Sunday, April 5, 2015

This Must Go!

There is a popular meme depicting the vast differences between some areas of our society from 80 or 100 years ago to today: think hospitals, cities, transportation, communication. Now place those unbelievable transformations in stark contrast to today's classrooms.

Aside from the apparently immobility of the classroom setup, we are stuck in so many detrimental and regressive models in our education system. To wit: the assembly line of K-12, where students move helplessly along, collecting parts (credits) until they reach the end when they are "complete"; the grading system which does nothing but overlay meaningless letters on top of learning in order to indicate student worth to parents, counselors, outsiders and the students themselves; the intransigence of some school systems to flex with student needs; the commercialization of districts and the hijacking of teacher prerogative by massive corporate entities.

Our education system, based as it has been on efficiency and factory style movement through grades and curricula, is ill-equipped to shepherd future leaders, businessmen and women, teachers, and laborers into the twenty-first century. To move the American education system forward, I advocate an entire paradigm shift from the factory model to a collaborative, skills-based model.

This new approach is reflected in everything from pedagogy to text selection to the way the school day is structured to financing of school systems and the hierarchical structures within schools. I wrote about my ideas in detail in another post.

But what can regular teachers do? We can't change school budget processes or reorganize the teachers in our buildings. We can't turn away high-powered sponsors or high-stakes tests. We control one thing only: our classrooms. So let's start there.

I replaced my desks (which were in pods anyway) with round tables and rolling chairs. I even procured a tall table for students who tire of sitting. I created a reading nook with inexpensive bean bag chairs and a rug for comfort. These aren't new ideas, but they do require rethinking instruction.

For one, round tables with lamps are not conducive to a teacher lecturing for long. They are conducive to chatter and collaboration. For another, a teacher has to build in the time for reading or individual work in a comfortable chair. The directive shouldn't be "there are 9 minutes left in class and I'm not sure what to do - so grab a bean bag and read!"

In other words, our pedagogy has to change. As Fisher and Frey note in Literacy 2.0, our culture's paradigm is changing from one of competition to one of collaboration. As Wagner reports in The Global Achievement Gap, business leaders are looking for employees who can think creatively, design collaboratively, and work efficiently. Even the popular film The Internship clearly relays this shift, as two older, unemployed buddies vie against young whippersnappers for a position at Google. (The unexpected ending does not change this focus on creative thinking and collaboration!)

In short, teachers must start thinking about new ways to reach students. We need to build our lessons with a creative spirit and a skills-based focus, without giving up the content we love so much that we wanted to share it with others. We can consider how to let go of an archaic and meaningless grading system. We need to redesign our classrooms and rethink our management strategies.

Take a look around your classrooms when you return to school and ask yourselves this question: what must go?

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