After being an educator for 40 years and reading and writing book notes for this blog, thoughts have come to me that I would love to share and enter into dialogue on this blog. These ideas are discussion starters, not necessarily the opinions of any particular person at MASA or part of the platform of the organization as a whole.
As this is a blog, and in the spirit of Weinberger's information and knowledge being shaped as we go, I put together some thoughts that incorporate many of the ideas that have been expressed in pieces in the books that have been posted on this blog for the past few months.
Here it is:
LET’S BE PROACTIVE, INSTEAD OF REACTIVE: TRUE EDUCATIONAL CHANGE
By Jane L. Sigford
Since A Nation at Risk in 1983, the voices of politicians and businessmen have held sway in dictating what’s wrong with education and how it should be fixed. We educators have reacted and have incorporated changes thrust upon us, such as NCLB, endless testing in the guise of accountability, and now teacher evaluation procedures. However, just because someone has gone through school, does not mean they are an education expert or know how to teach. We educators are the professionals. Our voices have been too soft. However, we can probably all agree--businessmen, politicians, and educators alike-- that education in the 21st century is in the beginning of a glacial cultural shift. The old expectations and rules do not apply. Because we have not lived through any time like this ever before, we are literally and figuratively drawing our maps using social media as we “sail the sea.”
In reading the works of current thinkers, listening to experts, and having been an educator for over 40 years, I invite us to look at some thoughts and ask some questions. Then I invite us to have courage, to be PROactive, not REactive, to create change in education and our schools.
Let’s hear what some of the thinkers are saying:
1. In a TED talk posted in June 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, education and creativity expert, challenged people to stop thinking of REFORMING education because that means we are just trying to fix a broken model. Instead, he says we must TRANSFORM education because we need a revolution, not an evolution.
This makes sense. We have “tinkered” with education since its inception, to use the language of Larry Cuban, professor at Stanford University, and David Tyack in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia. We have changed scheduling from block to middle level to seven period day and permutations in between. We have changed start and stop times. We have charter schools. We add online computer programs. But the model is still the same. Those changes are all non-essential in the fundamental structure and delivery of what we call education.
2. Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology, in a TED talk posted on September 2010, said “If there is stuff on Google, why do you have to stuff it in your head?” So why do we have statewide annual tests about “stuff” we could look up on Google? Students could all pass these tests with ease if they could use their cell phones. Is this truly a measure of successful teaching and learning? We know that a well-educated person needs to have a foundational basis of knowledge upon which to build. But a truly educated person is someone who is inquisitive, learns throughout life, has the skills to work with others, and can solve real life problems, none of which are measured by state multiple choice tests. Plus, these skills cannot be “googled.”
3. David Weinberger in his book, Everything is Miscellaneous published in 2012, described how we have ordered order historically. In the first order we looked at attributes and basic systems. For example, in libraries, books were sorted by physical size and alphabetically.
In this first order of order, schools were a physical place where students attended and were taught a predetermined curriculum with a strong Western, white focus. By and large, today students still operate in this first order because we think students still have to come to a physical place called school.
In the 2nd order of order in libraries, books were sorted in the Dewey Decimal system using metadata such as subject and then importance. For example, Christianity was deemed more important than Buddhism as evidenced by the fact that it has more numbers in Dewey Decimal and is closer to the decimal point. Information and knowledge were hierarchical with importance being determined by “experts “. “Authorities have long filtered and organized information for us, protecting us from what isn’t worth our time and helping us find what we need to give our beliefs a sturdy foundation.” (Weinberger, 2012)
Inside schools we still use the 2nd order of ordering because the most important piece of metadata that we use to sort students is to put them into grade levels determined by their age, regardless of where they are academically. The curriculum is established by “experts” (committees of businessmen, politicians, educators, and parents) under the guise of standards that all students must learn. The curriculum is based on the canon of what has been taught in the past and what has been determined to be the foundation of a liberal arts education. Although there have been some minor corrections, the curriculum is still heavily determined by Western values, that which is perceived as being necessary for college admission and/or work.
