Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What If . . .

Listening to this boy I mentioned yesterday sassing at his teacher brought to mind all my crazy, far-fetched schemes for improving education.  What if . . .

What if, instead of “passing” a certain list of classes to get his diploma, this boy had a specific list of skills and information he needed to acquire to get his diploma.  For example, he needs to be able to recognize, explain, and use the scientific method.  He needs to be able to make a persuasive argument.  He needs to be able to balance a checkbook.  (Maybe even have different types of diplomas with different requirements?)
What if he were allowed to demonstrate skills and knowledge he already possesses right off the bat and never have to sit in a classroom to be re-taught what he already knew.  Say he’s got basic grammar down – let him take a test, check it off the list, and move on.  And offer a variety of ways to demonstrate the skill.  Some people really stink at taking tests, you know, but if you sit down with them one-on-one, they can show you they’ve mastered the material.
What if he were offered choices of a variety of ways to acquire the remaining skills.  He can work independently in a study hall room or computer lab, completing assignments or projects that demonstrate the skill.  Or he can work with a group of students together where they teach each other.  Or he can go to a presentation where a teacher explains the skill.  Or he can work one-on-one with an adult.  When you, now, as an independent adult, need to learn something new, how do you go about doing it?  There are so many ways – part of becoming educated, I think, should be learning about how you learn best so you can teach yourself later when you need to.
Here’s a more controversial one: what if he were allowed to come and go from these learning activities as he so chooses.  Maybe he wants to spend eight hours a day intensely focused on his studies . . . and because he works so hard, he can graduate early and move on with the rest of his life.  Or maybe he spends his morning at school and his afternoon at work -- also an educational experience in many ways.  Or maybe he wants to spend 75% of his time goofing off in the gym . . . he may not finish his requirements in four years and he'd have to stay in school longer, but he knows that.  Freedom of choice is a powerful motivator. 
I know the objection here.  Teenagers are not mature enough to make such important decisions for themselves.  They would choose not to put the effort into learning skills they don’t want to learn and would be lazy.  Yes, that's true; some of them are like that.  If nobody pushes them, they succumb to inertia and sit.  But they will suffer ultimately for that -- and many people have to suffer a while before they learn to do what is in their own best interest.  At least the rest of the school community won't be suffering from their disruptive behavior and bad attitude in the meantime.
But let’s give kids a little more credit.  I personally believe we create much of this apathy through the lack of choice and responsibility we give them.  If a kid understands that he needs a diploma to move forward to whatever future steps he has for his life – and he understands that he must learn to recognize, explain, and use the scientific method to get that diploma – and if he is offered a variety of ways to learn to recognize, explain and use the scientific method – ultimately, I think that kid will end up doing what is in his best interest (at least most kids will).  And the fact that he has to kick his own butt into gear to make it happen will strengthen his personal butt-kicking muscles . . . and free up the rest of the community to focus on actual education and not on butt-kicking.
Consider driver's licenses.  When a kid decides he wants to drive a car, nobody has to push him to do the things he needs to do to get his license.  He suddenly becomes self-motivated to get the information, study, get help when needed, schedule the test, etc.  Real life motivates so much better than threats of detention.
Risky, I know.  But good grief . . . if we don't find the courage to take some risks, we'll never fix our educational system.

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