“When will we ever use this stuff?”

All teachers have had the experience of being asked the following question by the students seated in front of them: “Mr. Jones, when will ever use this stuff? The question is usually blurted out in the middle of a class session where students are being asked to recite some piece of information presented by the teacher or from an assigned reading. Teachers respond to this question with the following institutional responses: the course is required; the course is a prerequisite; the course is essential for future employment.

The first two institutional responses are what they are: institutional constructs that have nothing to do with educating, but, everything to do with certifying. The last response, however, does signal that course content might have some educational value. The claim that subject matter content is essential for future employment makes two assumptions about the acquisition of occupational skills and the high demand of those same skills in the global market place.

The first assumption would run counter to what we know about transfer of knowledge from classrooms to real world situations. Based on transfer theory in learning the knowledge and skills taught in classrooms would have to be directly related to the specific tasks of a designated occupation. The only discernible goal of the lessons taught in our nation’s’ classrooms is transferring information from textbooks or lectures to answers on a test, which, according to transfer theory is forgotten within minutes of handing in the test.

Even if students were able to retain the definitions, facts, and procedures transmitted in a classroom, the configuration of information that aligns well with multiple choice tests, does not align at all with occupational tasks demanding that bits of information be put together to solve workplace problems or perform workplace routines. Rarely, if ever, in classrooms are subjects or lessons designed to put the pieces of information together in ways that make sense out of the problems and tasks of different occupations. The claim by teachers that at some point in our career path we will need all of these facts, definitions, and procedures is both theoretically and practically false.

The second assumption that the knowledge and skills presented in classrooms is in high demand in a global workplace is not borne out by surveys of employers. When employers are asked what schools should be teaching, they overwhelmingly recite the “Four C’s:” critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Returning to our average classroom in this nation, the assign and assess model of instruction is not designed for students to engage in any form of critical thinking, or communication, or collaboration, or creativity. In fact, the institutional goals of standardization, compliance, control, and accountability, are in direct opposition to the skills employers are pleading with schools to teach.

The fundamental skill supporting the “Four C’s,” is the ability think conceptually. What this skill entails is the ability to make sense out of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is not important, and, above all, to combine many bits of information together in ways that will solve workplace problems and improve workplace performance.

The school’s systems we now have in this country were designed and continue to promote a production line theory of education. All communities have brick buildings, divided into many identical rooms, with each room equipped with rows of desks and chairs. At the sound of the bell, students move from classroom to classroom with an adult standing in front of the room transmitting large amounts of information. In one room the adult recites names and dates. In the next room the adult recites theories and formulas. In the next room the adult recites theorems and equations. At the end of the week, all of this information is produced on a test.

While this production line model of schooling aligns well for the functions and tasks of an industrial economy, it becomes obsolete in a knowledge-based economy. Employers no longer look for workers that can learn the how of their jobs. Employers now look for workers that also understand and can perform the what and why of their jobs.

The question remains, how would we design school organizations, classroom teaching, and curriculum to legitimately claim that what is being taught is essential for future employment. In designing twenty-first century schooling, fundamental to that design is acknowledging three realities about twenty-first century learning: first, we now have countless sources of information; second, that information is readily accessible from a variety of technology platforms; and, third, all educational preparation has a short shelf-life. With these three realities in mind, a school model that would best prepare student bodies for living and working in the twenty-first century would need to make the following changes to our current factory style model of schooling.

Buildings—>Work Stations

The easy access to all forms of knowledge from any place, at any time, renders obsolete the belief that all knowledge or work is lodged in a physical building. This does not mean that a physical building is necessarily obsolete; it does mean that educating or training can take place in a variety of ventures depending on the nature of the learning goal.

Timeless Information—>Just in Time Information

The amount and speed of information creation has rendered obsolete the often-stated classroom principle that students must learn a certain set of definitions, facts, and procedures which are universally applicable in the occupational and schooling world. The solutions to the number and complexity of the problems students will be asked to solve in this century will not be found in memorized “first” principles; it will be invented from the assembling of bits of information gathered from large domains of knowledge that are tailored to address specific realities on the ground.

