Tuesday, March 14, 2017

My Dream Education System

I Have a Dream

I dream that one day all classrooms will be filled with enthusiastic students actively engaged in the learning process; students who want to be present because they are receiving a value-added education. Active engagement is paramount to a successful classroom atmosphere because learning is not a spectator sport. 

For many years I have been analyzing research on best practices in education. I have also read about schools that have stepped outside of the box and taken a chance, putting students and student learning first instead of teacher achievement and test scores. An interesting outcome of these programs is that student test scores were higher than national averages, even without any time spent in test preparation.

Needham (2010) found “the use of problem-based learning can increase standardized test scores at least as much as traditional teaching methods.”[1] For the past 20 years the New Tech Network has been using a school-wide project-based learning model.[2] Outcomes of this model included graduation and college admissions rates that were higher than the national averages. New Tech Network research also demonstrated that graduates develop strong critical thinking skills. Gallagher and Gallagher (2013) found that quality project-based learning activities increase student engagement and, as a result, student achievement.[3]

I envision an amazing education system where all students could receive a value-added education; a student-centered atmosphere where teachers excite and facilitate student learning. I envision an environment where students are engaged, learning content offered in a design that best meets each individual learner’s needs.

Learning Styles

Early learners should be grouped by personal learning style and provided an instructor who excels in teaching to that learning style. While conflict still exists in the research on the topic of the impact learning styles have on student learning outcomes, there is no shortage of research on the topic of student learning styles and academic achievement, as well as the potential impact of learning styles on student dropout and incarceration rates.[4] As someone with a doctorate in education and many years of teaching experience, I am convinced that learning styles impact student learning outcomes; students perform better when their personal learning styles are considered and utilized.

I recall a statistic on learning styles I heard mentioned in a course I attended at Bloomsburg University; while 80% of all teachers are auditory learners only 20% of students are auditory learners. Because so many of us teach the way we learn, this may cause 80% of the students who are not auditory learners to have difficulty learning from 80% of the their teachers. It would be beneficial to students if teacher education programs included methods of identifying and teaching to the varied learning styles.

I also know that addressing learning styles impacts learning outcomes because I am one of the 20% of teachers who is not an auditory learner. I am a kinesthetic learner. I have tried to learn from auditory-only material and failed miserably. One example was a course in Italian on cassette tape that I attempted before my trip to Italy. I learned nothing from it. In fact, I became highly agitated in attempting to learn listening to the tapes. During college classes, I often stood in the back of the room so I could have the opportunity to move around; moving helps me to absorb and comprehend new material. High school was more of a challenge but I fidgeted a lot and filled my notebook with intricate doodles in order to keep my mind focused on instruction.

I also want to make a point about elementary math instruction. Many of our young people have math anxiety and believe that even a simple mathematical concept, such as calculating a percentage, is a difficult thing. Seymour Papert wrote about the importance of elementary school teachers comprehending deeper mathematical concepts.[5]  This is even more of an issue for teachers who must now follow the Common Core in their lesson planning. [6]

Papert also researched the impact of project-based learning on mathematics instruction.[7] Math needs to be taught in a hands-on, applied sense, not a theoretical sense. For example, instead of having students solving for some random variable X, why not teach them to calculate how many boxes of flooring tiles would be needed for a kitchen remodel? In physical class, students might design a skate park with ramps and rails.

I dream of classrooms, grades K-2, where students are grouped by learning style so that all students can learn the fundamentals in a way that best meets their needs; a K-12 curriculum model the truly meets the needs of all learners. Since the lessons will be presented according to methods that meet their needs, student may be able to accomplish more academically during these formative years. Additionally, before students advance to higher grades, they will receive instruction and practice to prepare them to learn in settings that do not cater to their personal learning style. I hypothesize stronger social skills will be developed as an additional result of the reduction in stress afforded by this type of learning environment.

Strength-based Learning

There is no shortage of quality research that demonstrates the positive outcomes of a strength-based education.[8] For some reason, those that administer the education system in the United States have decided to punish students for their weaknesses rather than focusing on individual strengths. This frustrated me quite a bit as I raised my children. My daughter struggled with mathematics, so she was enrolled in math course after math course. She was required to take the 4Sight math exam so many times she memorized it! And what did she learn? She learned that her teachers did not care if she learned anything; they demanded that she improve her score on a test that would have no impact on her life! I know that she would have gained much more from her K-12 education if she had been allowed to develop her strengths.

