Thinking WAY Out of the Education Box

Heartwarming current ed-news:
Indiana decides that every teacher deserves to be Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2020!

Education Week gives us another five creative ideas for how to pandemic-proof your graduation ceremony!

Don’t miss 10 Ways to Inject a Little Fun into the End of the School Year!

Because that’s about where the education community is, right now— dealing with one crisis at a time.

We adamantly reject the ed-tech dream of empty classrooms and every kid at home with a device. We know how badly that’s worked, even when teachers had six full months to get to know their students, in person. But we can’t quite wrap our heads around what’s next. When we try, it feels like admitting that the prospect of School As We Knew It is probably down for the count.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a blog suggesting that we start thinking about a modified ‘gap year—an admission that school would not be the same until we had confirmed medical solutions for combatting the coronavirus. So we might try ginning up some creative ideas about what to do with P-16 students in the intervening year. It was pretty amorphous service-learning stuff, with young adults and older teens combining on-line coursework with outdoor work and safe environmental or community health projects, a CCC or Peace Corps Lite, adapted to 2020.

That blog got lots of pushback, some of it downright hostile, with nearly all the angst coming from teachers. Nope, they said. Not going to let teens pull garlic mustard out of the woods or direct traffic at COVID testing sites. Not going to let them paint or plant or build. They need to learn! In classrooms! Colleges will fail outright if we encourage a gap year. That can’t happen!

Eventually, I realized that this was grief talking. The anger stage of grief—or maybe denial or bargaining, but grief, all right. Something we love, and have invested our lives in, is now impossible, without a lot of too-risky practices. We’re sad. We’re belligerent. We’re not going to let go of our carefully honed practice or our dreams for our children.

This week, the CDC guidelines for returning to schools, day camps and day care centers became widely available, and the arguments are around whether a particular meme-ish interpretation of the guidelines is accurate. What does ‘if possible’ mean? Are we at Step One or Two? Is it true that the one-page summary was written by a homeschooler, trying to take another swipe at public education?

Because those are things we can deal with—we’re used to counteracting anti-public education crapola, unfortunately. It’s easy to argue about the rules, and how expensive they would be to implement. It’s easy to say that whoever wrote the rules has never been in a classroom with actual children. It’s easy to complain about not being invited to the table. Again. It’s incredibly easy to shoot down every single strategy, from bus-riding to individually packaged lunches.

We’re tired. We know how much work online learning is—how many ‘trial and error’ pedagogical strategies we’ve attempted, then rejected. We’re heartily sick of parents second-guessing the balance of synchronous and asynchronous work, especially under the guise of teacher ‘accountability.’ We know that access to the internet is sketchy, and our hearts break to see how some of our students must adapt.

Here’s the thing, however.  It’s time to put forth solutions (temporary or long-term) from the standpoint of educator expertise. To accept that nothing is the same for the foreseeable future. That ‘temporary’ changes we make now may be set in concrete, eventually. That we can learn a great deal from systems around the world . . .  and in our own neighborhoods. That now may be the time to save money on some things (no more testing) and put them toward others (smaller class sizes).

Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.

We have adapted to things before: Seat belts and helmets. No smoking. Airport security. Changes in diet. Cars, instead of horses.  Wars. The freaking Internet.

We can do this. In fact, there’s nobody better prepared to re-think how school works than people who work in (and love) schools.

NOW is the time to plan. I know—teachers have worked harder than ever in the past two months and deserve a break. But it’s probably time to consider a year-round calendar, with this summer being the first, planning phase and catch-up time for kids who have dropped off the radar.

If kids have to go to school in smaller groups in the fall (not a bad thing, in general) then we may need split sessions, overlapping terms, staggered transportation schedules. Our first permanent casualty may be 180 days of seat time and three months of summer. In my opinion, overdue.

This would also be a great time to expand project-based and interdisciplinary learning, with students kept in the same small cohorts during their time at school. The usual gripes about PBL and interdisciplinary curriculum center on the fact that they don’t generate higher test scores or rigorous high-level single-discipline learning. But high-quality PBL generates other things—like ingenuity and independence and curiosity. For many teachers, it would be an entirely new way to teach. But change is (sometimes) good.

Jeff Bryant had a great piece about New Mexico’s community schools—another way to approach change, by formally making schools what they often are in practice: community hubs.

