Thursday, April 25, 2013

Not the Schools You Attended

Terra Incognita exists in your neighborhood: in your local schools. Adults think they know what goes on in school, because, after all, they attended school when they were young. They tend to project their own experiences forward, assuming that these institutions operate much as when they last had real contact. But I believe they would find today’s classrooms almost unrecognizable. Even parents of current students can be unaware of how much things have changed.

Here is my own historical snapshot of schooling. As a baby boomer, I spent grade-school years in the 1950s in what most folks would consider wildly over-stuffed classrooms. Fifty or more students sat in crowded rows of desks, speaking only when called upon in order to minimize the chaos. Most instruction was via lecture or demonstration, and most assessment required rote recall of facts or problem-solving in exactly one “correct” way. Much classroom time was spent on practice such as penmanship exercises and recitation of multiplication tables. We did do a lot writing, which was a good thing, but I have vivid memories of discovering my teachers’ limitations when I was accused of cheating in fourth grade for using a word (“devise”) I should not know, and when my correct spelling of “badminton” in fifth grade was marked as wrong. Attempting colored-pencil imitations of great paintings passed for arts education. Both creativity and the asking of uncomfortable questions were actively discouraged.

Still, I did very well in school. I had the great good fortune of being raised by two well-educated parents who loved us and one another, in an era when my father’s income alone could support us adequately, leaving my mother available to nurture us physically, emotionally, and academically. Not all of my peers were so lucky as to be able to essentially learn on their own in a crowd, and drop-out rates reflected that.

When my own children attended school in the 1980s and 1990s, things had changed considerably. As the sum total of our knowledge has been increasing exponentially, the breadth of the curriculum has also expanded dramatically. Even back then, there was little time for practice exercises during the school day. If parents did not actively help their children, basic knowledge and skills such as knowing times tables were simply left unmastered — a fact obvious among today’s cashiers in fast-food restaurants.

But they were exposed to much more than I had been, and standards for their academic achievements were very much higher. As an illustration, my mother had a single science class in high school in the 1930s, and that was a choice, not a requirement. I had three: physical science, biology, and chemistry — all that my small school offered in the 1960s. My daughter, having had physical science already in middle school, added six more years’ of science courses in high school. And she was still underprepared for her engineering major. I doubt that the great majority of adults, who are so free to criticize our public schools as “failing,” could do very well on today’s Michigan Merit (high school achievement) Exams. The bar is much higher than it used to be, and we now expect that all of our children will graduate, which was certainly not the case when I did.

Since my children left school, change has only accelerated, and the demands upon students are even greater. Now, they are all expected not just to graduate, but to be “college ready” when they do. I have written before about just how high that bar has been set by, expecting all children to be equally prepared for all possible fields of college study. Again, this is a standard that most adults, even those gainfully employed and therefore obviously “career ready,” could not meet.

Schools and teachers are doing their best to help today’s students rise to these new expectations, though. We can no longer even pretend that everyone can absorb all the knowledge out there. It has expanded so much that no one can possibly be a Renaissance Man now — a master of all fields. And many of us already work in new fields for which our own schooling could not have explicitly prepared us, a phenomenon that will be more common than not for today’s children. So, our emphasis now must be on learning how to learn: how to pick up new knowledge and skills as needed with minimal help, as well as how to evaluate knowledge and opinion in the wide-open, uncurated domain of modern media. In the Internet age where every person can produce public output without expertise, authority, or editor, consumers must develop very keen judgment to distinguish truth from fiction, authoritative opinion from rant and cant. They must know where and how to find reliable information amid a blizzard of misinformation and half-truths.

New goals require new methods, and today’s teachers are reforming their practice accordingly. That is why classrooms today look so very different to older eyes. Children no longer sit quietly in neat rows; instead, they work in groups to try to figure things out. They will often be doing things, beyond just listening, reading, and writing. They build things and take them apart. They rearrange and experiment. They theorize and discuss. They test hypotheses and report their results. They spark one another’s curiosity and interest with tough questions and speculation.

Instead of learning a set of rules for division, for example, they will be trying to solve real-world problems that require division by manipulating objects. They help one another devise and experiment with methods, generally producing several approaches that work. In so doing, they grasp how and why things work, rather than applying memorized rules that may later be forgotten. They will still learn “math facts” like times tables, but do so via games and computer software that are engaging enough to encourage the amount of practice needed for mastery.

Writing is taught in a similarly cooperative “workshop” way, involving several drafts (with the drudgery of revision vastly reduced through technology), peer editing, and modeling of these skills using student work. Fluency of expression is not impeded by the need for perfection, as editing for spelling and grammar come later, after the crucial creative work has been done. As a classroom volunteer when my children were young, I saw how children would use a simple word instead of a better one, just because they knew how to spell it correctly. I watched as their laboriously handwritten second drafts were chopped, excising all the colorful parts, because it was too much trouble to rewrite it all. Those issues have disappeared. Perfection is prized only in final, “published” work, while small errors are not penalized in first drafts and in practice pieces focusing on other skills.

Science concepts are discovered and understood deeply through hands-on experimentation, rather than the memorization that allowed me to ace tests without truly understanding — or, years later, even remembering. My “book learning” was not nearly as effective as that achieved by methods that fully engage the senses and the brain. People who once memorized the difference between amperage and voltage, for example, are much less likely to hold onto that knowledge, if never put to use, than those who learn it by building and testing circuits.

Teaching has changed as much as learning, of course. To use a cliché, a teacher is more of a guide on the side than a sage on the stage. No attempt is made to pour knowledge into students; rather, they are encouraged to show initiative, to construct meaning, and to take responsibility for their learning. Just as the bar has been raised for students, teachers are working much harder to meet raised expectations. They must be constantly thinking about how and why they are doing things, while keeping close tabs on each child’s progress and designing custom interventions for those falling behind. And, just as students work in cooperative groups, teachers collaborate regularly to improve their practice by sharing research, methods, and results.

Most of these changes are not yet well established; many teachers are in the “newbie” stage of having to think explicitly about what they are doing. Even if they have many years of classroom experience, they are being stretched far out of their comfort zone to do things in new ways. But tremendous progress has already been made, and they will get to the “expert” stage where they no longer have to monitor every aspect of their practice. They will reach the point where new habits become ingrained and automatic, freeing them to be more effective with less effort.

In the meantime, thank the next teacher you run into for taking on such challenges. It is exhausting work, but no work could be more important to our society. They are presiding over a sea change in education, and our community’s children are the beneficiaries.