Education’s Glorious Revolution

12 04 2008

The world has made dramatic changes in the thirty-plus years I’ve been alive. There are countries on the map today that weren’t there when I was born and others that have ceased to exist. News is different. Music–thank the heavens–is different. New discoveries in science and technology have transformed the way we live our lives and care for our bodies. Even our language is different, influenced by the myriad metamorphoses of fashion, culture, and art. Children today have grown up with personal computers, cellphones, portable game systems and music players, DVD videos, and the internet, which makes them very different from the children that we were back in the early 1970s. They’ve changed, so why haven’t their schools?

If you look at the delivery model for education today and the delivery model for education 50 years ago, you’ll see that they’re essentially the same. One teacher manages a classroom of 30 to 40 students who are guided through a textbook selected by the county school-board and who take written, often standardized tests at regular intervals to assess their learning and progress. There’s more group-work now, and in some schools, technology is employed in the classroom, but that doesn’t change the fact that the basic structure is the same one we’ve been using since the start of free public education in America. Teachers are the keepers of knowledge and students are expected to absorb the specific knowledge that their teachers (and school boards) see fit to deliver unto them. The trouble is that this model is equivalent to the buggy-whip; it’s still has an inherent value, but it has become obsolete.

Before I set off to teach English as a foreign language in Japan, I was an English Literature teacher in a U.S. high-school. Every year for four years, I watched students shuffle through their classes in a grey haze. You could see it in their eyes. They would rather be anywhere else, and they were only willing to do just enough to get by, get their credit and get out. In my first couple years of teaching, I got offended by the students who quite vocally expressed their dissatisfaction and frustration with school in general and my class in particular. “This is stupid!” some said. “This is boring!” quoth others. “Why do I have to learn this stuff? I don’t care about this!” Such statements used to make my blood boil! After all, I spent hours upon hours trying to design my lessons in such a way as to engage students, help them develop if not a love for literature, then at least an appreciation for it. For these kids to say that my class was stupid or boring was the same as saying that I was stupid and boring. And then, somewhere at the beginning of my third year, I began to think that maybe these kids were right and maybe I should listen to what they were really saying.

In the high-school where I taught, nearly 40% of all first-time 9th graders failed 9th Grade Literature. Of that 40%, over half failed 9th Lit a second and a third time.  As a result, our English department couldn’t offer elective courses. The failure rate and the school-board policy which allowed these students to re-take the course up to 4 times in-school (as opposed to in a tuition-based summer school program) demanded that our department schedule as many 9th Lit classes as were needed to ensure that all students had ample opportunity to pass. The high failure rate was a weight on the minds of all my colleagues in the department. We couldn’t figure out why so many students couldn’t grasp the basic skills they needed to pass the End of Course Test. We couldn’t understand why seemingly smart and capable young people couldn’t manage to read the works assigned, write a decent paragraph or paper, turn in their homework and projects, or study for their tests.

Right around this time, I started reading some of Howard Gardner’s research on Multiple Intelligences. In a nutshell, Gardner theorized that students acquire and process knowledge in eight different ways, therefore he felt teachers should design lessons that appeal to this variety of learning styles. Instructors had to shift their perspective and ask not, “IS this student smart?” but “HOW is this student smart?” The old lecture-and-take-notes, read-and-answer-questions model needed to be modified and expanded to account for visual-spatial learners, students who were bodily kinesthetic and needed to physically manipulate their data, students who responded more to music. I began giving a survey to my students on the first day of class to determine what kinds of learners I had, so as to design lessons that would deliver the required skill sets in a way they would understand. What I discovered surprised me.

I am mainly what Gardner calls a Verbal-Linguistic learner. This means that I have facility with words and language. This also means that I learn best by reading, listening to lectures and taking notes. The great majority of my colleagues in the English Department were also Verbal-Linguistic learners. My students, on the other hand, were not. Out of a class of 40 ninth-graders in the fall of 2005, four were Verbal-Linguistic learners. The rest were a combination of Visual-Spatial, Bodily Kinesthetic, Musical and Interpersonal learners. What this meant was that the majority of my literature students were never going to be successful if I used the standard read-and-ask-questions model. But…wait. How do you teach literature if your students either can’t or don’t read? In a word? Video.

