.
  • Homework: 5-7 hours.
A rough total would be 15-17 hours per day on normal practice days. Even more for game days.

There's no doubt that this is not a healthy lifestyle, especially for a teenager. For this student in particular, dropping a an AP class, any class for that matter or the extra-curricular activity was not an option if she truly wanted to 'appear on an ivy league radar.'

At first glance, three AP classes may seem extreme. Many students do it though. Add in any number of optional scenarios as adds or substitutions for a student: A job, caring for siblings... etc.

I mean from a common sense perspective... 15-17 hours per day?

6. 1-1 computing.  I've been unable to find a count of how many schools are now offering a laptop per student program... because there are too many. There's a formula for success, and equally one for almost certain failure. Changes in pedagogy can become reality. I'll post more on this at a later time.

So... where does this leave us?

There are some great examples of sites who I think are actually shifting education in a very positive direction. The Science and Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia is an example of positive change.

What's the SLA formula? Understanding by Design. Differentiated / project based instruction. Flexibility. Technology for everyone at the school to use to learn. Empowered teachers. Strong leadership. The Principal there, Chris Lehmann, has a simple guide that could easily serve as a road map for teachers and leaders to move things forward. I'd be surprised to discover that making simple, positive changes at SLA takes years.

Other schools can do it. Reform... flexible shifts in the right direction can happen. It's going to take a shift from traditional institutionalized thinking, cooperation, common sense... and ultimately motion.

What do you think?

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