It’s Closing Time

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This sign is in front of a local elementary school. The end of the academic year is June 15.

Which means the library is basically closed for the last two weeks of school.

Unless things have changed drastically in the two or so years since I left the overly-large school district, almost every student computer in the school has been used for testing this month. And the IT tech support people will likely begin collecting them for summer storage around the same time the library wants it’s books back.

Which means technology will largely also unavailable for instruction during the final six weeks of school.

Of course, there are plenty of other activities that don’t require computers or library books going on during the final two weeks of the school year.

But I wonder how much more learning would be possible if we didn’t “open” and “close” schools each year. If we treated learning as a continuous, open-ended process, rather than something with a fixed start and end.

Just a thought.

I’ve ranted about the waste, intellectual and monetary, inherent in the traditional academic calendar many times in this space. Feel free to let me know just how wrong I am.

Debating Charters, Intelligently

The concept of debate has been severely corrupted in the age of 24-hour talking head television. Boxing up two to six people on a TV screen and letting them yell opinions over each other for five minutes may make for higher ratings but it certainly doesn’t provide any context for whatever the topic is.

A more interesting approach is a public radio series called Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US), the American branch of a fifteen year old UK organization founded with the “goal of raising the level of public discourse” on important current issues. I’ve listened to a number of their programs over the years and most are a nice learning experience. More than a few found me yelling back at the speaker while driving.

The format uses what they call the “Oxford” style of debate1 in which two people on each side present their arguments for or against a specific resolution. The debate begins with each person in turn given a fixed amount of time to present their case. In part 2, the moderator and audience members get to ask questions and the participants can interact with each other, dealing only with information, not opinion. Finally each person gets a couple of minutes to present a closing argument.

Each debate does declare a winner, based on votes from the audience. Before starting, they vote for or against the resolution, or declare themselves undecided. The same vote is taken at the end. The winner is the team that has the largest percentage change to their side. The organization also takes pre and post votes on the website but it’s not clear if those numbers are included.

Last week I discovered that IQ2U events are being streamed on YouTube and I got the chance to actually watch the debate proceedings live. It’s very different from the podcast, which is only audio and obviously edited from a much longer discussion.

This particular debate (embedded below) was of particular interest since the resolution being address was “Charter Schools Are Overrated”.

I’m not going to try and summarize more than 90 minutes of discussion but I do have a few observations.

On the side opposed to the resolution was the founder of an organization that promotes school choice and a former Florida commissioner of education. They didn’t seem like they had spoken at all before coming on stage and were reciting their own list of talking points, with lots of anecdotes and very little evidence.

I thought the two college professors and researchers on the supporting side did a better job but also had some communications issues. Both brought plenty of data to the table but should have spent more time prior to the debate boiling it down to a few, very relevant points.

The moderator does get a little involved in the proceedings, while staying pretty neutral, and that’s a good thing. I liked that he challenged speakers on both sides to restrict their statements to evidence and not try to their opinion as fact. The people on the “news” channels could learn something.

Finally, there’s the proposal itself. As with many, even most, of the topics on this series, the statement is far too broad. It’s also not the most important issue when it comes to charter schools. We should be debating whether charters are a good format for the overall improvement of public education. But this was a good start.

Anyway, go watch the whole thing (I won’t spoil the ending by saying which side won), although you may want to do it in private. If you’re like me, you may feel like very vocally joining the debate.

Designing a Change

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Although not as much of a rockstar in the ed reform headlines as STEM or maker, the concept of “design thinking” is beginning to seep into the top ten. Like STEM, maker, and PBL, it’s touted by advocates as a new idea that could revolutionize learning. Also like those other terms, few people can agree on what it is and how it might fit into the classroom.

But don’t worry, even the experts are not sure how to concisely explain design thinking.

Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable, said Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of design thinking. “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”

Which means it fits right in with STEM and those other vague educational concepts: “a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term”. Ambiguity and misunderstanding probably describes all of them and more.

I like the idea of design thinking being applied in the classroom since the concept of design incorporates many of the skills we say we want students to learn during their time in K12 (creativity, collaborative, critical thinking, etc.). From my experience, it offers students and teachers an organized process for creating solutions to problems in just about any subject area.

At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy.

Ultimately, design thinking is not a curriculum, advocates like Stevenson say, but a process for problem-solving, a strategy to elicit creativity rooted in empathy and comfort with failure.

However, there’s just one big problem with trying to incorporate design thinking into our current learning model: the concept does not fit with the curriculum, pedagogy, and objectives used in most American schools.

Simply inserting a few “design” activities into the school year when time allows (aka after the spring tests) does not help students become creative, to learn to think in new ways. The same is true when we try to graft STEM, or maker, or PBL, or any of the many other buzz concepts onto what is already being done in the classroom.

If design thinking is really important (or STEM, or maker, or <insert your favorite curriculum idea>) – if it is really a process students should learn and use – then make it part of everyday school instead of a special activity. Rewrite the curriculum around design principles, help teachers revise their pedagogy to make it work, and completely reimagine how to assess student progress.

