Sunday, December 1, 2013

Should the children be in charge?

Wired Magazine is usually one of my favorite sources for tech news and innovation. But a recent article about "alternative education" left me very disappointed. 

Let me elaborate.

First, the article -- it's not long, and you really need to read it before we can talk about it:

Go ahead. I'll wait. 
*gets another cup of coffee*

I'm all for education reform and innovation.  I don't know how our current system got in this mess, but the double-punch of over-reliance on standardized test data as indicative of success + the new push to bludgeon teachers and students in the name of the Common Core will decimate student interest and success unless we stop the train and get the kids off.

I also think our system needs a variety of schools in place. Kids aren't a "one size fits all" proposition, you know?  Perhaps most could thrive in good public schools (especially if teachers were free of all the bureaucratic crap so they'd have more time to teach), but I like the experimentation of the alternative schools (like Montessori) who offer everyone a chance to see other options in action.  Sure, private education has its own litany of problems - these schools can be insular, provincial, unregulated, and open only to the affluent.  But we need alternative schools.

The Wired article could have taken time to really explain the foundational assumptions that undergird test-driven education and the wide variety of alternative education models. Instead, the author serves up a lukewarm collection of faulty connections and assumptions.  Really, folks, I was so disappointed. 

Paloma, the brilliant Mexican student in Sergia Correra's classroom, is an outlier.  Her story is what the author uses as his primary narrative proof of the way child-centered classrooms offer the only true path to unlocking kids' full potential.  

Problem is, no educational initiative should be built on kids on the extremes -- unless you're talking about remediating students who have fallen behind or dealing with the unique needs of the gifted / talented subset. 

The author gives us a bait-and-switch:  As he writes about Correra's tentative steps into letting students "teach themselves" (one legitimate technique in constructivist education), he focuses on Paloma's role in helping the students figure out new concepts.   The implication is that child-centered learning, will lead to unlocking the Palomas in every classroom. 

But that's not every teacher's experience.  By statistical definition, above-average and gifted students should be rare.   You'll probably always have students who can innovate and direct their peers toward further learning -- and good teachers should facilitate that form of collaborative learning.  But that doesn't make child-centered learning the hero of the story.

I guess the red flags hit my consciousness in the center of the article, where the author told Sagata Mitras's computer-in-a-wall experiment in an Indian village school.  He gave students a computer with molecular biology materials and let them figure it out on their own.  They slowly mastered the material (with "mastery" defined by their performance on a multiple-choice test).  This has launched him into creating a new kind of school. 

There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”
Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size, on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn them off.”
See that warning flag in my mind?  *whoosh*  I've got a whole forest of them hitting my vision. 

See, I spent a decade in middle and high school classrooms doing some pretty innovative things. I know what it means to get out of the way and let students start constructing meaning from the raw materials of a discipline. 

I also understand the weakness of our human nature -- our passion dries up once we hit adversity; we lose motivation when an obstacle blocks our path. 

If we put the children completely in charge, haven't we abdicated our role as teachers? 

I'm not taking aim here at legitimate strategies of learning grounded in sound research and educational theory.   But the Wired author would have you think that Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and many other alternative educators of the 20th century would agree with Mitra's idea or recognize it as sound educational practice.  I don't think they would.  

Even Finland, the poster child of education reformers (and bane of public school policy makers who are tired of hearing about how awesome Finland's educational system is) doesn't structure its schools so that kids simply wander around self-paced.

It's true that our current educational system was rooted in the Industrial Revolution, so it's set up to churn out obedient workers who can learn a limited range of skills.  That's something the Wired author drives home, and I appreciate the reminder of why we need a change so desperately.  Reams of standardized tests cannot teach kids to be innovators.

Some bottom line thoughts: 

If biblical principles underlie the way we view the teacher, the learner, and the environment of education, then we must recognize the elements of our world and our nature that affect the educational process:

-- Teachers and students, as image bearers, bring into the classroom an incredible capacity for creativity and exploration
-- But we are also broken by sin and live under the effects of the Fall. Our minds are darkened, our natures are warped, and even this whole world "groans" under the weight of human sin.  So we aren't on a level playing field, even when Grace is at work to save us and this world from evil. 
-- The Gospel changes us, and it affects the very structure of how a classroom works. [This is a big idea, and if you want a rich explanation, read Donovan Graham's book Teaching Redemptively.]
-- Teaching is a subset of discipleship. As such, the teacher is not a "master" or a taskmaster or someone who collects knowledge as a thing to pour into the heads of waiting students. But the teacher is someone special in this equation of education, not a hindrance to "real learning."
-- Left to ourselves, few of us will make good choices.  Sometimes, sure.  But the more immature we are, the more we need guidance and boundaries.  Kids don't parent themselves, and they shouldn't be expected to teach themselves either. 

We need innovation in education. Desperately. But it needs to be a wise innovation.  And I think Wired missed the mark on this one by writing an article that's more sensational than helpful.