Textbooks—>Search Engines

The accessibility of information through a variety of search engines has rendered obsolete the belief in the existence of a stable set of definitions, facts, and procedures housed in buildings, textbooks, lecture notes, or journals. In a web-based world, we have clouds storing countless pieces of information that can be accessed from any place, any time, in any venue.

Subjects–>Problems

The complexity of social, economic, and political conditions created by a post-industrial society has rendered obsolete the subject centered curriculum. The subject centered curriculum is an institutional construct designed to award a credit for time-served in a classroom. The design of school buildings, the certification of teachers, the seven-period day, the test on Friday, are all products of a classification system that reduces the content and methods of a discipline into bits of information that can be organized under a course heading. While subjects are perfect configurations for achieving the credentialing goal of institutional schooling, they are poorly suited for engaging students in the kinds of thinking and methods of inquiry for solving real world problems or for enhancing the fundamental skills of the 4 C’s.

Periods–>Projects

The complexity if the issues we confront in the twenty-first century has rendered obsolete the completion of assignments within stated periods of time. The processes involved in solving twenty-first century problems require concentrated periods of time solely devoted to gathering, analyzing, compiling, hypothesizing, experimenting, and implementing. Such a process cannot be limited to subjects studied, to institutional timetables, to scheduled team members, to a prescribed outcome, or to a team leader.

Teachers—>Facilitators

The depth and breadth of the knowledge and skills required to solve twenty-first century problems has rendered obsolete the role of teacher as the source and transmitter of all knowledge. Twenty-first century knowledge and skills demand the capability of working closely with a variety of technologies to acquire the information and processes required to resolve problems in which no existing social, economic, intellectual, or political models can cope with. The role of teacher in the context of resolving complex societal problems is transformed from telling, allocating, and inspecting to educating, facilitating, and coaching.

Written into all school mission statements are terms that mirror the knowledge and skills employers have termed the 4C’s. Although all members of the school community feel good about a school district committed to each of the 4C’s, they continue to support school systems whose organizational and instructional configuration work in opposition to the realization of the 4C’s.

I have summarized above the changes to school organizations and classroom teaching that would bring our school systems in line with the demands of a global economy and the human and physical problems we have created on this planet. I understand that these changes, in the staid world of schooling, would be considered radical. I also know that to put these changes off will leave our future generations unprepared for a radically different occupational world and a radically different human and physical world.

Opening Day Ritual

Each year teachers are herded into darkened auditoriums to listen to administrators, consultants, or a guest speaker present a new vision of learning, or a new mandate to be complied with, or a new program favored by the board. While administrators on stage drone on about excellence, the technique of the day, or protocols for an upcoming accreditation visit, teachers are busy exchanging class lists, reviewing purchase orders for the supplies they ordered during the summer, and whispering highlights from their summer travels. Periodically, an administrator standing in back of the auditorium will move to different aisles in the auditorium looking to quiet the murmurs from teachers anxious to get into their classrooms.

The source of the failure of the opening day ritual to hold the attention of teachers, to commit to working with new pedagogical models, or to renew their original motivation for entering the profession of teaching, are presentations that are thick on visions, goals, and due dates, and thin on purpose, resources, and training.

There are two strategies district and building administrators could employ to transform the opening day ritual from a recitation of administrative wants to educational oughts. The first strategy is a simple axiom quoted to me by a mentor of mine: “The faster you get teachers out of auditorium seats and into desk chairs the better.” What she meant by this comment was the purposes, the problems, the programs, and the vocabularies of administrators are far removed from the purposes, the problems, the programs and the vocabularies of the classroom. Unless these two worlds can talk and work on common ground, then let teachers get into their classrooms as fast as possible.