Without a complete redesign of what school is, we simply have our 1950’s expectations with a few modern talking points.

Rebooting School

Following up on my previous rant about the PISA tests, Yong Zhao had a wonderful post about them from a few years ago that is still very relevant. In it he imagines a great educational conspiracy: “I would suggest that PISA is a secrete plan of Western powers to derail China’s education reforms.”.

However, Zhao notes evidence from right here in our backyard that argues against the existence of such a plot.

Seeing the damaging effects of PISA on Western education systems debunks my conspiracy theory. PISA, rather than an evil ploy hashed out by Western powers to keep East Asian countries from being innovative, is an ironic tragedy of the 21st Century born out of ignorance. The genuine anxiety over their low rankings, the sincere admirations (or envy) of Shanghai’s status, the eager actions to borrow from top performers, and the authentic efforts to emulate Asian education are all evidence that political leaders of many Western nations, particularly the U.S., England, and Australia did not work together to use PISA to derail education reforms in Asia. They are truly concerned about improving their own education, but they have been misguided by PISA.

There is no question that education in the West, and for that matter everywhere in the world, needs transformational changes, in the face of transformative changes in the world. Education in the U.S., for example, is far from adequate to prepare citizens for the future. It is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm. However PISA is not offering such a paradigm. The top performers of PISA are simply better implementation of the old paradigm—the Prussian industrial model of education, which many Western education systems, including the U.S. system, are based on.

In other words, the PISA does not only have the effect of discouraging East Asian systems from abandoning their old paradigm, but also luring Western countries to fix the old paradigm by shaming them for not having been as perfectly obsolete as their Asian counterparts. It keeps them fixated on things (e.g., test scores) that matter little for the future, while neglecting the work they should be doing—inventing a new paradigm.

The US certainly has been “misguided by PISA”. We look at international rankings such as these without understanding how little they actually say about both our system of public education and those of the other countries. Even worse, we fail to question whether the data they produce is relevant to efforts to improve that system.

However, for me, the key concept in Zhao’s post (taken from his excellent book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?”) is the middle sentence in the middle paragraph: “It [education] is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm.”

Reproducing the old educational paradigm in structures like charter schools, automated learning systems, or online classes is not reform. None of the common tweaks offered as “change” will prepare kids for a new, transformational, and very uncertain future.

We need to start at the beginning. We need a serious discussion about the purpose of school and the role it plays in our society. One that can draw on traditions, but cannot be rooted there. A discussion that includes students, dropouts, recent graduates, parents and other important stakeholders, not just politicians and business people.

Who Is This Reform For?

Ask school “reform” advocates why, and they will eventually arrive at something like “we’re doing this for the kids”. It may come after the economic and geo-political reasoning but “the children” will be there somewhere.

However, I wonder if most school reform proposals are more about adults than the kids.

Too many adults view learning, at least at the K12 level, in very narrow terms. They have a vision of school that is firmly rooted in the classrooms they sat in twenty, thirty, forty years ago and they expect to see largely the same when they enter one today. Maybe a few computers or other technology, but the same curriculum and pedagogy that was good enough for them.

Charter schools, for example, rarely deviate far from the standard teacher-directed model of our memories. Some will add more of it in terms of an extended school day or Saturdays. But more is better, right? Plenty of practice is all that is needed to learn something. Just ignore the graft and corruption of public monies going on in the business office.

We certainly don’t want to change the century-old standard curriculum. Small shifts in the topics studied are ok but few reform proposals address whether the traditional subject silos – English, math, science, social studies, maybe “foreign” languages, art, PE – need to be modified. Or whether the walls between them need to be completely torn away and drastically re-thought for this “information” age.

Programmed/individualized learning? Standardized testing? We automate the production line and run regular quality control assessments to provide a more consistent product. Similar technology should work with school. Just ignore the fact that the “product” here are kids, and learning is a very personal, inconsistent, and messy process.

Merit pay, vouchers, value-add evaluation. Competition is good for business, many reformers know business very well, schools should be run like businesses, therefore all of these reforms that encourage “competition” must be good.

Don’t bother asking anyone with current teaching experience about all this. We need to standardize teachers as much as we do their instruction.

In addition to professional educators, there’s another important voice – the most important voice – completely missing from the school reform discussion: students. Current students, recent graduates, and especially kids for whom the formal school system didn’t work for one reason or another. We never ask them about how the experience could be change and then actually listen to them (as Will did recently).

As a result, changes to our education system are driven by adults, often ones in positions of privilege with little to no education experience beyond sitting in classrooms for decades, who know that learning in the real world is nothing like the structures and content they are proposing.

But they start with an assumption that the traditional school format through which they passed must be the correct one for kids twenty, thirty, forty years later. The familiar learning process from their childhood must the correct one for them as well.

So, tell me again, who is this reform for?