After the early grades, students should be grouped with like-minded peers who can help them to excel. For example, students with a strong interest and/or aptitude in music may work with others who have a strong interest and/or aptitude in music. All students would still be given instructions in all educational areas, but within an atmosphere that more closely aligns to their personal strengths.  For example, the study of mathematics can be incorporated in an almost infinite number of ways within the study of music. Volume, tone and tempo all have mathematical implications. Students will have the opportunity to independently (or with a group) solve problems, find solutions, and develop critical thinking skills.

I dream of classrooms where students are encouraged to do what they are good at and what they enjoy. Imagine what students could accomplish if their education was focused on individual strengths. Imagine the outcomes when students with strong science aptitudes are allowed to experiment together. Picture what may happen if those who prefer to work alone were given the time and space to do this instead of being placed into group work where they may be slowed down. Imagine a classroom where the teacher can help students develop their individual skills and abilities instead of feeling they must teach to the lowest-ability students in the classroom. An excited teacher excites his/her students!

Stop Teaching When it is Time

We currently have a compulsory education system in the United States that requires children to stay in school until a specific age, set by state law. Compulsory education ages range from 16 to 18. Public schools are required by state law to permit students to attend classes until their 21st birthday. The taxpayers are responsible for the educational funding. From what I have seen, there are some shortcomings to this system.

Because students are required to be in school, education is an entitlement. There is no incentive for attendance or participation other than what is intrinsic to the student or mandated by a parent or guardian. I was very surprised when I learned that even the most accomplished students in my classroom do not comprehend the value of learning. They understand the value of grades and the value of a diploma, but that is where it stops. This may be in part because they received little incentive to learn; the focus is almost always on grades and test scores. But I believe a large contributor to the problem is the compulsory education system.

Mandatory schooling does not need to continue through grade 12. For many of our students, a 9th grade education is sufficient. I have worked with hundreds of students who know what they want to do with their life and know that a college education is not necessary to accomplish their goals. I would never say there is no benefit to a college education, but it is clearly not for everyone. So those who know they will not go to college are frustrated that they must go to school every day and receive an education that they perceive does not benefit them personally.

What I propose is a compulsory education system that continues through grade 9. Students who would like to continue through grade 12 can either pay tuition or compete for state-sponsored or private scholarships. Scholarships might be granted according to class rank, project-based assessments, teacher recommendations, or some other criteria as determined by each school district and/or state government. This would provide an incentive to do well because attendance in grades 9 through 12 would no longer be an entitlement but something to be earned through hard work. For those who do not wish to continue past the 9th grade, vocational training could be made available on the same basis; either students pay tuition or they compete for public and private scholarship money.

There are already public and private schools offering high school student internship programs. The Southwest Oregon Area Health Education Center has a high school internship program.[9] Fairview High School in Boulder, CO offers a variety of internships and provides an opportunity for students to create a customized learning opportunity.[10] The New York City Department of Education has year-round internship programs.[11] All of these these programs could be expanded on.

I dream of a school where all students want to attend and comprehend the value in learning. If education were considered a privilege, not a right, it would have more meaning to our students. They might even look forward to classes as some of us did our college studies. Fewer students might be left feeling imprisoned and as if they are wasting their time. I envision classrooms where students are rewarded for learning and have the opportunity to use what they learn for the greater good of the community, not for grades and test scores

Thank you for listening.

[1]Comparison of standardized test scores from traditional classrooms and those using problem-based learning http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
[3]Using problem-based learning to explore unseen academic potential http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ijpbl/vol7/iss1/9/
[5]Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.
[6]Elementary school teachers struggle withCommon Core math standards http://hechingerreport.org/elementary-school-teachers-struggle-with-common-core-math-standards/
[8]White, M., & Waters, L. E. (2014). A case study of ‘The Good School:’ Examples of the use of Peterson’s strengths-based approach with students. The Journal of Positive Psychology,. doi:10.1080/17439760.2014.920408. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2014.920408
[9]High School Internship Program (HSIP) http://www.healthyoregon.com/programs/hsip