Recently (well, not really recently since this has been an interest for many years) I’ve been reading more and more about transforming education.  I’m not talking about creating better standards or more functional buildings.  I’m talking about a whole different way of doing things.  There are lots of schools out there already who are reimagining education.  Here are some of the things I’ve seen that I really like (in no particular order).

1. Competencies, not courses.

Traditional schools are based around a required number of courses that must be passed in order to graduate.  However, more and more these courses don’t mesh with the expectations placed on students after they graduate.  Courses can be passed and standards “met” without truly demonstrating an ability to use the information learned.  Additionally, many of these courses have little or nothing to do with the trajectory of a student’s life (which is not to say that general knowledge is a bad thing).

So what if students acquired skills and competencies, rather than “seat hours”?  Tom Vander Ark, in his article “On Merit Badges,”  challenges the concept of courses when he explains that, “it’s the right time to reconsider courses as the building block of secondary education.” Schools focused around skills make sense, because they could help students learn to do rather than just regurgitate facts.  At the proposed “DIY High” students are required to start a business, create a website and app, in addition to preparing a funding proposal.  Now that’s preparation for the future!

2. Traditional classroom organization is outdated.

An Innovative Elementary School Designed by HMFH Architects

An Innovative Elementary School Designed by HMFH Architects

When most people imagine a classroom they see rows of desks facing a board, or maybe a stadium seating environment.  The teacher’s at the front, the students sit in one location and listen (and hopefully, do).  Why does school assume learning must take place in a classroom?  Will students be unable to learn if they’re at, say, Starbucks, or sitting on the grass outside?  The Hellerup School in Denmark takes open learning environments to a new level by creating a wide variety of potential learning places – whether it’s a collection of sofas and comfy chairs that students can gather in a corner, an outside area within reach of the school’s wifi or open spaces where students can move and think and work.

A great byproduct of transforming the actual learning space is that it shifts the responsibility of learning.  Diane Hofkins of The Guardian explains that “children are responsible for planning their own work, checking back with the teacher to discuss their progress. Teachers are more like mentors, guiding children and helping them find ways of learning that suit them and the topic at hand.”  Isn’t that what so many people dream of for education?  I’d love to see walls broken down, classrooms that ebb and flow, multiple ways of accessing the information, and freedom to collaborate (or not).

3. When the bell rings, move!

A View of the Hellerup School in Denmark

A View of the Hellerup School in Denmark

I think people would be insulted if we treated them like dogs.  Remember Pavlov and his experiment – he rang the bell and the dogs began salivating in anticipation of being fed?  Isn’t that kind of how we treat students?  We ring the bell and expect them to move around on a prescribed schedule to learn things they have no control over in hopes that some day it will help them.  Why bells?  Seems kind of factory-like…

In a business, people don’t move around based on bells.  Sure, there are scheduled meetings, but generally people move and interact based on the needs of the project, assignment, or lead they’re working on.  I wonder if students could function in that kind of environment, too?  Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, identifies three key components to finding that sweet spot – flow: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Maybe if we give students more choice in how and where and when to study, education will regain some of its sparkle.

4. Do as I do and as I say.

Speaking of autonomy…  This seems to be seriously lacking in education.  Sure, it’s in the news, Twitter, blogs, and such, but autonomy in learning (synonymous with personalized learning, maybe) is much harder to accomplish.  This is especially true when teachers are responsible for 150+ students.  However, maybe it’s not as terrifying and impossible as some think.  Giving students choices in their learning (what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate knowledge) frees the teacher to become a facilitator instead of micro-managing every aspect of what a student should know.  It might also free the student to dig even deeper into things they love, or to explore a new aspect of a “required” subject that the teacher didn’t even think of.  The goal of education isn’t to push out a race of robots.  As educators, we love inspiring students and seeing that spark turn into a raging forest fire of hunger and passion and drive.  Can we do that if we force them all to do as we do, and think as we instruct, even if there are more ways to look at things and learn things and do things?  Perhaps it’s time to ask why we teach what we teach and why we teach the way that we teach.  Let’s give students a voice in what they learn, give them a chance to plot their path (with guidance from mentors, teachers, counselors, and parents), and give them the ability to find purpose in what they’re doing.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something in my list of things I’d love to see become (become obsolete or become a reality).  What do you think?  What did I miss?

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