| Nov 9, 2016

Daring ideas for school reforms

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School reform has been hotly debated in K-12 education circles for some years now. Mostly, however, the resulting efforts have focused on structure, for instance funding charter schools and reining in tenure, or on student performance, as in the case of increased standardized testing and the introduction of Common Core. The basic methods used to teach students in primary and secondary school, though, have barely changed in a century or more. That’s not due to a lack of ideas, of course; there are plenty of notions for changing how schools work. Just for fun, let’s take a look at some of them.

1. Getting rid of grade levels

It’s something we don’t even think about: the natural progression we all experience from kindergarten through elementary school, high school and beyond. But when you think about it, that approach is quite rigid, not to mention arbitrary. In theory, advancing students by subject rather than by age group would focus on mastery of those subjects. It could end social promotion and eliminate the stigma of being held back -- you wouldn’t have a scenario whereby students in, say, third grade aren’t able to read at a third grade level. Education could be far more tailored to the individual rather than focused on mass production, as it is today.

2. Require teachers to have real world experience

The path is familiar: K-12, college for a teacher’s certificate, then enter the classroom and start teaching. What’s missing from that formula is life experience -- getting out there, living life, riding the fate’s ups and downs, absorbing deep experiences that teach about human existence and human nature. This could involve volunteering, non-educational work, co-op, any number of things. Teachers would, in other words, have lived and worked outside the classroom, be better able to relate to their students, and have a broader spectrum of knowledge to bring into the classroom.

3. Require administrators to rotate into classrooms

The divide between teachers and administrators sometimes yawns as wide as a canyon. But what if administrators were required, as part of their jobs, to spend time teaching real students? Even as little time as one day per month could strengthen links between teachers and administrators, keeping them on the same page.

4. Experiment with student-centred learning

In an impoverished town in Mexico, an overworked teacher found he wasn’t able to do as much teaching as was necessary. He was forced to give his students a problem to solve and then leave the room. But to his astonishment, the students performed beautifully. This became a powerful and much-studied example of student-centred learning, which transfers responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. In case after case, students work together to solve problems, researching as necessary, teaching one another. There have even been experiments with student-centred assessment. It is, of course, a major deviation from the longstanding practice of teacher-focused learning, and for that reason routinely faces a great deal of pushback whenever plans arise to take it for a test drive. Parents especially resist deviating from the traditional “Three R” approach. But considering the positive data from existing examples, it’s worth giving it a shot.

5. Ditch (or at least greatly reduce) homework

Even here in the 21st Century, homework is still a mostly-unquestioned part of school life. Study after study, however, shows that homework does not improve learning outcomes. It doesn’t impose a better work ethic, it doesn’t prepare kids for college, it doesn’t really do any of the long list of positive things it’s supposed to do. What it does do is cause stress, exhaustion and isolation. It also soaks up time struggling with schoolwork that could be better spent with community, friends and, especially, family. Many schools wish they could reduce or eliminate homework, but, as is frequently the case with reforms, face resistance from parents. It might be worth pushing ahead regardless -- eventually people should adjust.

This is just a small sampling of the many new ideas floating around to tweak or change the way we teach young people. There are certainly plenty more. Implementing reforms in education is a very tricky business, of course, for a great many reasons -- the most important one being the extremely high stakes involved. One can’t just throw around educational approaches on a whim when the fate of young people are on the line; all reforms must be implemented with caution. Still, times change and many argue that K-12 education has advanced far too slowly. The key is to find the right balance.