Oh yes, I see you there, cringing. What? Show them movies? Everyone knows that movies are never as good as the books they were based upon. However, I was faced with a serious dilemma. I had to teach The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet to students who hated to read, had no interest in ancient Greece or Greek myth, couldn’t care less about William Shakespeare and his contribution to English culture and literature, and who just wanted to do their time in their required course, get their “C” and leave. So I made a hard choice. I decided to toss the textbook, for a start. We used it as a reference, but otherwise, we didn’t touch it. I also took the time to determine what skills and concepts my students needed to learn and how I might design lessons to teach those things using methods my students would find appealing. I also came to a realization about the students themselves.

Growing up, books were my companions. My parents saw to it that this was so. Then again, there wasn’t much in the way of kids’ programming on TV, the Internet didn’t exist, the IBM PC in our house was there for my father’s work purposes and required a knowledge of BASIC or COBOL to operate, you could only play Pac Man, Frogger, and Pitfall on your Atari 2600 for so long, and we didn’t own a VCR–or a BetaMax for that matter. The only way to escape into fantasy was to create it outside with your friends, or engage it through words on a page. I had to rely on my own imagination to create the pictures in my head–the “movie in my mind”, to quote Miss Saigon.

My students, however, had grown up with imagination pre-packaged for them. They didn’t have to create pictures from words–the pictures were given to them. Every single child in my class had grown up in a household with unlimited TV time, children’s programming on DVD and VHS, access to computers and audio-visually rich video games. If they played outside, they played sports–not Batman and Robin–and more than likely, their playtime was neatly structured and scheduled by their parents. Very few had parents who cultivated in them a love of reading and the written word. They couldn’t remember a thing about the short-story we read in class two days prior, but they could quote, word for word and line for line, the 5-year-old rap song by their favorite artist and remembered minute details from their favorite movie that came out three years before. It was this last little quirk that settled it for me. I decided that I was going to teach writing and language skills, poetry and meter, plot structure and analysis, the Heroic Journey, and everything else the State of Georgia insisted that 9th Graders learn, and I was going to do it using film, music, and current cultural events. The result was nothing short of miraculous.

Prior to this change, I struggled with classroom management. I struggled to get students to turn in their assignments. I struggled with grammar worksheets and vocabulary lists and reading quizzes and revision after revision after revision of horribly written essays. I worked harder than my students and still, at the end of the semester, I had anywhere from 10 to 15 of them fail the course in spite of my best efforts. After the change, I noticed something amazing. I wasn’t hearing the chorus of “This is stupid! Why are we doing this? This is boring!” Instead, I had kids running up to me in the hallways asking if we were going to keep watching Helen of Troy, because they just had to know how it ended. I had kids so engaged in the process of the Hero Journey that they had no trouble at all writing a four or five paragraph essay comparing Odysseus with Neo from The Matrix. I had kids fascinated with the idea that William of Stratford might not be the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. I had kids examining the lyrics of their favorite rappers and asking me to take a look at lyrics they’d written themselves. And I went from having nearly half of my students failing at the end of a semester to only three or four. Moreover, when I spoke to members of that “experimental class” the following year, many admitted that they looked at movies and TV shows differently now that they understood the structure of stories and concepts like dramatic irony. They had gone beyond basic comprehension and entered the realm of true knowledge and application.

Of course, many of my colleagues were less than pleased with my methods. They suspected that, come the End of Course Test, all my movie-showing would come back to bite me, that my students, deprived of vocab lists and grammar drills, would be unable to perform up to standard on the State test. The numbers, however, spoke for themselves. The only students who failed the EOCT in my classes were the same students who were failing the class in general–mainly due to excessive absences or behavior issues. It was this success that got me to thinking about how much more I could change the nature of my classroom to fit the learning needs of my students. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be a visionary when you’re up to your eyeballs in beaureaucratic B.S.–otherwise known as No Child Left Behind, a program that manages, somehow, to limit the educational potential of ALL children. The red tape, the endless and meaningless testing is what drove me to make a break for it, and leave the States for a change of scenery. Now that I’ve had nearly two years away and considerable experience with the Japanese educational system, I’ve gained a clarity of vision that has helped me refine and develop my ideas about education in the modern age.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that the old model is past its prime and should be retired gracefully. Teachers and schools no longer hold all the keys to knowledge in the world, therefore we can no longer rely on the one-point delivery model any longer. Second, we must understand that our children are different. Their brains are “wired” differently than ours were, which means that the methods of teaching that worked for us are not going to work the same for them. Furthermore, as much as it pains me to say it, we must accept that visual language has become just as important, if not moreso, than the written word. The new literature is found in original screenplays, television serials, graphic novels, and song lyrics. Yes, there is still great value and great reward in reading, and no, the novel as an art form is not dead yet. However, the reality of our changing world is that young people watch more than they read. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can get about the business of meeting our kids where they are in terms of learning.

