If education REALLY needs a game-changer, then…

So, I got a “what-if”…

What if teachers only taught half their day?

Follow me down this rabbit trail for a minute. It started with a video. This one. Watch it if you haven’t already.


It’s kind of long, sorry about that.

So, technology isn’t a game-changer. That’s because it doesn’t change the game. It’s a different strategy to bring to the same game. Instructional technology is just that: INSTRUCTIONAL. You don’t change the game by changing INSTRUCTION.

You change the game by changing LEARNING. That’s where the revolution comes from. It’s fair to say that one definitely leads to the other and it certainly isn’t valuable to separate those two practically Siamese educational activities. Teaching and Learning.

So I began to ask myself, what produces high amounts of learning? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying: good teaching. And good teaching rests on foundation of good lesson-planning and good lesson design.

In fact, according to L. Dee Fink of the University of Oklahoma, “designing and managing an instructional event” is the “most crucial” quality in “ensuring whether or not students have a significant (rather than a boring or trite) learning experience”.

That having been said, take a look at The University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning’s Guide for Effective Lesson Planning. Many seasoned teachers look at that list of super important items and chuckle to themselves at how no one in the teaching profession has time to put that kind of detail into their lessons.

So…

We have created a situation where the people who have the most impact on the learning don’t have the ability to do the thing that research suggests will have the largest impact on the learning.

Well, what are they doing instead?

Well, here’s an infographic. (I’m not sure if infographics count as “citing research” or not, I’ll let that come out as critiques as my peers review my blog posts, but I think the point is well made.) In a typical work day, teachers spend the majority of their time instructing students, which might seem like a no-brainer except they have to teach them something. The typical processes include using instructional materials (which have to be chosen or designed) and giving assessments (which need to be chosen or designed, and then graded and returned with feedback.) Without those things, we don’t see learning. And learning is the goal.

Which means this super-important lesson design work, which has to be done for high amounts of learning to occur, is not given sufficient time within the typical teacher’s day. Most days it isn’t given ANY time in the teacher’s day. Or it is given time that is supplanting family time, relax time, or hobby time. That isn’t just me being sympathetic. Those things keep teachers from getting burned out.

So, you can’t really change the job of teaching. It is all of those things and not because we chose them to be.

But our culture doesn’t need teachers who lesson plan. It needs teachers who lesson plan WELL. It doesn’t need teachers who assess learning and give feedback. It needs teachers who assess learning WELL and give GOOD feedback. It doesn’t need teachers who reach out to reluctant learners. It needs teachers who reach out to reluctant learners PERSISTENTLY and EFFECTIVELY.

Those things take time. Time our teachers don’t have because of the way our education system requires its teachers to work.

So, enter my original “what-if”. What if teachers only taught half the day?

Secondary teachers would teach three classes. or elementary teachers would teach either the morning or the afternoon. Secondary folks might have 75-80 students instead of double that, in some cases.

Then, the other half of the day, they are collaborating, researching best practices, lesson planning, giving feedback, observing each other teach, making contact with parents. Young teachers could experience real mentorship. Teachers could really reflect and really collect, look at, and examine student data.

I know, I know, I know. Money, money, money. I understand that this plan isn’t a cheap one. I get that. I don’t think this plan is going to be the next one tried. But it is simple. It is elegant. And it probably would work. And if education needs a “game-changer”, then we need to think about ACTUALLY changing the game. This plan does that.

There are teachers out there doing amazing things right now. Imagine what those folks would do if you gave them that kind of time. They wouldn’t be amazing anymore. They might just be revolutionary.

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Show me the money… or something else useful…

It's not all about the money... photo credit: Flickr user "401(k) 2013" - used under Creative Commons

It’s not all about the money…
photo credit: Flickr user “401(k) 2013” – used under Creative Commons

In Sir Ken Robinson’s (@SirKenRobinson) book Out of Our Minds, he describes an economic model for our education system that is grounded in Enlightenment era philosophy.

According to Robinson, The Enlightenment is responsible for the labeling of topics as “academic.” At the risk of oversimplifying it, things that can be empirically supported are academic and things that cannot are non-academic.

For example, imagine a sunny day. According to our Enlightenment-conditioned minds, we could talk about “academic” things like the convection caused by the warming earth, the refraction causing the sky to appear blue, the air pressure causing the gentle breeze or the photosynthesis making the grass grow.

We could also talk about a lot of supposedly “non-academic” things like how beautiful the deep blue of the sky is, the lift in our spirits that comes from the sunshine, or the memories of when we were kids in the summertime. (Of course, we could try to make these academic by talking about the sunshine releasing hormones that effect the brain which lifts our spirits, or something like that.)

We’ve also labeled people as academic and non-academic. You see, anyone can feel the warmth of a sunny day, but only the smart, academic kids can understand and discuss heat transfers due to radiation from the sun, right?

And those are the smart kids who do well in math class. And those are the smart kids who get good jobs. By good jobs, we mean jobs that pay a lot of money. And if, you can make yourself academic, you can get a good job that pays a lot of money. You’ll be a smart person, too!

This message has created websites like this or this .The message: The good jobs need smart people. Math is the key to being (or looking) smart. Be smart and get paid well for it.

This message has understandably fostered a response in websites like this, which exist to assure kids that they are able to make money without the mathematics.

But wait, wait… WAIT! Why are we connecting math class to money? Does my “useless” math class only exist to get people high-paying jobs? Surely their must be a REAL reason that my classroom is full five times every day. What about people who don’t want one of those smart, mathy jobs that pay well? Equating math to money excludes significant chunks of students. It excludes future homemakers, military personnel, farmers, people who intend to follow into the family business, or people whose future goals include jobs that they KNOW aren’t going to pay well (teachers, artists, musicians, trade laborers, to name a few). To these folks, a math class that exists to get them paid well truly is useless.

Have we convinced these people they’re dumb because my math class is useless on those terms?

The worst part is that “useless” math classes (like the ones that I teach) are actually useful to all of those people. Math is more than a future paycheck. It is more than getting labeled smart or dumb. It is more than a key to some future door that you won’t appreciate now, but will be so thankful for later.

Maybe my “useless” math class can be for them. All of them. To use right now. To learn how to solve problems. To develop a linear sense of logic. To practice the art of questioning, of guessing well, and of learning to check an answer. To increase numeracy. To learn to struggle and to be patient. If my math class can do these things, then maybe my “useless” math class isn’t actually so useless after all.