The second strategy is to tell a good story—one that is understandable, is emotional, and is memorable. There are three elements to a good story. First and foremost, you must persuade the audience why they should care about a schoolwide problem—teachers must perceive that WE have a problem. Using managerial vocabularies—data, programs, test scores, rules and regulations—will not draw the attention of teachers from class lists to the speaker on the stage. What will draw their attention to auditorium stages is naming a student, a parent, a teacher, a fellow administrator who experienced a significant social, emotional, or intellectual set back or success—one that schooling had some power to shape.

Secondly, the schoolwide problem must have an identifiable cause. The identified “cause” could have originated from a theory, from a data point, from a study group, from a consultant, or from members of the school community. It is vital to a good story that the cause be understandable and solvable.

Lastly, the story must answer the question on the minds of all the teachers seated in darkened auditoriums: “How will we do this?” The short answer to that question would include what theories, ideas, practices will be adopted; what organizational and instructional routines must change; what training regimes will the district employ; and what resources will be needed to achieve the goals of the strategy.

Above all the story must communicate a sincere commitment to resolving the schoolwide problem. That commitment is demonstrated when administrators know what they are talking about; when they appreciate the challenges of classroom teaching; when they participate with staff in the problem solving process; when they show an openness to changing organizational structures and routines to accommodate agreed upon solutions; and, most importantly, when they deliver the necessary resources required to implement an agreed upon solution.

“I TEACH HISTORY”

In response to a New York Times article titled: “The Social Justice Purge at Idaho Colleges: Republicans lawmakers try to cancel diversity programs

As a former high school history teacher, I taught history–that’s it. I refrained from labeling or categorizing the history I was teaching. I also refrained from using textbooks, which, too often sanitized parts of the American story that were horrific. I did stick to primary documents, that were challenging to read, but, were guaranteed to generate some heated discussions–and that is really what teaching history is all about—letting my juniors wrestle intellectually with the who, what, why, and how of our country’s history.

The Myth of In-Person Learning

The political hot button question to emerge out of a year of a pandemic shutdown is when will students be able to return to in-person schooling? The source of this urgent call for returning children and adolescents to neighborhood classrooms is twofold: first, parents want to return to work; secondly, there is growing research indicating that remote learning is having damaging effects on the social, emotional, and intellectual development of children and adolescents.

Parents calling for a return to in-person schooling assume that learning is optimized when children and adolescents are placed in a single classroom with a teacher. John Goodlad’s study of instructional programs of 13 high schools remains, after 30 years, the best description of what is being defined as in-person learning.  

The teacher explaining or lecturing to the total class or a single students, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers: the teacher, when not lecturing, observing or monitoring students working individually at their desks; students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher’s questions; students working individual at their desks on reading or writing assignments; and all with little emotion, from interpersonal warmth to expressions of hostility. (Goodlad, 1984, p. 230)

While it is true, that Goodlad’s description of the regularities of classroom instruction includes a teacher in a classroom—the person—it leaves out the following key elements of what I term, personalized learning environments:

PERSONALIZED LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS…

  • Create problem-centric units of instruction that focus on meaning-making with relevant examples of how the principles and concepts taught can be applied in the real world.
  • Are interactive with students engaging in what Dewey termed the four basic human impulses: the impulse to communicate, to construct, to inquirer, and to express in finer form.
  • Allow students to self-pace their understandings of subject matter content—the ability to hit the stop, rewind, or mute button.
  • Provide students with immediate feedback on what they understand and what they need to review.
  • Provide students with frequent opportunities to interact with peers.
  • Reduce one period presentations—sixty minutes—to ten-minute modular presentations of a concept, theory, or practice.
  • Provide students with practice exercises designed for mastery of subject matter material.
  • Detect patterns of student responses that identify misconceptions and generate immediate correctives.
  • Connect students with experts throughout the world on problems they are working to solve.

