November 3rd, 2011

Redefining Our Value

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking more and more that the biggest challenge we face as educators is redefining our value as schools and classrooms and teachers, not just to the taxpaying public but to ourselves as well. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that unless we are able to articulate and manifest that shift, we really do risk losing much of what is meaningful and important about the school experience for our kids. 

And there is an urgency to this now that I’m not sure many are feeling. Recently, I heard a well respected author say during a presentation “We all know that kids don’t learn anything that we don’t teach them.” And I heard another wildly successful author about school practice comment that what we need to do to improve schools is to focus more on the techniques of direct instruction, using technology sparingly and on the edges. 

Here’s the point: if we see direct instruction as our value, if what we care about is “higher student achievement” in the context of passing the test, we are, in a word, screwed.

The reality? Technology will soon provide a better “learning” experience to kids needing to pass the test than a classroom teacher with 30 (or 50) kids. Self-paced, formatively assessed, personalized to each student’s needs. I wrote about Knewton a couple of weeks ago, and just a couple of days ago came news that they’ve joined forces with Pearson to create an individualized data-driven learning platform that will no doubt spawn a host of other startups in the education space. Read it, and most likely, weep:

Students in these courses use the computer during class time to work through material at their own speed. Through diagnostics taken along the way, the program creates a “personalized learning path” that targets exactly what lessons they need to work on and then delivers the appropriate material. Points, badges and other game mechanics theoretically keep students chugging through courses with more motivation. In the meantime, teachers learn which students are struggling with exactly which concepts.

If this is what we value, teachers will be reduced to folks who fill in the blanks that the software can’t…yet. Or to put it another way (again), if this is what we value, we don’t need teachers any more, nor do we need schools. And to be honest, it’s not hard to see a whole bunch of policy makers and businessmen who are just salivating at that prospect. I know that schools aren’t going away any time soon, (what would we do with our kids?) but our current concept of schools (or at least our greatest wish for schools) as places of inspiration and inquiry and joy in learning will die a quick death. 

I think Peggy Orenstein captures this pretty well in her column in the Times this week which described the tension between test scores and learning at a New Hampshire middle school that was featured in the paper earlier:

In the end, I guess, I believe in the quality, competence and creativity of her teachers. And perhaps that’s a type of faith worth having, one that in public education is being permanently (and sometimes understandably) eroded. Linda Rief, one of the Oyster River teachers, told Mr. Winerip that she feared “public schools where teachers are trusted to make learning fun are on the way out.”

“Ms. Rief understands that packaged curriculums and standardized assessments offer schools an economy of scale that she and her kind cannot compete with,” Mr. Winerip writes.

There is an urgency now to redefine our value. We cannot be about passing the test. We cannot be about content to the extent we are today because content is everywhere. We cannot be about a curriculum that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Something else can do that now, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. We have to be about the thing that technology cannot and will not be able to do, and that’s care deeply for our kids as humans, help them develop passions to learn, solve problems that are uniquely important to them, understand beauty and meaning in the world, help them play and create and apply knowledge in ways that add to the richness of life, and develop empathy and deep contextual understanding of the world. And more. 

To me, at least, our profession is in trouble not because of the technology, but because of the current expectations we have of schools. We need to start these conversations around redefinition today, shift this thinking now, not tomorrow. We need to make the case to parents and board members and policy makers and each other that while technology may now serve as a better option for kids needing to learn discrete skills or facts to pass the test, our great value is to cultivate and help develop those uniquely human dispositions and abilities that in the end will allow our kids to use what they know in ways that can make this world a better place and hopefully, save us from ourselves. And that that is an opportunity for change that we cannot waste.

There is an urgency now, for if what we as a society continue to value is the test, we’re lost.

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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!

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