We evaluate schools with 2nd order thinking. We sort students by how well they do on a test of particles of information that they have learned from this curriculum that was predetermined by “experts.”
Education is even funded according to 2nd order values. Schools receive aid based on the numbers of students in school on a certain date. We do not fund schools based on how much students learn but on how old they are. Students have to start at a certain age and end at a certain age, regardless of what they know and can do.
According to Weinberger, we are now in the 3rd order of order where information is not sorted alphabetically. In fact, knowledge itself is being redefined because information belongs to everyone and knowledge is created as we go. It is not hierarchical, nor can it be alphabetized. It is googled, “tagged”, linked, and developed by individual users in a social media context. Organization is as unique as every user makes it.
Schools, and education in general, are in the midst of this reordering. “Everything touching knowledge and everything knowledge touches is being transformed… We have built institutions that depend on maintaining systems of categorization for their authority and revenues.” (Weinberger, 2012) This is true of schools. However, students are now as close to information as they are to their nearest cell phone. “The task of knowing is no longer to see the simple. It is to swim in the complex.” (Weinberger, 2012)
Therefore, schools as an institution were created in the first order, they operate in the 2nd order, and, stressfully, they are charged with educating students to live, work, and learn in a society that is operating in the 3rd order. It is no wonder that 21st century students are turned off by school, as evident in our achievement gap, unacceptable graduation rates, and mediocre performance on international comparisons. In effect, we are using outdated methods to teach and measure our success. It is as though we are using a yardstick to measure the depth of the ocean.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION
In order to transform, we must distinguish between the purpose of, and difference between, the function of schools and of education.
When we talk about education, we are talking about that content and those processes that we have deemed crucial in order to be an educated, literate person in society. Currently, this content is still predetermined by 2nd order thinking, by experts who have determined standards or want to prepare students for the content measured on college entrance exams. Teachers are, theoretically, the deliverer of the information, although that concept is slipping.
The purpose of schools, however, is to serve a social and cultural function in our communities. Schools are a place where children are safe and educated while parents go to work to support their families. Schools, as the last major institution that all citizens go through, serve as a vehicle to impart cultural values. And, importantly, schools teach students how to get along with one another, work in groups, behave socially, and become part of American democratic society. A democracy cannot function without an educated populace.
SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION IN THE THIRD ORDER
How can we, not politicians or businessmen, create an education that is the best for our kids in this new way of ordering information and knowledge?
- Teachers would have a different role—one of being a facilitator, co-learner, relationship builder, mentor, resource provider and so on. With technology we can facilitate individual learning, without teachers being the sole person in charge. Teachers have to give up the type of control that they have exercised in the past. Paradoxically, control is like love. The more you give away, the more you have.
2. Students would be taught at their instructional levels in reading, math, and science. But they would be with their age mates in other areas such as physical education, art, music, and social studies so that our students learn the age-appropriate socio-emotional skills of getting along and working with others.
3. We would guarantee that children are literate in reading, math, writing, and technology before they move on to the next level of skill which was the intent in establishing standards. The difference would be that we would be that students would only move forward when they have mastered what they need to know and do. If we did this, we would not have an achievement gap. Advanced students would also be working at their level and would not have to wait for others to catch up.
4. Students would still receive a liberal arts education and experience with art, music, physical education, computer skills, theater, etc. with their age mates.
5. Some students may not stay in “school” until they are eighteen. Some may “graduate” at 16 and yet some students would stay until they are 21 or 22, until they have achieved what they need to achieve. There is nothing magical about starting school at six and ending at 18. There is also nothing magical about having completed 13 years (kindergarten too) of seat time.
6. Schools would be funded when students make a year’s growth in reading, math, and science. Some students may make 2 years growth in a calendar year and some would not. Teachers would have incentive to be responsible to ensure that each child makes growth. Districts would receive the same amount of funding over the students’ academic lifetime whether they “graduated” at 16 or 22. But the emphasis would be on learning, not age.