While good or at least workable ideas are everywhere, this is clearly not something that can be managed via federal or even state fiat. Each school district or region must make their own choices and be prepared to shift again when things go wrong (as they will).

It’s time to think different, Apple said in 1997. Or think differently (as thousands of English teachers corrected).

Some of these changes could be positive. Keep that in mind.

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9 Comments

  1. We need to emphasize more strongly that education is a social process. It is not just about acquiring knowledge. We are being educated in how to work alongside and in teams for other people.

    A possible useful analogy is how would Texans feel about football being home schooled? Players could lift weights, run drills, study playbooks, maybe even play games on digital platforms (Madden 2030?) etc. then show up for the games. Talk about high stakes testing!

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    1. Great analogy.

      I think parents, in general, understand that face to face learning is an essential component, especially with younger children. Once kids experience group activities and socialization norms around going to school and learning with others (for both better and worse), online learning has some value, but also is terribly inequitable, right now.

      And I agree that a strong emphasis on education as social process is essential. The people who don’t understand that are those who have a lot to lose by letting go of the trappings of ‘accountability.’

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  2. Some random but relevant observations.
    Teaching efficiency increases as class size decreases.
    As the intensity of a program increases, sustainability decreases.
    Teachable moments are few and far between.
    The daily slog of teaching the same students for 180 days is one of the unspoken challenges.
    On-line, remote learning options will not work for the students who need the most support.
    All students, from pre-K to 12 are novice, concrete learners – with few exceptions.
    Most students prefer the path of least resistance.
    Serious students do not like baby work or busy work.

    The best change educators can make would be to shorten the time frame for student success.
    Its time to end the 40 week “school year” as the measuring stick for final determination of “passing”.
    A 16 to 20 week semester should be the longest time period for final academic determinations.
    Even better, 10 to 12 week trimesters.
    Clearly defined, concrete credit goals earned at the end of each trimester would work wonders for students who are often defeated by the mathematics of the traditional 4 marking period (+exam) average.

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    1. Agree with all of this.

      A few years ago, MI adopted a ‘merit curriculum’–essentially, requiring a traditional college prep curriculum for every student. The biggest shock to the system was 4 years of required math, including Algebra for all. Schools did what schools do: adapted. Many re-configured Algebra into an optional two-year course, giving kids who would not have taken Algebra more time to master this new requirement.

      Other schools went to trimesters. At the end of the first trimester, anyone who’d failed a course could take it again in the second trimester. Some disciplines adapted well to trimesters. Others, which required the same cohort every trimester, really hated them. Whenever you shift away from 180-day, 40 weeks plans, there will be people who just want to go back to ‘normal.’ But if there were ever a time when normal has been questioned, it’s now.

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      1. I can’t think of one discipline that could not adapt to an independent trimester plan, its just a matter of chunking subject matter. Maintaining cohorts for continuity in some subjects is doable as well. The 40 week (180 day) time frame for determining academic success in a course is only harmful, especially to marginal students, with no significant benefits.
        This is a traditional framework that needs changing; it requires no teacher retraining or PD and it is free and easy to implement.

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      2. The problem with trimesters was ongoing classes like band and choir and world languages, things where one course had to follow the previous course, or membership had to be maintained all year. Some schools using trimesters also shifted to a 5-period, 75-min day. So, theoretically, there were 15 courses per school year, instead of 12 periods (2 semesters, 6 periods per day). Such a schedule should have offered more choice, not less.

        I think most of the problems (and a lot of schools that shifted to trimesters came back to semesters) were just around teachers and vocal students and parents not being able to see out of the 180-day, 4-marking period framework. And the changes were complicated by the amount of material that ‘had’ to be covered, to do well on state tests. Accountability was a huge factor.

        Change is hard for schools, even when they’re changing to a demonstrably better practice. There’s always the ‘Cui Bono?’ aspect, as well. NOW is the window for big changes, however. I think trimesters are a very viable possibility.

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      3. Another option would be the traditional college-like two, 20 week semesters – but with credits earned independently in 10 week time units (credit periods). This of course all depends on the restructuring of state HS graduation requirements. Here in NY a simple switch from 22 required credits to 100 (25 per independent 10 week period) could be pulled off pretty easily.

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      4. cx.
        That would be 25 credits per year (minimum) and 8 to 9 credits per 10 week credit period.

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