Education Reform and the Freedom to Mod
Last month, I asked readers to give me their thoughts on what school reform truly looks like, so I could begin a conversation on the topic that was to take place at the Educon 2.1 conference in Philadelphia. Both online and in person, I heard a range of thoughtful perspectives - and students were always at the center of it.
This was my first Educon conference, and right off the bat I could tell it would not be my last. The event, hosted by Chris Lehmann and his students at the Science Leadership Academy, attracted several hundred educators from around the country. It was a rather geeky crowd - lots of tweeting, iPhones and people tagging flickr photos - but the conversations were only geeky in a pedagogical sense rather than a technological one.
I’d come to Educon to moderate a panel on school reform, which turned out to be in front of a standing-room-only audience. I began by asking the panelists to talk about their own vision of reform. Mike Wang of Teach for America Philadelphia cited several themes he considered were “non-negotiable.” First, schools needed the right human capital - bringing the right people in to do the right job. Second, a commitment to using data so we can measure what students are learning, when they’re learning it and how. Lastly, he pointed to the need for “unyielding expectations” when it comes to holding teachers and administrators accountable for their students’ successes and failures. He also expressed hope in President Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as education secretary, calling him “a great first step.”
Gary Stager, however, would have none of it. “I dream of an America where the person put in charge of education is qualified,” he said bluntly, adding that he seriously doubted that Duncan or other politicians could answer the simple question of what is their favorite book about learning. He also challenged the notion of data-driven education reform. “We don’t need better data about students. We need teachers to actually know their students…. External assessment is always disruptive, and interferes with learning.”
As the panel cited various examples of schools using progressive pedagogical models, I noted that all of the examples were small - charter and magnet schools with very limited enrollments. How might you scale inquiry-based learning when crowded classrooms and large school districts are commonplace? Conference host Chris Lehmann acknowledged that this was difficult. “The things that are replicable are processes,” he said. “We can’t scale curriculum… we can’t regulate goodness.”
Circling back to testing and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I asked what policy alternatives they saw to that legislation. Does it need to be retooled, replaced or scrapped all together? Stager, for one, was glad that NCLB was never fully funded. “Right now we’re beating kids over their heads with rifles just because we can’t afford bullets…. We need to begin on the assumption that parents will make good choices for their children.”
Lehmann then noted that his own son may require an individualized learning program. “I never want teachers to look at him and say, ‘Can we get him to be proficient on the test?’ I want them to care for him…. NCLB is choking our schools by changing the way that teachers look at students.” Wang, however, pushed back. “It’s not the policy that is bad - it’s the implementation of that policy.” He also pointed out that higher education is based around standardized tests, and as long as that was the case, students at the K-12 level needed to prepare for that type of learning.
Bette Manchester, who ran Maine’s trailblazing student laptop program, also chimed in on NCLB and testing. “If someone at a school says reform is about getting test scores up, I wouldn’t want my kids in that school…. Transforming schools isn’t a mystery. it just takes the moral courage to make change happen.”
Despite Manchester’s involvement in a major technology initiative, she almost never mentioned technology per se as a major element of school reform. None of the other panelists really did, either. This wasn’t to say that the panelists were hostile to technology. Far from it - most of them, and almost everyone else in the room, were proponents of using digital tools creatively in the classroom. Perhaps Mike Wang captured the sentiment best when he said, “It’s better to have a good teacher teaching by candlelight than a mediocre teacher surrounded by technology.” Digital tools can enhance learning an myriad ways, but if the underlying pedagogy isn’t creative or inspiring, all the technology in the world won’t do you much good.
Meanwhile, the conversation continued online - here on the blog, on Twitter and elsewhere. When offering his vision of school reform, Tom Kennedy cited the “seven survival skills” from Tony Wagner’s book on the global achievement gap:
1. Critical thinking and problem-solving
2. Collaboration across networks and leadership by influence
3. Adaptability and agility
4. Initiative and entrepreneurialship
5. Effective oral and written communication skills
6. Accessing and analyzing information
7. Curiosity and imagination
“How central a role does technology play in reform, and how do we avoid it from being a distraction to our ultimate goals?” he asked, echoing some of the panelists. “Technology should play a central role given that it makes information readily available, allows collaboration in ways otherwise not possible, such as global projects. It be used only when it makes sense…. We will have to give up on the idea that its possible to measure student achievement with a once-a-year standardized test. This should be replace with ongoing formative assessments and other so called ‘authentic’ forms of assessment depending on the nature of the learning and its context.”
“I think that school reform shouldn’t look like anything new,” offered Canadian teacher Neil Stephenson. “Good teaching has always been good teaching - projects that are engaging, meaningful, authentic, with thoughtful assessment woven throughout. The only caveat for the present is the inclusion of digital technology - but the pedagogy is the same. Whenever students are asked to use a tool, it should be in the service of thinking or communicating differently.” Neil also cited a project of his own as an example - the Calgary Science School Virtual Museum.
“School reform should look like students are independently learning,” said Gaylynn Mills. “The teacher should be guiding the students, not lecturing. Don’t most students learn more without being lectured. Students should be given the opportunity to explore, make mistakes and think for themselves.I believe most important, is students are allowed to be themselves and not a standarized test.”
Gaylynn’s notions of independent learning and exploration were plain for all at EduCon to see in person that weekend. Every session I attended, students were participating. They were in the hallways interacting with attendees. They were shadowing presenters and pummeling them (including me) with tough, smart questions. And yet it seemed totally normal. There was nothing unusual about the students engaging with a bunch of teachers who themselves were there to learn. In some ways, everyone was on an equal playing field. It was so natural for the students at the Science Leadership Academy to engage that way, I couldn’t imagine getting them to sit in a bunch of rows waiting to ask a handful of questions in response to a lecture developed solely for test prep. Instead, they fully expected that they would be directly involved in the learning process.
At one point, attendee Chris Champion asked a student, “How are teachers here better than good teachers elsewhere?” The student replied: “Freedom to modify the lesson.”
Perhaps that’s what school reform looks like. Freedom to mod. -andy