Education – The Importance of Questioning the System
Ben Grey at The Edge of Tomorrow represents yet another of those educators rightfully questioning the system at hand. Offering some very interesting and heartfelt dialogue, Grey’s work immediately struck a cord with this writer.
A piece that essentially addresses the insidiousness of NCLB, “The Ability Paradigm,” resonated beginning with the very first sentence.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher more than anything in the world.”
Let me start by saying simply, “Me too.” One day I wanted to be the next Mickey Mantle. Another day, it was Willie Mays. But the desire to be a great baseball player and compete at the pro level was a constant for many years.
There was little league, Babe Ruth, middle school and high school. But unlike Ben, my career would come to an end at the high school level.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. And it wasn’t because of poor coaching.
It was because I had physical limitations. Occasionally it would all come together – like during an at bat when I would put a good swing on the ball and crank one into the alley for extra bases – or a time in the field when I would get a great jump on a line drive to left center, reel it in with an out-stretched glove, then turn and make an accurate throw to the cutoff man.
But more often than not, the at bats would end in Ks and the drives to the outer-reaches of the outfield would fall beyond my grasp. And though I possessed a reasonably accurate arm, the subsequent throw to the cut off man, well let’s say he would have to give up his infield position if the ball were to reach him on the fly.
However, I must state that my lack of success on the athletic field did not go for naught – it taught me that with hard work I could in fact improve my skills. In fact, I learned quickly how hard I had to work to accomplish things with a ball and bat. And it also taught me humility – that is one benefit of learning one’s limitations.
In a positive twist for me, the opposite was true in the classroom. There I found that if I put my mind to things I could truly excel. But there in lies the real rub, at the time I could have cared less about academic excellence. I wanted to be an athlete.
Yet I know now, that my physical limitations helped me to become a much better teacher. I understood that one could try really hard and still not master something. I also understood that could very well happen even if a person was motivated to master a specific task.
At the risk of upsetting a few folks, I have learned there are some students in classrooms with intellectual limitations. That is not to say they cannot learn, they can – but it does mean there are limitations to what they can ultimately accomplish.
I have learned that no matter how hard they try, they may still not be able to handle every test question that comes their way. I also recognized how important motivation is in the equation. Without it, those intellectual challenges become even more of an issue.
So I too rail against NCLB and the notion of “Proficiency for All.” And I turn back to Ben, who writes:
“I believe we need to be very wary of setting up expectations that all students should be expected to perform and strive for the same goals. If we do, too many students will think themselves complete failures, and they will grow to resent learning.”
As to Grey’s ongoing look at education, we turn to a recent post, What If.
“What if we stopped for just a moment, took a step back, and asked why?” asks Grey. “Why are we engaging in education the way we are right now? Why is it that the modern construct of education not only looks the way that it does, but why are we using it?
“Maybe a better way to frame this would be, if we were to stop and start over entirely, what would that look like?”
Coming on the heels of our recent interview with Ira David Socol we would answer: it would look nothing like what it does right now. The idea of assigning a student to a grade would hopefully end as would the simplistic notion that every child would progress equally over the course of a school year.
The concept of subjects would also get tossed, because in creating our subjects, we wrongfully insinuate that life can be broken into categories easily. Real learning is messy with topics overlapping one another.
And then there is this thing called technology. As Socol states, “Technology liberates, it breaks boundaries. You have a non-reader? They can still grab the world of literature, and do it independently.”
Technology would become our common thread – the machines helping students overcome limitations in one arena while allowing them to utilize strengths in another.
But as both Socol and Grey offer, we are stuck in our old paradigm of what education looked like in the past and continue to seek ways to mold our new orders into the structures we have held onto over the years.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Grey offers this:
“A backchannel is ‘the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.’ In practice, it is simply a chat room established to carry on conversation during a presentation.”
A conversation during a presentation?
In the teacher training models of yesteryear we had a different name for this – off-task behavior. The view at the time is that students should sit quietly with unaltered focus so as to absorb all that was being offered.
Yet today everything points to the notion of collaboration – in fact, put adults in the same setting and they will often interact in some manner as they react to and raise questions about the material being presented.
Grey immediately acknowledges inherent risks in allowing students to use backchannels without providing some structure to the process.
“The concept of a backchannel has an inherent dual-edge sword nature to it. There is a distinct danger to utilizing a backchannel – if not executed in the right fashion, the distraction and bifurcation of attention can potentially lead to a complete dismissal of the content being presented at a given venue.”
In other words, the process can lead to what we were taught, off-task behavior.
Yet, there is also a different possibility.
“Allowing people to interact with each other and the information in a focused way affords participants the opportunity to learn more and focus more on the content,” states Grey. “Instead of sitting passively, succumbing to the temptation to take mental meanders, participating in a backchannel brings a collaborative element that actually increases mental attentiveness.”
Yet we think this is a possibility most educators are not yet ready to accept.
Real structural changes in education, ones that will truly jump start teaching and learning will not be obtained by tinkering around the edges. And real, deep improvements in the system certainly won’t be accomplished by silly slogans like No Child Left Behind, sound-bites masquerading as educational reform.
But true education reform could come about if people begin paying attention to educators like Grey and Socol, educators who understand the power of technology to enhance learning for students. Educators who dare to dream of what is possible yet understand that flexibility and student-centered learning is the real way to move to forward.
Ben insists, he is “one of the many. The many who are looking for change. The many who are engaging in dynamic discussions. The many who think there could be more to the way we engage education.”
On behalf of the students of tomorrow, we truly hope Ben is not alone.