Transforming Education Starts In Your Classroom

Want To Transform Education? Start In Your Classroom.

by Terry Heick

If it’s a standards-based, outcomes-based, institutionally-centered (and nationally participative) game we want, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better combination than Understanding by Design units (i.e., Wiggins) anchored around power standards (e.g., Strong, Silver, Perini, Dufour) that are then delivered through differentiated instruction (i.e., Tomlinson) via research-based instructional strategies (e.g., Hattie, Marzano), and then assessed persistently in a climate of assessment (e.g. Stiggins) that adequately reflects the complexity of the given standard.

UbD + differentiation + climate of assessment + research-based strategies. Wiggins + Tomlinson + Stiggins + Hattie.

There’s a lot missing in that formula—curriculum mapping (e.g., Hayes), literacy (e.g., Beers), writing, and so on—but the pieces for powerful teaching and learning are there, and (more or less) have been for decades. And that’s what eating at me. Why aren’t we (as a field) any better than we are?

Why are classrooms such relatively joyless places?

Why does it require such Herculean effort to be a great teacher?

If the pieces are already there, why are powerful teaching and learning experiences that change lives so rare?

Evolving The Classroom

In some ways, we’ve stopped asking that question as an industry, leaving the hippie nonsense to the hippies. We’ve instead drawn the ropes more tautly. We’ve taken the above formula and added in data teams and professional learning communities to make sure everything is horizontally and vertically aligned as far as the eye can see.

If a school or district want things a bit more authentic than the above, we’ve added in some project-based learning to the mix. Maybe some inquiry-based learning. Thrown in some edtech tools like twitter and Google Drive and Evernote or blogging and podcasting.

Some have gotten even crazier—have flipped their classroom outright. Maybe blended things a bit more deeply–some eLearning conversations. Some school-to-school collaboration via Skype or Google Hangouts.

All the pieces are seemingly there to change the lives of students. To remove the gamified, vast social experiment that school is, and replace it with something that works for everyone. One that is selfless and fluid enough to itself be considered the failure when students fail. The caring teachers, the powerful teaching and learning strategies and tools. The data. The technology—they’re all there. So why the mediocrity?

Historically, we’ve treated this as a matter of professional development and training; we operate under the assumption that the problem of learning performance isn’t the learning models or educational forms or the curriculum or poverty or a lack of cultural investment in formal education, but rather the teaching. If teachers just take these pieces and use them the way they’re trained, everything will work, 80/80/80 schools as proof.

But work how? How will we know it’s working? What change in students and communities and habits should we see?

And for whom? Who is the audience of school, and what do they want and need?

How do you, as a teacher, tell if you’re doing a good job? If what you’re doing is working?

Iteration vs Transformation

So the question eventually becomes one of urgency: Should we iterate classrooms, or transform learning into something at once modern and seamless with day to day living?

The parts are all here now, right in your pocket; in your twitter feed; in the experiences of local and national experts. In your heart and mind and instincts—and in the authentic genius (sometimes hiding) in each and every student.

There is only so much innovation and evolution that can happen when our goal is academic proficiency of a common set of national standards as measured by narrow testing no matter if it’s adaptive or blended or what have you.

School is a social spectacle. It only starts with an academic standard in your curriculum binder or whiteboard. For students, it has to start with themselves—and that means identity. Who am I and what am I doing here? What matters to me? What motivates me? What should I do with knowledge?

Where on earth is there room for that in your curriculum map? Where are the pathways that allow them to construct meaning around questions like that? Try explaining that garbage to the suits in your district walkthrough.

The Best Case Scenario Of Academic Proficiency

So now the questions and rhetoric and angst all narrow to something a bit more binary:

Should we slowly, iteratively revise the classroom as we know it—where students march through indexed curriculum in pursuit of academic proficiency. Better questioning. Embedded inquiry. New tools, same forms. Less this. More that.

Or should we develop new learning forms where student are allowed to make meaning on their own, navigating unpackaged content in connected networks to solve problems that matter to themselves and their community. Where they are assisted, moment by moment, to decide on their own what’s worth understanding—where the accountability is to the human beings in front of us. Self-directed learning. User-generated education. Connected learning. Experiential learning.

Dutifully master the standard, or joyfully play with the universe?

I have no idea. As an English teacher in a public school, I am Wiggins + Tomlinson + Strong + Stiggins, I spiral big ideas for student-initiated transfer using data streams with a focus on critical thinking and self-direction. I incorporate the role of play, experiential learning, problem-based learning, and other “stuff” into the work I design for students to do.

But for me, as a part of TeachThought and edutopia and panels and committees and twitter chats and books and behind the scenes heartfelt conversation, I’m enamored (tortured?) with possibility—and increasingly bothered by a feeling of déjà vu.

Wisdom and affection and curiosity and creativity and interdependence and humility are possible in our classrooms today, but they aren’t—by matters of training and law—anywhere close to the priority. We can give lip service to them all we want, and add them to every mission statement and email signature and website footer, and super impose them on posters of Albert Einstein or Carl Sagan or Jimi Hendrix or Ken Robinson, but it’s just not happening on a scale that reflects our human and financial and creative investment in it all.

The Common Core Standards aren’t evil, but they’re a red herring if we want anything different for this generation of students—your students this year—than we’ve had for every generation in the past. Today, the absolute best-case scenario is to use progressive instructional design and data-based teaching to help students master Common Core Standards so they can be ranked and tested again by the ACT and SAT to “get into college” and then “get a job”—a pattern so dehumanizing that it almost seems normal in the same way that the absurd popularity of Kim Kardashian’s app make sense.

So how do we take this existing model and the expertise of its pieces and use it to craft something truly spectacular? Something that works for everyone by design?

One that is designed to disrupt itself endlessly so that it cannot stagnate because there are too many catalysts and applications?

One where the spectacle of ideas—and the endless, meaningful, collaborative navigation of content—replaces the gearing of grades, testing, compliance, and teachers that drone?

Where students can see, feel, and trust that they can have an effect on the world around them?

Where students walk out of your classroom—or whatever place that makes sense—on a daily basis and ask themselves, What do I know, and what should I do with that knowledge?

The pieces are there. How should we respond?

Transforming Education Starts In Your Classroom; adapted image attribution flickr user nasagoddardspaceflightcenter