As I read Will Richardson’s response to Jay Mathews’ Washington Post articles related to 21st century skills, I had a lightbulb moment (compact flourescent, of course). Here’s the quote that flipped the switch for me in terms of some of the cognitive dissonance I’ve been experiencing lately:
Will isn’t talking about student skills or literacy; he is talking about school infrastructure, both the bricks and mortar and clocks infrastructure and the curricular infrastructure. It’s not as sexy as thinking about kids, but it is becoming the 800-pound gorilla in the room. We just can’t take advantage of the kind of social networking possibilities that Will envisions within the current environment. It’s something that Tim Stahmer writes about a lot, how silly it is that for all our connectedness and new understandings about learning, we continue to believe that kids only learn from 8 to 3 in the fall, winter and spring months, they all learn at the same pace and generally in the same way, and everything that’s important to learn can be tested through a multiple-choice test. It’s also something that Tim suggested recently is nigh upon impossible to change.
If there is a more challenging educational paradigm than the organization of school, I don’t know what it is. The physical/temporal structure seems to be part of the fabric of America and thus restructuring the school schedule seems to be the most resistant of reforms. There are glimmers of changes on the horizon, mostly wrapped around distance learning which, not surprising to this sometimes cynic, are being implemented to save money rather than in the much loftier interest of helping students engage with the community through social media tools. They seem to tend to be online versions of face-to-face classrooms, primarily interested in delivering content related to the state standards. So while the format makes it easier to access education, it does not allow for the kind of passion-based, networked learning that Will is really envisioning.
For that to occur, there is a more pressing issue to deal with. High stakes, standardized testing is fast becoming as entrenched as the school schedule in the infrastructure of our national educational system, and I’m convinced it is the biggest problem we face in making any significant changes to curriculum and pedagogy in the schools. In my state, teaching is all about clearly defined state-provided content. Certainly there are some process standards but there is defined “essential knowledge,” mostly factual that will form the core of the test so teachers feel responsible for making sure students see all of it before the test in May. Everyone single teacher I’ve talked to recently has said something to the effect that they know they aren’t supposed to teach to the test, but they also know that someone is going to talk with them if their scores go down to any significant degree and they certainly have to clearly identify which standard they are addressing every single day. They get very little personal learning time, and they definitely don’t get an experimental year to try out new things.
I can’t help wondering what would happen if we just took a hiatus from the tests. One year in the life of a classroom teacher and her students without the bubble sheet looming on the horizon. Teachers would still teach the same subject (we won’t get too radical here), but they wouldn’t have to worry about covering every detail and could allow individual student interest to drive the learning. So, without that accountability, would teachers everywhere just kick off their shoes and show movies the whole year? I really don’t think so. Instead, I think that given the opportunity, they would rediscover their own passion for the content that would lead them to an openness to new technologies and pedagogies that would support student engagement.
Since this is an imaginary scenario, I’ll also add that all teachers would have ongoing job embedded professional development, technical and pedagogical support and adequate access to technological resources including the web, in short, if we treated them like professionals. Will got it right when he described teachers as “suffocating in paper, policies and processes that prevent them from exploring the potential of online networked learning spaces.”
He doesn’t define educators, but I immediately thought of a subset of the citizenry engaged in educational pursuits. I would suggest this call needs to be extended to the community as a whole. Infrastructure issues, whether physical, temporal, or curricular, are often not controlled by educators. Instead, they originated with policymakers and legislators who are influenced by the opinions of many people, not just educators, and often make decisions for budgetary or political, rather than instructional, reasons.
It may be that we are living in an age of incommensurate paradigms. You simply can’t implement the kind of education Will describes within the confines of the prevailing paradigm. Tinkering won’t do it this time. Blaming teachers won’t do it either. This is more than just adding some stuff to the curriculum called 21st century skills but a chance to really think about what Neil Postman called the “end” of education. Everybody seems to want to have a national dialog: here’s a good starting point for the one about education.