Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday's Five - A Vision for Schools

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with others, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of the page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook Page with others.  Each post has a "Tweet" button on top and buttons on the bottom that allow you to share in several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

About a week ago, Michael Richards posted a question on Google +:  If you were to create a public school from the ground up what would be one of the first things you would do?  There was some great discussion in the comments, and the question and comments really got me thinking.

I've said many times before that educational reform is not enough to fix our system.  We need educational revolution.  But, what does the ideal school of our future look like?  If we started from scratch, and ignored every pre-conceived notion of what "school" is and focused only on optimizing an environment for learning, what would the end result be?

I honestly still have no idea.  It's such a large, exciting problem.  This week, however, I'm going to list five core values that on which I would base a new school.  I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

  1. Content isn't as important as what you do with it. - Right now we treat students as empty containers waiting for  us to fill with knowledge.  We have endless lists of facts that students must learn, and we require few of the skills that will allow students to succeed in life.  We argue over the best way to test the acquisition of these facts, and forget that 90% of this content can be found within 30 seconds by students if we allowed them to use the phones in their pocket.  It's time to demand more.  Whether through Project Based Learning, Service Learning, Activism, or some other process, students will use content as a means to achieve their goals, not as an end.  
  2. The most important role of administration is to hire the right people and professionally develop them. - It's been well documented that the quality of the teacher is the largest in-school factor in whether a student will learn.  With that in mind, schools should not only seek out the best available talent when hiring teachers, but make a large investment in professional development.  This doesn't necessarily mean paying money for training sessions, but rather promoting the use of professional learning networks, unconferences, webinars, and other readily available and under-utilized resources to inspire teachers and keep them continually improving their pedagogy.
  3. The focus will change from the "3 Rs" to the "4 Cs." - As I mentioned above, we've evolved past the point where knowing how to read, write, and calculate will allow one to be successful in life.  Much more important for today's students are the ability to Create, Collaborate, Communicate, and Critically Think.  These are not skills that only gifted, advanced, or smart kids need to have.  They should be woven into the very fabric of our schools so that every lesson demands the development of them.
  4. School should not be a place separate from the "real world." - We have to stop separating school from life.  School should be real.  Students should be working on real problems, learning real lessons, and helping real people.  Otherwise they will continue to view school as a time requirement that has no benefit to them in the "real world."  Get rid of textbooks; they are heavily biased, expensive, outdated, and filled with exactly the types of pseudocontextual problems that drain student motivation.  Instead, use sources with which students can interact, create, and analyze.  For example, instead of banning Wikipedia, challenge students to identify the bias, extract the facts, and debate the truth.  Then, allow them to change mistakes they find.  
  5. Put the focus on the students. - It seems obvious, and almost a cliche.  We rarely do it, though.  We give tests that can be easily graded instead of project based assessments that take more time.  We make decisions based on what will lead to the fewest lawsuits, not based on what will give students the greatest opportunity to learn.  We assign grades to students that parents can understand because we don't want to hear complaints rather than focusing on important skills that can't easily be quantified.  We make students sit at desks so that they can be managed more easily, not because it's the best learning environment.  We separate biology, chemistry, and physics because it's easier to teach that way despite the fact that they are intimately connected.  We do the same with algebra, trigonometry, and geometry.  We teach in 70 or 140 minute blocks.  The list goes on and on.  This is probably the biggest reason that we need a revolution instead of reform.  It would be nearly impossible to change all of the ways that adults have molded the system to fit their needs rather than the needs of students.
Now it's your turn.  What are your thoughts on Michael Richards's question?  Is there a core value that you would list above my five?  Do you disagree with any parts of my list?  Is reforming our current system enough?  Share your thoughts below in the comment section, and please pass the post along to others.  I'd love to hear their thoughts, too.