Inside-out school reform

One of the most common ways of classifying school reform approaches is to think of them as either top-down (driven by school or district leadership) or bottom-up (driven by teachers). But increasingly I don’t think those are the right categories. The more critical distinction is outside-in versus inside-out. I don’t mean whether the reformers are inside or outside the school. I’m talking about how closely to the classroom, and more specifically to teacher-student interactions and relationships, the reform originates.

Most reforms are outside-in. Reformers set standards, generally based on what is likely to get students into college. The they engineer the reforms to get students to meet those standards. Eventually, this works its way into discussions about teaching. But that comes Continue Reading

David Labaree and School Reform

David Labaree’s new book Someone Has to Fail is another book that seeks to explain why school reform fails to get any traction (So Much Reform So Little Change, Steady Work, Spinning Wheels, Tinkering towards Utopia). One of the things I like most about this book is the exceptional chapter in the middle where he talks explicitly about the nature of teaching and the ways in which the most important factor in formal schooling — what the teacher does — is rarely affected by school reform.

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Old School

My son was recently assigned a project on the state of Washington for school. He decided he wanted to program his Lego robot to draw the state of Washington. The teacher sent a list of suggestions like make a brochure, unhealthy bake something using the state fruit, unhealthy or create a poster about the state. Programming a robot wasn’t on the list.

Micah searched for example programs that make Lego robots draw. He came up empty. So we decided to ask Dr. Keith (a recent Drexel grad in robotics and good friend) to point us in the right direction. Keith’s first question for Micah was if we wanted the robot to write with ketchup, chocolate or a pen. Thankfully Micah thought a pen sounded like a good idea.

One of the links Keith sent was to this Continue Reading

Non-linearity and authentic work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matt’s post and Aiden’s response. This weekend there was a long piece about the curmudgeon who publishes The Concord Review. He’s been at it awhile — it’s a place for high school students to publish high quality history papers. I was introduced to it in high school. I used the CR as high school teacher — I’d give select essays to students and have them assess what made these essays worth publishing. And I’ve used it lately as a teacher educator, giving it to students and having them brainstorm what a classroom practice would have to look like so that their students would be able to write such awesome essays.

These essays are authentic work — they’re what historians do — and getting kids and pre-service teachers to think about the steps necessary to complete such work is important. Yet in the process of breaking them down, I tried to underscore that just because you Continue Reading

Learning and nonlinearity

This morning I had a quick, offhand conversation about literacy instruction with Mark Springer, the distinguished middle school teacher who founded Soundings, one of the more impressive experiments in democratic, student-centered education that I’ve ever seen. He commented that he’d had students who made huge jumps in reading ability in his classroom, despite the fact that the curriculum is thematic and integrated, and there is no set reading class.

In education (and especially in education policy), we tend to think of learning as linear and incremental: students progress a little bit in each subject each year until they reach some proficiency threshold, one that presumably allows them to attend and be successful in college. If you graphed it, it would be a straight line.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of where these thresholds come from, this view of learning is problematic. Learning is actually nonlinear. You could learn more in one day about something than you had in the previous year, despite steady effort. We’ve all experienced that sense of epiphany, of something clicking in our minds that leads jumbled images to resolve into clarity. It changes the way we see things, often permanently.

In order to experience these jumps, we need puzzles, because it’s their resolution that tells us that we’ve figured it out. The current schooling regime of drills, routines, “accountable talk,” pacing calendars, and benchmark assessments leaves little if any room for such opportunities.

Understanding that learning is nonlinear should also influence how we think about remediation. If getting to proficiency is simply a steady accumulation of knowledge, then moving a 10th grader from a third grade reading level to being on-grade looks like an impossible task: if the line is straight, it simply gets too steep to climb it. But the line isn’t straight, and this offers us some measure of hope if we can rethink what the curriculum is for. We don’t know exactly when or how an individual student will “get it.” But as educators, what we Continue Reading