There Is No Single Ideal Learning Form

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By Justin Marquis, Ph.D

In “The Importance of Being Divisive in Education,” RiShawn Biddle, writing for Dropout Nation, concluded his post by stating: “In short, school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.”

Biddle writes eloquently about the importance of divisive figures throughout history, and particularly during times of conflict. He cites Churchill, Thomas Paine, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as examples of divisive figures who inspired change through their very ability to take difficult stands on issues. Their commitment raised public awareness and pushed agendas that they believed would ultimately be to the benefit of society as a whole. As the quote above indicates, Biddle then calls for similar figures to step forward in the struggle to reform American education in its darkest hour.

I agree with him on all accounts – the need for reform, the need for outspoken advocates of reform, and the power for change that those individuals can possess. While it is not explicitly stated, what I think needs emphasis in the education reform movement is the idea that there is no single path to education reform and that need not be a united front in order to succeed. The question then is can we reform education without agreeing on what that reform should look like?

Does Education Need to be Homogenized?
There is an idea that education reform must be encompassed by a single solution and that our system should provide a standardized education for all students regardless of their needs or those of society. This concept is one of the fundamental flaws with education reform and could eventually make education worse rather than better if these single-minded individuals get their way.

A vastly superior model is to have a society that values all education, at all levels and appreciates the innovation and individuality of each district, university, and educator, and gives them and their constituents the ability to decide how to educate students and what the content of that education should be. We need to face the fact that the United States is falling behind China in the race to be the world’s top innovation producer (NPR, 6 Jan. 2013). Homogenizing our education system will further hinder our ability to foster creative individuals who can compete in the global economy.

Education reform cannot be any one thing. If it does become a single, standardized product, we are going to lose the struggle to remain relevant on the global economy. It needs to encompass a wide variety of changes and models simultaneously in order to ensure our continued ability to compete. Specifically, a divisive perspective on education reform might lead to a system more like that in higher education with very distinct types of institutions.

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Higher Education Models
There are several distinct types of institutions of higher learning, each with a specific agenda, functions, and target demographics. Here are the most commonly seen examples in American higher education:

1. Professional or For-Profit Schools: For profits schools tend to offer a limited curriculum that focuses on specific vocations such as nursing, business, or other area with appeal to those interested in the shortest route to employment.

2. Two-Year or Community Colleges: These schools serve as a kind of higher education safety net intended to reach a broader audience than other schools with the hope of providing a larger portion of the general population with higher education and supporting some of them in the pursuit of a 4-year degree.

3. Vocational/Technical Colleges: Similarly to the for-profits mentioned above, these non-profit institutions also seek to provide more specific, job-related skills that allow graduates to immediately contribute to the work force.

4. Liberal Arts Colleges: Stereotyped as the least vocational of our higher education options, liberal arts schools provide a practical education with more of an emphasis on problem solving than technical ability. Equally valuable as other types of institution, just with a different methodology.

5. Religiously Affiliated Universities/Regional State Universities/Private Universities: The majority of schools in the U.S. fall within this large category that fit the typical college model with many different majors from areas both technical and practical, as well as with a more liberal arts flavor and advanced graduate studies.

6. Public Research Universities: While there are also some very noteworthy private research universities, the gigantic state U is the one many of us are familiar with, primarily because all together, they turn out hundreds of thousands of graduates each year. They offer undergraduate education as well as graduate and professional schools and conduct much of the research that makes America run.

Even among this relatively small number of options there is a significant diversity in what they offer and what they purport to train students to do, and subsequently to be. In contrast, almost all of our K-12 schools serve one primary need – to mass produce students to fit into society and fulfill pre-determined roles. There are, however, outliers that prove that public education does not need to function as a monolithic standard for all.

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K-12 Models
Even among the countless standardized schools in the U.S., there is some diversity which could be emphasized in a divisive education reform movement. Among the most interesting are:

1. The One Room School House: You might recognize this one from Little House on the Prairie or a visit to an Amish village in Lancaster, PA. The idea is simple, a single teacher works with a small number of students, all at different ages and ability levels, to teach them the things that they need to know to be successful in their local community. In this model the local community has a strong input into what is taught and how it is taught. One of the significant benefits is that it is an easy model in which to ensure parental involvement and engagement with the educational process.

2. Multi-age/multi-ability: Having taught in a multi-age classroom previously that contained first through third graders, I can say without reservation, that this model works. I advocate for a limited age mix and a model in which older students are largely responsible for teaching their peers similar to the Montessori Method. In this way all students learn and older students have their learning reinforced by teaching. Curriculum for this type of classroom can be wide open or tightly focused on a single topic or area of study.

3. The Neighborhood school: This is the model that many Americans are familiar with. A small school that serves a few neighborhoods surrounding it. The curriculum tends to be mainstream, industrial age, and standardized, but has served many students well for a long time. This is the most efficient model of schooling that we have invented thus far.

4. The Game-Based School: Models such as Quest 2 Learn and the Playmaker School serve as examples of the ways in which a K-12 curriculum can be built around a particular topic or set of skills and knowledge with great effect. These schools are generally student-centered and inquiry-based in nature and provide a fertile breeding ground for innovation.

5. Magnet Schools and Charter School: Finally, though I am not an advocate for charters in general, I have to concede that there may well be a need for magnate schools that, like Q2L and Playmaker, cater to students with a specific interest or talent such as art, music, or another area. These schools focus on fostering discipline-specific knowledge while also teaching more traditional subjects.

While this may seem like a pretty diverse selection of K-12 offerings, the basic function of all of them is actually quite similar. They condition students to fit within the social norms of society and fill certain prescribed roles therein. What education reformers are missing is the opportunity to even further diversify the offerings available at the K-12 level in order to train students in new and innovative ways of thinking and acting. This diversification would expand the possibilities of learning and societal growth.

An Eclectic Approach
One option for education reform is to break apart the system that we currently have and to allow greater freedom for local schools and teachers to craft options that work for them. One thing that this would do immediately is remove standardization from the equation. As I note often in this space, standardization is the antithesis of an economy built on innovation, and we can no-longer afford to support a system that focuses on the former at the expense of the latter.

A second function that this eclecticizing of the educational system would accomplish would be for specific schools, areas or even (gasp!) industries to cater what schools in their areas teach in order to best fulfill the needs of the local economy. While I don’t advocate the training of drones for an automobile factory, for example, I do advocate the concept of basing a curriculum on automotive engineering as a way of moving people into the pipeline to participate in a significant segment of a local economy. This is a method that is similar to that already employed in some community college programs.

The education reform movement is in full swing, with politicians, parents, researchers, teachers, and students involved in a trying to make the system the single best one in the world. Perhaps it is time to abandon this single-minded pursuit of excellence in favor of a more divisive, yet more sustainable and useful approach? The right place to begin is with dialogue between teachers, students, parents, politicians, and the local communities in which schools reside.

This is a cross-post from onlineuniversities.com; image attribution flickr users wootang classroom, flickeringbrad, and eren; There Is No Single Ideal Learning Form