Friday, May 31, 2013

One size does not fit all... when it comes to change

One size does not fit all. We hear this all the time these days when it comes to innovation education, and I agree with the idea. The saying seems to fit my own school especially right now. Listening last night to Juliette LaMontagne from Project Breaker speak about Breaker projects and using Design Thinking, I realized that project based learning is a piece of the puzzle, but not the entire solution, or perhaps not yet anyway. Students still need to learn some content in order to have a frame of reference. If you don't know that an area of study exists, it is impossible to use that information or to become impassioned by it. Students also need to understand and know some basic things-not just skills. Historical periods, changes over time, branches of biology: students need to be exposed to knowledge. And stuffing content into their heads only to have them spit it back out on a test is not the way to go about doing this, but they still need exposure to different types of knowledge. I think of my own passion for interdisciplinary teaching and learning and how excited I was when I first began to realize the world was this interconnected place. I would not have been able to come to that realization if I had not been exposed to different types of disciplinary knowledge. Not that I had to memorize it-as an art historian I am still embarrassed that I have no recollection of most dates-I google them-but I had to know and understand the existence of this information in order to be able to make those connections.

Students also need to be exposed to different fields or disciplines, so that they can figure out what interests them. If you don't know anything about chemistry, how do you know if it interests you. Thus, I think there is still plenty of room for disciplinary teaching and learning in schools. Once students have a basic understanding of a field, then they can be asked to use knowledge and ask bigger questions allowing them to delve deeper.

And the way it stands right now in public schools anyway, teachers must still deliver content so that students can jump through the standardized testing hoops that allow teachers to be "rated" and students to be evaluated. If there is a paradigm shift to be had right now, it would be to bring down the testing companies. Ask yourself, as a parent, teacher or student, who benefits from these standardized tests? Certainly not students, although right now they are the benchmarks for college acceptance. Certainly not teachers, because if you've ever taught anyone anything, you know that the teaching and learning experience can't be evaluated by a fill in the bubble test. And as a parent, ask yourself about how much time your child has or will spend studying for SAT's, ACT's, AP's, PSAT's, etc.

So how do we create meaningful experiences for our students while still ensuring their success on these benchmark tests? I think we have to tweak curriculum and make changes where we can. We can't undo the need for students to take these tests and succeed, but we can change our classroom practice so that students have experience with open ended questions, learning to frame questions, exploring their own interests within parameters, and learning about process, empathy and collaboration. It is frustrating because it is slow change, but it is still meaningful and it makes a difference. I know it from the excitement I see in my own students when they are given these types of learning challenges.

Slow and steady wins the race... when it comes to changing schools. Or at least I hope so.