Because life is a series of edits

Getting Schooled

In Education, Thought, Westminster on February 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Before professionally stepping into the role of teacher three years ago, my previous experience of the classroom was as a student (elementary, junior and senior high, college, and then graduate level at seminary). Maybe it's because I've had such little formal training that I am fascinated by educational history and the theories behind what goes on in classrooms. While I used to feel intimidated by what I thought I didn't know as a teacher, my increasing sense over the past three years is that I may not have missed as much as I once imagined, mostly because so much of it is out-of-date.

Last Friday, Westminster hosted a teacher in-service for educators within independent schools of St. Louis. The speaker was Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, and there were about 300 folks in attendance. I've been to a few of these day-long training sessions before, but this one topped the list in terms of providing the best mix of theoretical/practical and strategic/tactical content.

While Westminster is further down the road in several ways in providing a 21st-century education, we got the equivalent of an educational spanking (made easier by some dry humor and a free lunch), as what has been taught and passed on for decades within the American school system is painfully outdated, and our best effort at making a shift forward is barely keeping up. This doesn't mean there aren't some good or even "out front" things going on in American education today, but compared to the rest of the world, we're lagging behind as a whole.

Think about this:

  • The majority of schools (public or private) are running on an educational model established in 1892 (think factories and mass production), with most "current" curricula and practices created and coming out of the 1970s.
  • What is needed to improve this reality is two-fold: short-term upgrades (revision and replacement of dated curriculum and assessment types with more vital contemporary forms), and long-term versioning (new versions of the program structures in our school and institutions that house curriculum and instruction). We shouldn't go "back to basics" but "forward to new basics."
  • Assessment is a demonstration of learning in which the focus should be on feedback. We should design cumulative assessment that helps the learner revise his or her performance independently rather than the teacher revising it for him or her. The focus should be on developing self-assessment rather than just providing teacher assessment.
  • We need a curricular commitment from each teacher with regard to technology. What this commitment includes should be an integrated use of technology that enhances content, an application to a specific unit of study, and one that is evidenced directly in student products and performances. What this commitment is not is the limited and immediate use of a technological tool (i.e. using an LCD projector vs. an overhead; using a computer vs. a typewriter; or using a smart board vs. an LCD projector).
  • Each teacher should commit to identifying at least one specific unit to revise; planning to replace a specific content, skill, and assessment practice with a 21st century upgrade within the unit; sharing the proposed change with colleagues; learning to use the tool that will be requisite to replace the current unit design with the new practice; revising the unit and begin implementation with students; tolerate a certain degree of frustration; celebrating victories; and reviewing and sharing results with peers.
  • With regard to issues of schedule, student grouping patterns, teacher configurations, and space (both physical and virtual), decisions have to be made about all of these elements together, as the whole is the sum of the parts. Key principle: form should follow function (not reverse). I've appreciated Westminster's approach to much of this in the new building currently in design.
  • More on grouping students: we need to replace "ability" groups which focus on student labels and focus on grouping by skills, literacy (language, information, cultural, global), and independent study needs. We also need to rethink lower and upper classmen models and seek to boost the dignity of both college and vocational career paths; in other words, all students should have some experience regarding both.
  • Based on world population percentages and realities, we ought to bag teaching French and focus more on languages like Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic (we currently teach French, Spanish, and Latin). We also need to teach all subjects with a more global emphasis (geo-economics, geo-politics, etc.) and do away with state-distinctive education, especially since our American population is so mobile between states.
  • We need to rethink the length of the school year, which, since 1892, has roughly been 180 days and largely based on an agarian calendar. At least five of these days should be allotted for professional development and review of assessment data. Considerations need to include year-round or summer semester possibilities, with consideration given to days not having to be on-site-task vs. seat time.
  • Teacher configurations should include multiple affiliations and task forces grouped to solve specific problems. We should also group teachers both vertically (departments) and horizontally (grade level/age level/skill level) so as to foster better continuity in advancing students.
  • We should rethink our "12 grades" compulsion, allowing for early graduation if/when a student is ready, or an additional year if/when the student is not. We need to replace seat time with task completion that might be accomplished virtually.

There's plenty more where all that came from, but I won't bore you. The fact is that the American education system is in dire need of a major philosophical shift, but this transition seems next to impossible because the key elements of the system (schedule, student grouping patterns, teacher configurations, space) have been in place for the past 100 years. It's the 21st century, but the American school system is and has been stuck – not in the 20th century, but in the 19th!

It's been a slow week (month, year) for comments, but does anybody feel like weighing in on this?

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  1. What were you able to take away for the homeschool context of your own family?

  2. I appreciated HHJ’s emphasis on teaching with a more global emphasis and on encouraging students to think beyond their immediate geographic situation. However, since China, India, and the Arabic-speaking world are on the rise, does that mean French is becoming irrelevant and should be bagged? If studying French means (as it meant for previous generations) becoming more “cultured” by learning how to drop references to Rousseau and Voltaire, or learning the grammatical intricacies of textual translation, then perhaps it’s not what students need today and should be phased out.
    However, in my classroom I try to emphasize French as a GLOBAL vernacular (unlike Chinese and Hindi which are still very geographically isolated). While English is becoming the world’s lingua franca, French is the second language to be spoken on all continents. France remains one of our closest allies, and imagine how much easier our diplomatic efforts would be if we understood the French a little better (freedom fries, anyone?).
    Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, one of my primary goals in teaching French is to help students develop a posture of hospitality towards their global neighbors. If we get rid of French (or German or Russian or Navajo or whatever), we send an implicit message that Francophones are a people group who no longer merit our attention. As a Christian I want to extend my efforts beyond the linguistically powerful to the members of any and all language groups.
    So while I would LOVE to see a greater variety of languages taught in our schools (and at WCA), it’s important to note that French isn’t the dinosaur some think it is, and that the values I try to teach in my class are just as relevant as they ever were, if not more.

  3. Sarah, I overspoke in a bad way and you rightly called me on it. Forgive me. Your vision for the expansion of language (rather than its replacement) in schools is spot on, and I appreciate your broadening perspective in this matter while being a little embarrassed by my narrow one. Thanks for offering a more redeeming (instead of merely economic or political) use for language – it’s inspiring. I’m privileged to be your colleague.
    Marcie, Jacobs is a big charter school fan who was addressing independent schools, so she didn’t dwell a lot on homeschooling specifically, but she did have some good things to say about its vision and effectiveness (albeit appropriately qualified). A lot of the ideas above can be easily applied to the homeschool experience, but one of the specific things I wrote down was that, in early childhood, children need 2.5 hours of uninterrupted language arts, integrating (rather than switching between) science, math, and social studies. She also emphasized focusing on student learning through personal time-budgeting, online experiences, and tutoring clusters in local settings.

  4. Thanks Craig. I appreciate your thoughts, as always. I realize that as a teacher of French, I’m probably going to have to defend my work throughout my career, so I’m glad to see you’re on board.

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