Radically reform schools

Personally I believe schools are in need of deeper reforms than simply changing the pedagogy a bit can resolve.  Here are some suggestions I’ve been exposed to over the past few weeks, which could be considered radical, but might really improve schools.  I’d like to provide references for where I learned about this information, but to be honest I’m not really sure who exactly suggested what, I’ve been processing a lot of information recently.  I’m pretty sure some of this is from Don Tapscott,Gary Stager, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower.

  1. Get rid of end of year percentage grades.

    They don’t measure what we want them to measure to measure.  Students can easily have good grades and not really get what’s going on, and similarly students who really get it might not have good grades.  Somehow we’ve managed to convert grades from a measuring tool of what the student has learned (which in my opinion should always be related to what they knew before) to a mixed measure of their work habits and ability.  Work habits are strongly related to socioeconomic status because of the difficulty poor students have in finding the space and time to complete their homework.  Ability is related to how much your personal needs are being met, and again this is strongly related to socioeconomic status.  So in other words, grades might be a better measure of how much money a student’s parents make than their true latent ability to learn your course material.

    Instead of grading students, have them produce a portfolio of tasks each year which proves they have learned something valuable.  Such portfolio pieces could be rigorous and the decision about whether they are "complete" should be a joint one between the head of school, the teachers, the student, and their parents.
     

  2. Stop grouping students by age and start grouping them by interests.

    This one is simple.  We group adults by interests (or jobs if you prefer) all the time.  How many places can you think of outside of school where human beings are sorted by age?  Doug Stager brought this point up in a presentation at the 2010 ASCD conference and I agree with him, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  With multi-age groups we can now suddenly have authentic apprenticeships occur where children who have expertise can train children who are beginning.  Imagine how much the learning in schools would be amplified if instead of every 30 students having 1 teacher to every student having 1 teacher?

    If students move onto new material by demonstrating mastery of the current material, then this system makes sense, because people can take much different amounts of time to demonstrate mastery.
     

  3. Get rid of national standards and benchmarks for success.

    All national standards do is assume that every child is the same.  By subjecting every student to the exact same set of rules, we end up failing all of the students who do not meet the narrow definition of success embedded within the standards. If our graduation rates are too low, it is because we are unable to recognize the strengths of the children who do not fit into our neat system.

    Let’s not forget the argument, brought up by Yong Zhao, which suggests that 2nd and 3rd world nations are trying to overhaul their standards based systems and emulate our older education systems because they believe that their national standards have left them out of the running in the global economy.  Why are we trying to move toward systems we know don’t work?

    It is also possible that at the current rate that total human knowledge is expanding, it is not possible to capture all of the important parts of it which a curriculum which rarely changes.  Removing the performance standards and focusing on learning what is happening now, or what is critical to understanding the human condition, might make it easier to keep up in our rapidly changing world.
     

  4. Provide way more options for students.

    One of the major differences I have noticed between private schools and public schools is the amazing amount of course choices offered in private schools.  The top schools offer a wide variety of course choices because they know that this selection appeals to both parents and students.  I recommend doing away with the traditional concept of a year or semester long course completely and focus on providing individualized selection of modules students can take.  For example, Cesar wants to learn how to make an electronic generator.  The teacher and Cesar look up what is needed to be able to do this and Cesar completes those modules.  He can see that anything he is learning is going to be directly necessary for understanding how his electronic generator works, and understanding the value of the importance of learning something is more than half the battle in terms of motivation.
     

  5. Turn schools into places students want to go.

    When I lived in New York city, I was horrified by the appearance of the public schools and complete lack of creativity those goes into equipping the inside of many of them.  They look like gigantic prisons, with bars on the windows, and the interiors are devoid of any useful places for students to collaborate outside of class.

    Instead of this, provide spaces for students which are more organic, give them more ability to communicate with each other, and provide access to the tools students need to be successful.  Our schools, like our other important institutions, should be places full of innovative technology.  The US, for example, will lose about $3 trillion combined in taxes and expenses on medicare, unemployment premiums, etc… for the students who drop out over the next ten years.

Maybe these ideas are too radical for the current school system, and I suspect that some of them would lead to revolt from our parents, not because I don’t think they would work, but I recognize that they are very different from what most of experienced when we went through school.  However, if we all look back at our own schooling, I’m sure we remember hardly any times when we really enjoyed what we did in class, but we can all remember those courses we took which did nothing for us.  Why are we subjecting our students to an even worse experience than we had?

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2 Comments

  • These are all great ideas David, the only trouble is: how do we get there?

    1. Getting rid of grades and percentages

    I think there is a simple way of doing away with grades and percentages: link student achievement directly to the learning outcome by constructing an online matrix-type database similar to the one I proposed in my http://nancycastonguay.wordpress.com/mutations/#532 paper. Learners then would, as you suggested, submit evidence that they have met the requirements for such and such learning outcome. That would be a monumental task and it would require a whole team of experts to make this come true… But wouldn’t it be cool?! At the same time, the model I suggested in my paper would inadvertently group students by interest, albeit preserving an age appropriate cohort.

    3. Standards I think are still relevant in some cases

    One of the greatest challenges in education today is the fact that literacy skills seem to be on the decline. This is due to several factors, nevertheless, autonomy and choice will only serve students who have acquired a certain level of literacy. I have a hard time envisioning a system without standards in literacy and numeracy, for that matters.

    4. Providing more options

    Perhaps if our government stopped funding private schools, we might be able to offer more choices in public education. Each dollar that goes to private schools cost public schools.

    But say that we are in the position of offering differentiated instruction on an individual basis, similar to your example of ‘Cesar’ and what is suggested in my paper… This is tough because what happens if the student decides to change their focus, to drop the electric generator for something more interesting or easier… Something would have to be in place to prevent students from switching… and they will. So in my model, students would have to ‘lock-into’ a particular project and stick with it otherwise the whole model falls apart…

    5. Turning schools into places students want to go…

    Maybe we can integrate suitable learning platforms within the existing structures… I love this Micheal Wesch lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4yApagnr0s&feature=player_embedded

  • David Wees wrote:

    I’m okay in theory with learning outcomes, but like you said it is a monumental task to create and maintain those spreadsheets for every kid. The other problem is that WHAT students should be learning, and hence what the learning outcomes should be is changing, and it is changing rapidly because our knowledge base as a species is changing so quickly. Recognizing what should be a learning outcome is nearly impossible in my opinion.

    In terms of declining literacy, I disagree. I don’t think our students are less literate than we were, they are literate in a different way. Instead of reading books all the time, they have to learn how to navigate through websites. The problem is that most schools are not showing students how to navigate through websites and develop web literacy in an appropriate way, otherwise we would never see students posting inappropriate information about themselves and destroying their futures.

    Students do need to finish their projects, I agree with you on that. They need to be talk how to work on projects, how to manage their time, how to do the appropriate research for a project so that they recognize what types of projects they will finish and what types of projects they will probably abandon.

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