7.If schools are based on learning and not seat time, we may have to change the definition of a diploma. Currently, a diploma says that a student completed so many years of education and is between the ages of 17-18. What if a student learned much of the content on his/her own and came to a “school” for the social, cultural pieces? What would a diploma mean? Who will say that a student has earned a diploma? Will the meaning of a college diploma also change as students can take college courses free and online?
8.Knowledge is being redefined as we go. Therefore, “standards” in the 21st century will become NOT standard; they will be miscellaneous. We have relied on textbooks to help chart the course of implementing the standards but as Weinberger said, textbooks are “defined knowledge.” (Weinberger, 2012) Enter Wikipedia. Individuals, not “experts”, now define knowledge. In this environment we can all be an expert in our area because we are reshaping what that means.
9.Technology will be seamless tools, much like we think of ballpoint pens today. We will use various tools to access, demonstrate, and create knowledge. However, there are times when it is not warranted to use trendy technology. Just because a student is using technology or a teacher is using a smartboard or an ipad, does not mean that the education is in the 3rd order of order. Students still have to learn to read (and there are different types of reading.) Reading an ebook is a different skill set than reading a paper one. We need to teach the process of how to do both. What is the best way to do that? That varies with the individual.
Students have to learn to do math. They have to learn to write. (They need to learn different types of writing. Writing for a blog, writing to support a thesis statement, tweeting—are all types of writing and must be utilized and taught.) What is the best way to do this? That depends…..Technology gives us the flexibility to utilize different methods for different learners, and not continue the “sage on the stage” approach.
10. Attendance laws may have to change. Just because someone comes to school does not mean they are learning. We have to have more configurations. Schools may be a place that students come some of the time but not all of the time.
11. We have to take risks and make real change, not just tinker, in our ideas of what constitutes an education, what is the role of schools, and what is the job of a teacher. As we try something that is new, we must also give change time to take place. I once heard that it takes 5-7 years for something to become part of a culture. Too often we create an initiative and once the decision is made, we move on to the next decision without supporting and fine-tuning the first one. Therefore, the effort withers because of lack of support. Then we say, that did not work which leads to the oft-heard refrain from teachers, that we’ve tried it before and it did not work. So we need to make fundamental change and provide time and resources to shape it as we go.
Will we make mistakes when we try something new? Absolutely. People who are not making mistakes are not creating change. Unfortunately, our culture is not very supportive or accepting of something different that does not give instant results. Because everyone has gone through this model of school and education as we now know it, it is frightening for our families to think of radical change because they fear for the success of their kids. That is a valid fear. But if we are not PROactive, we will once again find ourselves REacting when change happens all around us and we have to retrofit our outdated system to accommodate changes.
12.We need to work with legislators and businessmen to get them to understand that we are the professionals and we can make changes that are in the best interests of kids.
13 We need to change how we view and measure success in academic achievement. Accountability is about learning, not a score on a test.
We are operating in the 1st and 2nd order of ordering while our children are operating, living, and preparing for a world where information is accessible, knowledge is being shaped as we go, and rules and expectations are changing daily. We need to place the emphasis on learning, not age and seat time. There will be no magic bullet for change. But unless we are PROactive we will once again find ourselves REacting to what someone else tells us we should do.
Fullan, M & Hargreaves, A. (2012) Professional Capital. New York: NY: Teachers College Press.
Mitra, Sugata. TED talk “Child-driven Education” Aired June 2010
Ritz, Stephen. TED talk “A Teacher Growing Green in the South Bronx, aired July 2012.
Robinson, Sir Ken. TED talk “Schools Kill creativity.” Aired June 2006.
Tyack, D & Cuban L. (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia: a century of school reform. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Weinberger, D. (2012). Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York, NY: Times Books.
Jane L. Sigford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct professor and educational consultant in Minneapolis, MN, and retired recently from being public educator and administrator for over 40 years