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. Make Certification less burdensome.
On a similar note to above, what if we made it easier for people with real world experience to become teachers? Many, after years in corporate America, find themselves looking for a change. Often the idea of teaching comes to mind. These people know their subjects and have experience managing people (yes, kids are people too). Many even have teaching experience just not in the public school sector. However, too many States have made the hoops to credentialing overly burdensome. For instance, California has a two-year credentialing process that includes a 6-month, unpaid, internship. States complain about the lack of qualified teachers but that’s not true. There are plenty of qualified teachers, just not enough certified teachers.
4. 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.
5. Experiment with student-centered 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-centered 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-centered 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 push back 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.
6. 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.
7. Arrange Classes by Learning Style
Most educators know that children, or people in general, can be divided into three groups according to how they learn. There are Visual Learners, Auditory Learners and Tactile or Kinesthetic learners. Each type can thrive when teaching methods are tailored to their particular learning style or suffer when an incompatible teaching style is used. Herein lies the problem.
The makeup of classes, especially in Elementary and Middle school, are random. Children are assigned to teachers or classes with no thought to heir learning styles. If there are four 5th grade classes, children are randomly divided up so each class has approximately the same number of students. So while Visual learners may thrive with one teacher, Auditor and Tactile learners may suffer or at least struggle.
What if we tested learning styles first and they created classes based on our findings? Educators could tailor their teaching style based on the makeup of the class. Classrooms could also be arranged to strengthen the learning process. Sure, classrooms might not be evenly split but more children would be taught in the approach that best suits their learning style.
This is just a small sampling of the many new (and sometimes old) 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 is 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.