Change Education: Ten Morsels of thought

Recently, my former principal Mr. Adams started on a blogging project he calls CHANGEd 60-60-60; a quest to concisely focus on what school could be, with 60 posts over 60 days (http://itsaboutlearning.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/assigning-myself-a-learning-challenge-changed-what-if-60-60-60-0/). In tandem with his posts, another educator I’ve connected with has been extrapolating upon his ideas on her own blog- (http://marymeganhoward.com/category/60-60-60/). The two series really play well off of each other and have yielded some interesting thoughts. I thought it would be neat to take a set of 20 posts, combine both bloggers’ thoughts and turn them into a few relatively clear ideas on how to change education.

The following compilation stems from the first 20 posts of the CHANGEd series. In his exploration of how to change education, Mr. Adams presents sets of “What If” Questions. All of them are intriguing, and often provocative, ideas enriched by Ms. Howards’ musings, but I’d like to focus on the ten points that really struck me.

What if we shared more? By this, I mean with our families and close friends. In this age of super-connectivity, some people think we over-share. Yet even as students expand their audience to people over the internet, a lot of people still don’t take the time to clue in those close to them. When asked “So what did you do today?” most people I know still answer “uh..nothin’…” As someone who had been on both sides, I know it’s not truly nothing. Sometimes, the issue between sharing and not is confrontation. Mr. Adams addressed this by bringing up the idea of using technology to break the initial barrier then engage in one on one conversations. Ms. Howard took the idea that childhood storytelling- “rug-time”- should not be limited to the rug. Students should feel comfortable talking to their teachers about more than just school. School should be a conversation launcher, the entrance to sharing our stories.

On that note, the next idea was, what if we really engaged storytelling? Ms. Howard brings up an interesting curriculum idea. “Instead of Language Arts class and English class and Writer’s Workshop class, what if we had a class called Stories? Our students have their own stories to tell. Educators do too.

What if we used storytelling in schools to honor the multiple stories inside us and celebrate those stories in others? What might we hear? Who might we help? How might we heal?” Stories have immense power, and that is something I have always believed in. Stories comfort, save, serve as anecdotes, preach and teach. Storytelling is an art and something that can be gained with practice. What if we were given this opportunity to share our stories in school?

To accommodate a different curriculum, we should start from the base-the organization of the classroom, the layout of the actual school. What if national organizations created conferences like the classrooms for which many advocate? To translate the classroom set-up into core values for a conference type setting, Ms. Howard offered this nifty graphic. 

Mr. Adams’ approach was more on bringing the conferencey, collaborative-learning feel to the classroom. For me, discussion ought to be a large part of the curriculum so that students get the opportunity to play with concepts. I know that I personally understand an idea better once I’ve talked myself through it. Setting up classrooms like conferences would open up more opportunities for discussion.

Collaboration and working with others are skills that students often gain through sports. Based on that observation, Mr. Adams asks what if we valued teacher teams as much as student teams? Students are required to practice often- whether it’s homework (practicing school course work), or sports practice. Why don’t teachers get that same kind of built in practice to prepare for the big game- each class. Yes, they get the occasional free period, but as the daughter of a professor, I know that class prep requires more than just one hour and often takes up lots of home time. Ms. Howard puts forth a question- “school transformation will happen when we commit to rehearsal and practice, what must we break up — repeatedly — in order to create fertile ground for teaming?”

To create the space needed for team based learning will require structural curriculum changes. One such change was suggested by Mr. Adams- what if schools factored in experiment days like Snow Days? These days could allow students to explore “educational” projects that struck their fancy, and the teachers would be available as resources and supervision. Daniel Pink mentions a similar idea in his book, Drive, calling them FedEx days. He says FedEx days are key to autonomy and work happiness- companies like Google have accepted these ideas wholeheartedly.