The biggest shift that must be made is in how schools and classrooms function and serve students. I strongly feel that subject based education should be dropped in favor of a more holistic, integrated approach. For too long, students have learned important concepts in an academic vacuum, unable to make connections between literature and history, art and mathematics, drama and science.

True story: I hated Algebra in high-school and I nearly failed my 10th grade Geometry class (well, I almost got a C, which was as good as failing in my parents’ eyes). It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work or that I didn’t understand the concepts, it was that the formulae and rules seemed to exist separate and apart from any practical application that I could think of. It was only when I took Chemistry and Physics that Algebra made any kind of sense. However, Geometry was completely pointless. Add to this attitude a teacher with a droning voice and no concept of making class-time exciting and you had a recipe for disaster.

Fast forward nearly ten years later. I graduated from college, having avoided Mathematics of most shades and colors (unless you count Music Theory, which is inherently mathematical, I suppose) and picked up a love of costume history. So profound was my interest in this new area of knowledge that I was moved to learn something about pattern drafting so that I might be able to translate a Medieval or Renaissance sketch or fragment into a working piece of clothing designed to fit a contemporary body. Imagine my shock and surprise when I realized I actually needed Geometry to figure out how to measure and draw the curve of a neckline or an armscye! However, my desire to persue this body of knowledge that interested me gave me the motivation to seek out an explanation of the geometry required. I gathered the necessary information, processed it, and applied it to a real-world situation–and I have never forgotten how wonderful that felt, to learn a new concept and see it in action.  Moreover, my love of costuming lead me to learn more about history, more about social dynamics, more about music and art and writing and science.  One interest, one passion, and it opened the door to EVERY subject imaginable.

That is the spirit of learning. That is the direction in which education should move.  It really is possible to teach students every subject, skill, and concept they need to know simply by allowing them to delve into what interests them. It’s OK. They’ll still pass your standardized tests. As a matter of fact, they’ll probably score higher. Why? Because the skills and the rules and the formulae will make sense. They will be connected to something tangible and accessible, regardless of socio-economic background, regardless of ethnic heritage. If we as teachers take on the role of guides, mentors, and idea givers, suddenly it becomes possible for students to take charge of their own learning process. It is not our job to deliver knowledge to them from on high. Rather, it is our duty to inspire, to keep our students focused–or broaden their horizons, make them consider things they hadn’t thought of before.

Work with me here, because this is truly radical.  What if there were no classrooms–at least not classrooms as we know them? What if, instead, we designed schools to have varying types of work and study areas–places where students could collaborate with groups of teachers at different times throughout the day? Rather than spend first period studying a specific work of fiction in English class, for example, students would be visited by two or three teachers from different disciplines, and have an opportunity to consult and collaborate with them on aspects of a core project or interest area that relate to those teachers’ disciplines.   Thus, the student with a love of NASCAR, for example, might have a chance to chat with his English mentor about the article he’s writing about this years’ top contenders.  That same student might then speak with his Physics mentor about the mechanics and aerodynamics of race cars as opposed to ordinary passenger cars.  Then the Social-Studies mentor might have that student research the changes in the demographics of NASCAR enthusiasts over the past 10 years.  In order for this to work, schools would have to be smaller as would class sizes.  Likewise, teachers would need to reorient their lesson planning to accommodate the needs of 10 to 15 individuals rather than a whole-cloth class of 40.  Honestly, it’s no more work than what’s being done at present–it’s just a different KIND of work, and I believe it would be less stressful and more rewarding work in the long-run.  This model also opens up opportunities for more hands-on learning outside of the school campus.  Think of how much that student who loves NASCAR could learn by shadowing a pit monkey for a day during race practice?  Imagine the kinds of doors that could be opened by meeting with and talking to a racer’s manager, the person who handle’s a racer’s corporate endorsements, a professional racer him/herself!

Change is a painful, frightening thing, and change in education is particularly difficult because it all boils down to who is in control.  To truly transform the way our schools serve our children, we need to consider when it is best for teachers and administrators and parents to be in control of the structures and subjects of student learning and when it is time to back off, let go, and allow our kids some control over what they learn and the way they learn.  Independent, thinking children become responsible, innovative, and intelligent adults.  An intelligent society is a more productive and prosperous society, a society that makes better decisions, both personal and communal, and a society is destined to be more harmonious in the long run, because the children of ignorance–violence, hatred, bigotry, etc.–cannot survive in the face of people with knowlege.

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