by Terry Heick, Director
It’s pretty clear–and frustrating–that in lieu of the incredible effort and expertise of teachers, and billions of dollars spent by departments of education globally, that our collective education landscape is decidedly mediocre. And everyone has an opinion on how to fix it–opinions that swing swiftly from one extreme to another.
The kids can’t read!
Schools focus too much on reading.
#edtech is the way forward.
#edtech is evil.
We need innovation!
Get off my lawn. I wrote essays and book reports all through school and I turned out okay. (Similarly, my doctor smoked, my house was covered in lead paint, and my mother never used a car seat.)
We give them too much homework.
Or not enough.
Poverty is a killer.
80/80/80 schools prove otherwise, yes?
School is boring.
School might be boring, but so is “the real world” so they’d better get used to it.
We spoon feed them too much.
If we don’t personalize instruction with constant learning feedback and support, how will they ever learn?
In many ways, this binary this or that condition reflects an authentically American spirit to dig in and fight, a dichotomy paralleled in our which is it, liberal or conservative? political system. We like simple choices and easy packaging, and that love of accessibility and convenience can extend to our collective thinking about complex issues.
Education, school improvement, the role of technology in learning, and other issues are really less about reform, and more about what’s missing in these discussions–the big picture. And this big picture starts with a basic question that precedes even discussions about standards and curriculum:
Why should children learn? Why do we educate? (And if you answer “college-readiness,” go back and think some more.)
Any thinking about this crucial question immediately begins to inform other similar macro-questions:
What is the best way for students to learn?
Who should lead that kind of learning, and how exactly?
What should we accept as evidence of learning?
What should we do when they fail to demonstrate that evidence?
More broadly, who is we? Teachers? Schools? Districts? Communities? Who else should be helping here, and how exactly?
What’s missing in discussions about learning is a sequence that moves from big picture–Why learn?–to the little picture–How then should schools–and the curriculum and assessments and grading system–be designed?
Oddly, this kind of conversation is not only uncommon, but sounds esoteric, clumsy, and nebulous, and decades spent reforming and billions spent updating education haven’t led us anywhere but a position where we increasingly recognize our own nakedness.
And this would be good, but in true human nature we’re developing self-defense mechanisms that only make things worse in the long run, including thicker skin, the idolizing of learning technology, a mechanized dependence of “data-driven” and technology-led teaching, and, more recently, learning trend fatigue.
We’re simultaneously tired of change, and evaporating as an industry without it. But that fatigue is important to honor. That so many teachers are tired of hearing it all isn’t simply proof they need to find new jobs.
There’s more to the story–and ways we can begin addressing it all.
1. Don’t just ask “Is this what’s best for the students?”–make sure you can offer a somewhat credible vision yourself of what might be.
2. Don’t start with technology–start with function within the learning process. Consider which important problems a technology can solve.
3. Same with learning trends. Don’t simply think in labels and forms–”challenge-based learning” or “place-based education” for example–but rather how to promote it-takes-a-village buy-in from the local community.
3. Spend a lot of time with with curriculum, assessment, and related policies rather than wasteful arguments in meetings or snark on social media.
4. Spend as much time listening to students as talking to them.
5. Design lessons and units that focus on human interaction, critical thinking, and self-directed learning. Decenter yourself at all costs.
6. Develop frameworks and learning models that value both the art and science of learning.
7. Continue to build social capacity when, where, and how children learn through increased transparency, programs, and substantive conversations.
8. In every single issue of curriculum, assessment, instruction, school design, or related conversation, trace backwards to more macro questions. If you’re discussing how frequently you should administer a district common assessment, think what can (reasonably) be done with that kind of data, what has happened in the past in similar situations, and what the immediate impact on learning experiences for students might be.
The Big Idea
In general, the idea is to use macro thinking to at least inform decisions. Trying to decide whether to drop art and music? Buy iPads or Android devices? Adopt project-based learning? Go BYOD? Think first on as wide a scale possible, and work backwards from there.
What are the goals here?
Where have we been, and where are we going?
What patterns reveal themselves if we stop for a second and look?
What have we missed in the past when making these kinds of decisions?
Why do children come to school, how do they like to learn, what are their thinking habits, and how can all of this inform our decision to, for example, adopt a BYOD program or hire a new teacher? There is a relationship between all of this, and not seeing it has cost us too much.
In our history of trying to improve schools, we’ve seemingly drawn too close to the machine of public education to see anything other than the individual moving parts, rather than the machine, its tone, patterns, and direction.
The trees rather than the forest itself.
This has unsurprisingly left us a bit tired of staring at these parts, no matter their shiny new coat of paint or clever, eye-catching design. Learning trend fatigue is just one example.
So let’s balance the tempting focus on trends, tools, and gadgets with the kind of big-picture vision that can inform our use of it all.
Image attribution flickr user vancouverfilmschool, chrisyarzab, and studibeerhurstbbmarie; Learning Trend Fatigue: The Missing Discussion About Education