Tuesday, March 10, 2015

We Don’t Need Education Reform

I promise you this post is way more than its click-baiting, attention seeking title. I’m genuinely serious. We do not need education reform. This is why.

Ask a regular citizen, student, or parent about education in the United States and you’ll hear a litany of grievances. People point to multiple areas of dissatisfaction, but I commonly hear the following concerns: inequality, teacher support, teacher retention, access, the achievement gap, motivation and engagement, resources, standards, and curriculum. I could go further, but I’ll stop for the sake of brevity. Furthermore, politicians, public leaders, and so-called advocates see juicy headlines about American students falling behind and public schools failing students

Therefore it is easy to see why education reform (ed reform) is a handy cause célèbre. It seems everyone has an idea to reshape or reform the current system of education. That’s the problem. We need to question almost all parts of our current system, not gradually aim to reshape its disparate and dysfunctional pieces. Ed reform solutions and suggestions simply refine the current paradigms of education. Reform, often introduced by people never to step foot in a classroom, takes the current pieces of education, mixes them up, offers slight improvements, and then spits back out a minimally better looking form of the original. There is not true change, just an incremental tweak to the current form of school. The basis of the education system stays the same even as some new programs are introduced or attempted. Ed reform places a nice, shinny coat of paint to cover up the dings in a wall. What is really needed is a brand new wall. 

To get a better idea of how shinny new wrapping paper masquerades for reform let’s take a closer look at two reforms:

Increased accountability and standardized testing — A new way to measure the current paradigm and form of school. How much information can students retain and then spit back? Data will supposedly help teachers disseminate knowledge to students in need. 

1 to 1 devices and increased technology — Unless a new pedagogy of personalization and creativity is embraced, most education technology makes current forms of education more efficient. A shinny new screen masks the truth that very little changes. Adaptive reading sounds pretty similar to the SRA programs I wallowed through as a kid. Cute multiplication flashcard games are essentially sparkling flashcards. Self-grading worksheets are still worksheets.

We do not need more of the same. We cannot offer new window dressing to a system of schooling designed for a bygone era. The current form of education was envisioned to prepare students to be obedient, compliant workers. This 19th century model of schooling aimed to take kids from farmhouses to factory. Students needed to be submissive receptacles of information. Why not stop offering new forms (reform) of this systemic paradigm? 

We don’t need new forms of the current models and paradigms of education. We need a radically new approach. We need an approach that fits the world we live in. We need an approach that prepares students for an uncertain future. We need an approach that empowers young people to take ownership of their learning. We need an approach that honors students and teachers as creators and change makers. We need an approach that recognizes how people learn best.

So we don’t need reform, we need to reimagine. We don’t need new flavors of nachos, we need a visionary main course. When we look at the skills and knowledge students need, we will see an emphasis on creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. We will not see a need for new forms of memorization and regurgitation.

Reimagining school may lead to some radical stuff. We may see schools fashioned to be design studios with collaborative work areas instead of desks. We may build maker spaces where students combine humanities with engineering. We may see a push for fostering students’ passions, emphasizing student choice and democratic learning. Teachers may act more like coaches, facilitators, and guides. Grades might be jettisoned for formative content check-ins, skill conferences, and portfolios. Pedagogies influenced by instructionism and “drill and kill” may make way for personalized learning, project based learning, challenge based learning, genius hours, design thinking, and inquiry based instruction.

Schools and classrooms of the future should not be a recycled or enhanced version of yesteryear. We don’t need ed reform, we need education to be reimagined.

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