Sunday, November 21, 2010

Real Reform Goes Backwards

I for one am tired about hearing about broken public schools. Are they perfect, of course not. Neither is any other human institution. But what really disturbs me is that the people who want to "fix" public education have the worst ideas ever. They want to make schools more like business and hire head-hunters (superintendents) to fire the bad employees (teachers). Then the head-hunters move on to work for Fox news or some think tank. These people do not truly care about children but about money. Therefore their goals are to get rid of the evil unions that protect teachers' benefits so they can hire cheaper teachers (outsource them just like the manufacturing industry in this country). Standardization measured by tests is the magic cure!

The problem is that schools are not factories and should not be treated like them. And most importantly students are not widgets that can be taught by anyone using the same script. These reforms disrespect both teachers and students by treating them as all the same. Just put the student in the proper machine (program) and out they pop at the end- educated (able to pass standardized tests). But students need relationships to grow and learn. Schools should be more like families than factories.

I think real reform starts by going backwards to a "classic" liberal arts education. In Ancient Greece students were discipled by the master as part of a community. Relationships were an important part of education. They learned by asking questions. They studied logic, poetry, geometry, and exercised all as one experience. They were not divided by age and subjects were not compartmentalized. There was not classwork and homework. All of life was learning, one integrated experience.

By caribb

Students today need to be given time to think, deeply. They need to play, ask questions, discover, solve real problems, and discuss. They do not need to memorize facts for tests. They need to think critically from multiple points of view. Students need to be given choice in what to learn and how to do it. Schools need more individualization and less standardization.

What can we learn from the Ancients? That living is learning and relationships matter. We need less federal bureaucracy and more local control. We need schools that look different because the communities they serve are unique. If we truly teach students to think and learn on their own and in community with each other they will do amazing things. We need science, math, and arts all mixed together. I believe that we should give students freedom to be creative and to engage in ideas with each other. We should scrap textbooks (this form of standardization has dominated even longer than the state and national tests). We should teach from real world problems and current events (we have plenty of them to choose from). Students should engage in real questions and work for real solutions. We should use hammers, nails, wood, computers, dirt, flowers, paper, cell phones, microscopes, cameras, and animals. Students should perform labs where the teacher does not know the answer. Students should study current events and then research the history to understand why things are as they are now. Students should use math to calculate solutions to world poverty, lack of clean water, and adequate food.

So what is the role of the teacher in all of this? To guide the learner and challenge them with new ideas and experiences. Most students are not self-motivate learners by themselves (because schools have bored this out of them); they will need mentors and guides to show them how to learn and to challenge them with new ideas. Master learners (teachers) should create fascinating learning opportunities as starting points and then encourage students as they pursue deeper concepts. Too many teachers use curriculum, standards, and textbooks as a crutch and rarely present students with authentic learning. Real reform happens when we abandon the pre-packaged education being sold by textbook companies and start the adventure of giving students great learning experiences.

So what's your excuse? Reject standardization now. You may not be able to change the structure of your school schedule or the the architecture of the building, but you can change the way your classroom works. Don't know how to start? Start by talking to your students. Find out where their interests are and build from there. Start by talking about the news and the issues in the world. Ask students what they can do about it. Put away the textbooks and engage with your learners. You might be surprised by where you end up.


  1. Hi Michael,

    My name is Darlene Staimpel and I am in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I completely agree with your post. As an upcoming teacher I disagree with the standardization of schools. I think children are deprived from being children. I believe (society / government) are trying to turn our children into fact absorbing robots.

    It's proven that children do not learn the same way and that children do not test the same way. I agree that we need to let them explore through experience. We need to let our children engage in life and we need to challenge our students.

    My plan as a future teacher will be to use everything possible to engage them. I will use technology, animals, and any physical element to help them learn. My teaching will be different from the typical "standardized" way.

    Thanks for your post!! It is always encouraging to read posts from teachers of whom I share the same views.

  2. What about common learning experiences? We obviously have to make sure all students have learned some things in common, reading and writing for example. I think our society would agree that some content is also important for all students to learn like citizenship and health.

    Teachers as guides must be able to lead students to these types of experiences as well as allowing students to follow their own interests.

  3. Thanks Darlene again for the comment. I hope you find a school situation that will let you practice all of these things.


    Good question. On the one hand I like what Ira said about having a list of standards that students would accomplish in the order that they choose. It would span their whole education career.