Another curriculum idea would be to rethink time and curriculum [and allow] for grand challenges? Mr. Adams is all for ½ normal curriculum and ½ time for grand projects. (For reference on grand challenges, look at Cal Newport’s How To Be a High School Superstar.) Ms. Howard was a bit more skeptic. She wondered if only a little was worth it and not just a waste. She supported he idea of having grand challenges as a sort of cumulative piece but wondered what the time trade off needed to be.

Students are the ones who have the most insight on what they want to do. Granted, some ideas are geared towards relaxation, however productive ideas exist as well. What if we expected and empowered students to co-design curriculum? Who knows what courses they’d create! And the timings would fit their needs and allow them to perform better as a result. I’m especially curious as to what my fellow students would do about homework.

Speaking of which, what if homework were just that? For me, homework has become a chore that students try to finish off as soon as possible. I know I’m guilty of this and I think the first step to leveraging homework is to actually do it at home, as opposed to during school. Also, school should organize the homework so that the load isn’t heavy and the goal isn’t “do what we don’t have time for in class”, but homework as just what’s needed to reinforce the material. Maybe if schools assigned down time, like my sister is assigned reading, parents would get on board? I know it sounds slightly manipulative but in my mind relatively plausible. For example, my Mom makes sure my sister reads her required 30 minutes a night, but makes me do other things first and read specific things before my pleasure reading—maybe because it’s not assigned, and school comes first. What if schools assigned homework such as x amount of free reading a week in English and built a class book network, discussing with qualified English profs and potentially like minded peers? I have found that books are a great way to connect with people because lots have read big hits and that provides a segway. Plus, a sort of class book club allows great perspectives all around. But back to the original what if—what if homework were free-er and less constrained. That way, homework could be more like work at home on something related to the subject for half an hour and weave in some free time etc.

Homework shouldn’t be the lone indicator of student growth and improvement. What if we used version software designation to signal powerful growth? We could have lessons in subjects with varying difficulties denoted by .1, .2. Personally I think that sort of idea is more an add on to a growth mindset and not focusing only on grades. Thinking in terms of version software connects to our technological word and supports prototyping to grow.

What if schools empowered students and teachers to be journalists and marketers? At our school, this just became very relevant with the addition of a new technology policy. Now, students and teachers aren’t allowed to have “unauthorized” technological interaction (twitter discussion fell under this category for one of my teachers) and any publications online should not be linked back to the school unless they are indeed affiliated with the P.R branch. But as much as I appreciate the P.R ladies and the school’s own twitter and online TV station, these barely scratch the surface on showcasing what the students do. If a student were to do the P.R, were to put his/her work on display online, the positive impact would be much greater. The students are the essence of the school, which is often forgotten. Yes, students are required to go to school. However, school was built for them. We need to make the voice of the students heard. Because they have the pithy stories, the stories that will resound, simply because  they are true and not crafted to present an angle. I hope to be one of those voices, sharing my story. Sharing the stories of those around me. And continuing my journey!

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One thought on “Change Education: Ten Morsels of thought

  1. Great post by building on ideas proposed by leading educators.

    I totally agree that 1) open, proactive communications, 2) storytelling, and 3) collaboration with broader group of like-interested people are excellent suggestions. Over the years, I have become a big fan of story-telling ability because I find that people that tell stories well are most successful in communicating their messages to a broader audience. As you know, my professional work is primarily in empowering results through collaboration.

    Also, agree that one needs to ensure time for “personal interest/ grand projects”. Regardless if this is enabled by school curriculum or not, one can “prioritize” by personal management of one’s time (using some of the principles outlined by Cal Newport).

    However, I do not agree with your comment that schools need to assign “down time at home”, especially not at the high school level. Students need to learn to define the “right balance” for themselves beyond the school hours. Elementary schools assign reading time in the early years to build life-long interest in reading. However, after initial years, each individual should define their own interests… “fun” reading for one, maybe music for another, or sports practice for yet another. Schools can support with freeing up time.. which they are definitely doing in your school. Compared to so many other places where long hours in school combined with excessive home work, leaves little “free time”, your school does not put an onerous burden you. You will have to prioritize “free time” to match your interests.

    Keep asking the questions… and continuing the dialog!

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