Asking the right questions

I started writing a comment on Aaron’s post here, but it got so ridiculously long, that I’m writing it here instead.

The questions Aaron asks in his final paragraph are the key ones, of course, but as they stand they invite a negative response. The questions need to be rephrased, and that involves also rephrasing/re-thinking pf other related issues. Tho Ted Sizer wrote these words 20 years ago or so, they are still relevant, I think, and at the risk of losing readers, I will reproduce his thoughts in full (or at least the main relevant points):

The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. … less is more should dominate curricula….Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent…. The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves…

He then describes some of the principles followed by the Coalition of Essential Schools:

Essential Schools ask their students to exhibit their work and to earn their high school diploma by means of demanding public Exhibitions. .. The schools ask for performances of each accomplishment rather tokens of these efforts, such as standardized tests taken in isolation and without the challenge of follow-up questions….All sorts of provocations can work well as Exhibitions, from Socrates’ questions in his ancient garden to some of the better brain-teasers found in puzzle books…. With Exhibitions, the students must expect to be challenged. … The idea of Exbitions derives as much from common sense as from custom.. We do not judge a high school’s marching band and the individual players within it on the basis of brief snippets of taped music and videos of the marching.. What is expected should be clear, and the school must be able to justify it readily to students and their parents as worthy ofd serious effort on its own terms not just something to do well at to “get a good grade” and then to discard… Exhibitions have forced faculties to relate these expectations to their particular students. Given where our students are… what do we start with, what do we stick to, what must be done above all else? Typically faculties rarely talk collectively of these matters. The Exhibitions provide a powerful impetus to do so.
If students are to understand deeply, less is more.
The students have to do the work. We learn when we engage, the more intensely the better. … Having high and clearly worth expectations for young people gives them dignity. … dignity or something like it is a treasure… Unchallenged kids get the message. If adults expect little of them… expect them to goof off, then they will goof off. Of course, some people will goof off no matter what expectations are set. But teachers should assume the highest standard of performance until they are shown that it is not forthcoming. This is the proper start for each young person’s education… more often than not, adolescents rise to the occasion.
Human-scale places are critical. “I cannot teach well a student whom I do not know.”
Adults must be interesting and confident…. Students are energized by adults who are excited about what they are doing. Gusto counts.

[Horace’s Hope, by Theodore Sizer]

Sizer has obviously thought a lot about these issues; he has visited many, many schools, and spoken with many, many teachers, students, principals, administrators, in schools which have embraced change, schools which have just started to do so tentatively, and schools which haven’t changed anything at all. Referring to Dennis Littky’s school in New Hampshire, Sizer writes,

Thayer’s experience, however, reinforces the point that schools are complex, interrelated entities and that change of any consequence has to reflect this. Tepid change is no change at all, or worse, if it corrodes the energy of the risk-takers.

Later in the same book, he notes,

the leap from traditional school practice to commonsense reform is for most Americans a heroic one

; and further on,

When the changes embodied in the Coalition’s 9 common principles are fully implemented both inside the classroom and in the school as a whole, the effects are consistent, beneficial, and significant. Such schools have increased student engagement in academic work and raised student achievement and parent, teacher and student satisfaction.; they have had a positive effect on student behaviour and promoted equity in achievement among different groups of students. In addition, several studies identify which changes have the most impact and show how best to support the changes. A clear and strong finding across studies is that the more fully the changes are implemented, the more powerful their effect is.

These ideas address the fact that there are deep and understandable disagreements not only among citizens but among experts on just what an excellent education might be and how we would know it when we saw it….
These ideas will challenge, directly or by circumvention, the elaborate thickets of educational regulation, certification, and accreditations, which more often than not reflect the vagaries of past academic politics and distrust of local authorities rather than considered and proven practices. …
But these ideas force a test of the proposition that healthy democracy depends on an ultimate trust in and and of the people, no matter how small the unit in which the people are gathered for a particular purpose is. Either we trust people or we don’t.

This last sentence reveals Sizer’s understanding that the idea of basing education on the needs of the learner, and on the way humans really learn (rather than on an industrial model which is essentially designed to manage populations for the benefit of corporations) is pretty radical, and impinges on many facets of schooling. Piecemeal change, he suggests, is not only not desirable, but not real change at all. It was after reading Sizer that I posted tthis. Some teachers/bloggers writing about technological effects on teaching and learning seem to appreciate just how big and radical the implications of the technology and its potentials are. Aaron has just joined the club!

One thought on “Asking the right questions”

  1. Sizer clearly is an engaging writer, whose ideas I would very much like to understand better. I just want to say in response that:

    We are the institution; we’re not separate from it. We make it what it is. To find ways of integrating, or at least introducing, these liberating technologies to our students with full enthusiasm, while working to influence change in the structure of our institutions is what we should be doing here. That kind of change *does* matter, in spite of the comments Sizer makes to the contrary. To disbelieve that such change is not meaningful, is to lose all hope in our institutions of education, which do have hope only when the people who make up the institution instill their work with hope.

    The alternative is to drop out and do something else, but in whose hands does that leave the institution? If the institution of education is to adapt in ways that are student centered, it is going to have to reflect the value of its members. If those who believe in student centered learning drop out, it leaves behind the those who believe otherwise, and the rest who don’t care.

    This is what makes Will Richardson’s departure from the public school system significant. What kind of effect will his leaving have on where the institution is headed? Will he be in a better position to institute change from the outside rather than from within? I am eagerly watching what will transpire.

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