The Sacred Cows of 20th Century Education

I’ll start this off with the informal proviso that all ideas considered here are subject to a great amount of oversimplification and generalization.  For your consideration and thought only.

A few sacred cows of 20th Century education I don’t think are discussed enough:

Lesson Planning: 
The idea is simple: if you intend to have certain outcomes, a great deal of planning is necessary.  We plan lessons, activities, anticipatory sets, heck, we even design plans backward.  Why?  Because that’s what we have been told works best.  For whom?  I have no doubt that the highly planned and organized lesson is a thing of beauty for some, but to others it may stifle a natural talent for steering kids to appropriate learning opportunities as they develop.  I’ve heard a lot of going off-script for a “teaching moment.” I think for talented educators, those moments can stretch into authentic, experiential learning.

Teaching to the middle ground:
More conventional wisdom by educators that should know better.  Let’s say the material has already been differentiated and individualized as much as possible, but the group is still so diverse that group instruction is difficult.  So, aim for the middle, right?  Aim your instruction to the middle of the bell curve, the kid who tries but only makes C’s.  What are you saying to the other 34 kids? 17 of you are bound to be bored, and 17 of you have been left behind.  Only the students in the most center group (and you know dang well there are those who teach to the A- crowd).  Have your strongest students tutor your weakest, and focus on the lowest common denominator, the ones who are not in charge of their own learning.  This is usually your disconnected kids.  Lead them to water, sweeten the water, give it to them via IV, whatever it takes.  Your A students will be challenged to synthesize and disseminate the information and relate it to the low students, and your low students will benefit from the additional attention. If not that, something else.  Focus on the ones that haven’t succeeded, not the ones who have or are bound to do so.  Find ways to use technology to bridge that gap and allow for individual strengths to flourish.

I know this comes up from time to time, but the longer I teach, the more I doubt if most people really have any idea what homework is supposed to accomplish.  My own kids bring home assignments that are largely busywork, and my peers (and I) often present work intended to add to further thought at home, but mostly create academic dishonesty or disparity without teaching much. The homework model we have been taught is archaic at best and at worst is elitist and maybe even racist.  To assume successful learning at home, one must assume there is a home, that it contains people who support schoolwork, that those people speak English and understand traditional American education, and that there is sufficient time for said homework to be done effectively.  Oh yeah, and it has to actually be designed to teach, enrich, or further the concept or lesson.  If that can’t be said for 100% of our students, then assigning homework us inherently unfair.  So how do we extend learning beyond the classroom?  We let students do it. Create blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags, discussion boards, side projects, and enrichment projects that students can make fit their life, rather than trying to make their life fit an expectation that is outdated.  Homeless students may stay late if something interesting was going on in the classroom after school.  Students without computer access may text answers to questions.  Even a student from the worst possible background can be sent to observe something and report back on it, or imagine.  Improvise, adapt, overcome, but don’t punish with homework.  And never, never, never grade it. If you don’t understand why, keep reading.

Like homework, it would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t grade assignments.  I do, and so does almost every teacher I know.  We have to quit.  Cold turkey.  It’s killing us as educators.  We have created this reward-based society on grades, and now students pursue grades (even if just passing ones) instead of learning.  We have, for decades, held grades, GPA’s and report marks over kids’ heads, and at this point I don’t think most teachers would know how to teach without them.  We didn’t start this fire, it’s been burning since before most of us have been in the profession.  But we can stop it, or at least harness it.  Grading homework is not assessment, it’s rewarding and punishing homework completion.  Learning should be authentic, and the measurement should be formative, frequent, and fair.  Use whatever numbers you need for your gradebook, but supplement it with a real assessment that parents want to hear.  What do they do, what do they know, what do they struggle with, what can they work on, what can they congratulate themselves on?  Maybe if teachers found better ways to identify learning successes, more parents would trust the teacher’s opinions.  After all, you don’t go to a doctor to have him read your test results.  You expect the doctor to make an individualized assessment of your situation, and explain it to you with a clear vision for what is to be done.  What about standardized tests then? Never mind them.  Great teachers who assess authentically generally have students who are better self-evaluators and are better prepared for tests anyway.  Leave high-stakes grading to the state and the district.  Make sure your students know that the real assessment is when they can clearly show what they have learned in multiple ways.

Not to sound preachy. In truth, these are my own challenges.  I simply suspect that unless we find ways to pry free of the constraints of the some of the 20th Century models while not throwing the baby out with the bath water, we may become the problem instead of the solution.  I welcome your thoughts.


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