No in-person teacher standing in front of a classroom of thirty students, works within an organizational structure or works with a teaching model designed to create a PERSONALIZED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. Over three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom wrote about the 2 Sigma Problem in schooling: the search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. What we know about personalized one-to-one tutoring is a process in which 90% of the tutored students reach high levels of learning. What we know about conventional in-person classroom teaching is a process in which fewer than 20% of the students in a classroom reach high levels of learning.

Although there has been much criticism leveled at the virtual learning environments that schools hastily put together during the pandemic year, the kinds of personalized learning environments created by well crafted virtual learning units of instruction clearly are the answer to Bloom’s 2 Sigma problem.

After a year of homeschooling, with the exposure to personalized learning environments, schools are at an inflection point—do they continue to house a one-size fits all in-person classroom instruction or do they explore and experiment with a different model of teaching and learning that creates a configuration of schooling that honors the diverse interest, talents, abilities, and learning styles of our sons and daughters.

Main Offices are NOT Designed to Innovate

1.      MAIN OFFICES ARE NOT OPEN TO NEW IDEAS

The regularities of schooling formulated at the turn of the century remain firmly in control of the organizational and pedagogical structures of contemporary schooling. What do the regularities of schooling look like? Goodlad’s (1984) study of instructional programs of 13 high schools remains, after 30 years, the best account of these regularities in action. The regularities described in Goodlad’s study of high school classrooms is a highly scripted performance that includes:

   the teacher explaining or lecture to the total class or a single students, occasionally asking questions requiring factual answers: the teacher, when not lecturing, observing or monitoring students working individually at their desks; students listening or appearing to listen to the teacher and occasionally responding to the teacher’s questions; students working individual at their desks on reading or writing assignments; and all with little emotion, from interpersonal warmth to expressions of hostility. (Goodlad, 1984, p. 230)

 Any idea, program, technique that would fundamentally alter the regularities are met with the regular responses of bureaucracies: “no money,” “no room,” “no staff,” “no time.”

2.      MAIN OFFICES ARE RISK AVERSE

Embedded in the process of innovating is the willingness to experiment. Any form of experimentation involves risk—the understanding that your great idea may result in great failure. No parent wants to hear that their son or daughter’s educational progress was impeded by a failed teaching methodology or organizational arrangement. The problem with this fear of failure is most of what we do in schools—how we organize subjects; how we teach; how we assess—are methodologies and organizational structures that the research for decades has declared to be educationally ineffective. Most of what school communities would define as experimental are practices that the research has proven to be educationally effective. The willingness on the part of administrators to experiment with “what the research says” is still a bridge too far for main offices who value the certainties of institutional schooling over the uncertainties of progressive learning environments.

3.      MAIN OFFICES DO NOT HIRE DIVERSE TALENT

The source of all innovative environments is a talent pool populated with personnel with diverse cultural, educational, and work backgrounds. Main offices look for candidates that meet uniform credentialing requirements and are comfortable working within programs and organizational structures that prize compliance and standardization. Teachers with a proclivity for out of the box thinking do not remain long in organizational structures and routines that leave little time or venues to think about, discuss, or experiment with disparate models of schooling or teaching.

4.      MAIN OFFICES ARE NOT DESIGNED FOR INNOVATION

School buildings were designed for surveillance and categorization of children and adolescents. Hallways, classrooms, offices, departments are organizational configurations that simplify adult supervision and assign them to the right age group, or subject, or department. Spending your entire day in an office or a classroom, largely isolated from your colleagues, fails create the kinds of collaborative environments that generate innovate ideas and practices.

5.      MAIN OFFICES HOUSE DOERS NOT THINKERS

Main offices house men and women who have mastered the managerial tools—budgeting, scheduling, distributing, monitoring— for completing administrative and supervisory tasks. None of these tools question or elaborate on the beliefs, ideas, theories, values, or outcomes governing an assigned managerial task. Without a thorough understanding of the theories, concepts, or practices constituting the managerial task, administrators are unable to adjust, to improve upon, or create new understandings of the programs, the mandates, the teaching models they have been assigned to implement.