    The danger would be that there would be too many standards and they would result in minutia. I think any list should be short and general.

    On the other hand I would like to see no standards in an unschooling like fashion. Teachers would present interesting learning experiences and students would go with them in their own choice. If students were taught HOW to learn then they could choose to fill in any "gaps" in their education anytime they wanted. I for one have major gaps in my personal education that I could fill on my own if I wanted to.

    I need to think more on this topic. I feel a future post coming :)

  4. Michael,

    Wow. Regrettably, it has been a while since I last commented on your blog (the alchemist), when I told you that many of my family members (who are or have been teachers) have told me that my positive outlook on mentoring the future of america is naive. You said that I should find a teacher with like minded views and use them as a mentor to help shape my approach and outlook on teaching. Well...I think I have found that teacher-YOU! This is one of the most inspirational posts that I have read to date. I can't tell you how many times that I have sat in class and teachers have told me to put my hand down, because I ask TOO MANY QUESTIONS! My goal is to never make a student feel like they could ever ask too many questions. I don't see how anyone can judge a teacher by standardized tests. When a teacher is told that their job is based on whether or not their students test well, all they are going to do is throw any spontaneity, creativity, discussion out of his/her lesson "plan" and teach to the book. If that's what they consider improving, then I do not want to teach for a system like this. I have actually been wondering all semester, what is the best way to ensure that we have good teachers preparing the future of america? As much as I would like to think that all teachers are good teachers, the fact is that they aren't. I've only been out of high school for maybe four years (doesn't leave much time to forget) and I can barely count on one hand the number of teachers that I would consider good. And that is out of roughly 30 teachers! I realize that I have very high, and probably irrational, standards but I don't think that around 10% is an acceptable amount of teachers that our students are coming into contact with. I didn't mean to go off on a tangent, but what is your idea of the best way to ensure that our students are receiving the best education? Your posts reminds me of a video ( that I saw at the beginning of the semester that raises the question, "why do we teach our students in batches?" Is there some book that says the best thing that we have to relate the students to each other is their assembly date? Students are different. Teachers are different. Why do we feel the need to bunch them altogether and use the same process in order to teach each of them. What if this student is visual learner, and this one is a auditory the least we could do is present every student with as much as we possibly can. I agree that learning should be a discussion, or an exploration between the teacher and the students and the students with each other. The first college I went to was a liberal arts college and they stressed the importance of eliminating every multiple choice test(which was what the majority of my high school education was) and the importance of using critical thinking in everyday problems. Once I had "retaught" myself how to learn, I got so much out of it, words can hardly describe. "Students should engage in real questions and work for real to world poverty, lack of clean water, and adequate food." I have never thought of this before. But I have to admit this is one of the best ideas I have ever heard. I want to engage my students. I want them to ask questions, go off topic(within the same realm, just a little off the beaten path), research themselves. My best classes involve my teachers sitting up there on their desk and having an hour and a half long discussion with the class, without the students even realizing that class is over. Going to those classes was not a chore, but an adventure. Hopefully, I will have the same skills to motivate my students to learn themselves and to fulfill their dreams. Thank you so much for posting. Always a pleasure, keep blogging!


  5. Michael,

    I completely agree! Standardized testing is not the answer! I've actually been contemplating the all semester-what is the best way to weed out the bad teachers? I'd like to think that they are all good, but I was just in the public school system a few years ago and I can only name about 4 out of the 30 I had that were decent teachers. The biggest problem I had when I got to college was the fact that there were no multiple choice tests. I went to a liberal arts school and they stressed the importance of critical thinking every single day in ever single class. You reminded me of a video of Sir Ken Robinson's I watched not too long ago, he said the fact that students are taught in batches is ridiculous. Is the most important thing I should have in common with my educational peers be my date of manufacturing?

    Students should engage in real questions and work for real solutions...... Students should use math to calculate solutions to world poverty, lack of clean water, and adequate food.

    I have never thought about it like this, but its brilliant. It's so simple I don't see how we haven't implemented it yet. People talk about making a difference, well if our students would learn something more than an equation and how to plug n some numbers and chug out a solution and then bubble in the correct answer, we might actually be able to make a difference. My biggest goal is to motivate my students to be inquisitive. Hopefully I will be able to fulfill this goal to the best of my ability. Thank you for posting!