Monday, March 21, 2011

My Vision of an Ideal School

I've been thinking about this ever since I saw (I think this is old, but I only recently came across this) Sir Ken Robinson's illustrated TEDtalk about modern schools as a remnant of the industrial revolution. It makes a lot of sense what Sir Robinson's saying about our schools having a real "factory" feel to them, and in a way, it hits home for me more so than some of his other TEDtalks. This particular talk has helped me come to realize that I'm not a fan of the whole bell system, and actually have never been.

--To give some background, I consider myself a pretty decent student. I genuinely like learning all subjects, and have always done reasonably well in school with some effort. But, most of the time the lectures are too slow for me. In high school, I learned to distract myself daily with other things in between the first minute the teacher's talking and the fifteenth minute he's still talking about the same thing -- especially in subjects like math and science, where there wasn't much encouragement for analyzing nuances at the high school level. In high school, we didn't have much choice but to sit through all 50 or 60 minutes of class each period each day, and I did my best not to be rude to the teachers or my peers, even though my mind was often a thousand miles away.

As soon as I hit college and I realized that 1. professors were still lecturing at the same boring pace, thereby covering in class only 25% of what you're supposed to learn before the midterm (and expecting you to read the text for the remaining 75%), 2. they don't take roll in classes of size 200 or 350, I stopped going to classes. It seemed much more efficient to stay at home, do all my work, and read through the chapters on my own, hitting up office hours only occasionally with questions, than to sit through dreadfully boring classes that weren't teaching me most of what I needed to know anyway.

In hindsight, it is nothing I'm proud of. I think it's a poor show of my priorities and my character to slip out of class simply because I could and because I felt like it. My grades in college were decent, but by no means were they great. I was doing pretty OK for a couple of years in studying on my own, until I started to get really busy with extra-curricular things on the side, and reading textbooks at home became a chore.

But, thinking back, even though I am obviously responsible for my own choices in college (and I would never say otherwise), I now understand that the factory mode of learning never did work for me. I was a decent student and I took advantage of the liberties in college to do other things that I wanted to do with the time that I had -- but that was a more natural way of learning, and I can now comfortably open up books and a webpage and manage to learn whatever it is I want to learn. Why can't our students be encouraged to do the same? Why can't high school work on a full-time drop-in schedule, where each day each student needs to check in with their teachers to 1. show them work that has been completed, 2. to get clarifications or to do an on-the-spot assessment, 3. to get started on the "next step"? I don't need all 70 of my kids to sit with me for an hour each day, if they are able to sit somewhere else and do the work and come back to pass an oral or written assessment after a few days. For the kids who need to sit with me for two hours a day, I don't want them to feel pressured to leave after just one hour. I also don't need every kid to be moving at exactly the same pace. I certainly don't need them all to be sitting in the same space, confined to their seats for 60 minutes each time. Those are unnatural working conditions (imagine if every non-academic work place had a "bell schedule" that released you for the bathroom every 60 minutes... I think you'd be hearing lawsuits!), so why would we think that these conditions are conducive to our children's learning and growth as diverse individuals? And, how are these conditions helping to build the kids' own sense of time- and priority- and progress-management, which they desperately need to develop in order to be a successful adult??

I think that models like this and this (Thanks, Google Reader!) are the closest to what I am imagining for an ideal school setting, both in terms of learning methodology and physical organization. In my ideal school, kids would have to cover a common set of learning objectives in each subject by a certain time, but if they are advanced, they should be flying right ahead and if they are remedial, they should be given realistic goals of mastery that they need to be accomplishing within the year. Teachers would serve as advisors, and kids would be expected to use other resources such as internet and videos and various textbooks in order to aid their learning. In my ideal school, kids would spend a part of their days working on an independent project of their choice -- for example, if they like to dance, they should be dancing everyday and be working on some sort of choreography that they design, maybe bringing it to a production level with a team of other kids and managing all of the logistical and financial side of the show as well. If they like to make music, then they should be developing a musical expertise and learning about the technology of recording, and maybe tying it into building a music website. The only requirement is that they have to set specific goals in their areas of expertise and to work on reaching them in a concrete, timely fashion, and to stick with a "project" for a predefined amount of time without giving up. This would teach kids persistence and resourcefulness in face of obstacles, when working on something that is meaningful to them. It would also teach them time-management -- if you want time to work on your "independent project", then you need to first put in the time to get your core learning done in other areas, whatever it takes. It would alleviate the sense that kids are just "doing time" inside each class. You don't have to spend 50 minutes on each class each day, if you can manage to master the material in less time!! If a kid's passion really lies in math, they should go for it at full speed and not let the artificial year-long curricula hold them back. I firmly believe that a sharp kid can easily do most standard math courses in 3/4 of the time, so that they can comfortably "skip ahead" without devastating their learning in one particular class (a la the "Geometry summer school"). The only reason why any kid goes to summer school now is so that we can manage to squeeze them back into the production line of learning next year -- and that simply isn't a good enough reason!!

If we want our kids to genuinely care about school and to become active participants, then maybe appealing to their multiple-sensory learning inside the factory-model classroom isn't an adequate or viable solution. Like Sir Robinson has suggested, maybe what we need is a complete overhaul of the system, one that address our students as individuals rather than as a pack.

What benefits does the traditional bell schedule have that I am not considering? I would be intrigued to hear what you think. If the only advantage is group work and planned exploratory activities, then that's not a good one. We can easily have kids sign up for time slots to come see you at the same time on a given day, in order to make the group work thing happen. And most exploratory activities can happen independently, as long as you have the resources set up. (Again, it's just a matter of logistics.) Another possible advantage I see for the traditional bell schedule is "So the teacher won't go nuts from having to 'advise' Precalc and Geometry and Algebra kids all at once to a bunch of kids at the same time!" But, that seems easy. Either you carve the office hour time slots each day into chunks by subject, OR you divy up the subjects by teacher, so that each teacher is responsible for only one curriculum on a given day or in a given week. This could also potentially give teachers within the same department more collaboration and co-teaching opportunities, as it would be easier to rotate around and help out with different classes, if the kids are only coming by for drop-in help anyway. The concept of a "cohort" would not exist as we know it, and you would not view your classes as X groups of Y students, but as X*Y individuals, each doing the best they can so that they can get to the things that they really want to do in school and in life.


  1. These are my exact thoughts as well. If we want to relate to real life, the thing I think of is the business world. People send e-mails, make phone calls, and schedule appointments. They have to manage their time, prioritize their tasks, set goals, and collaborate. These are the real life skills that will set them apart and last them a life time.

    Literally, some of the stuff you've written are my thoughts word for word.


  2. Don't be weirded out - I crawled into your mind, liked what I saw, and wrote them down. :) Take it as a compliment. ;)

  3. I agree, Mimi. It's one of the reasons I am so sad there is not a Reggio Emilio education system around here where I can send Miles. I just know that for a kinesthetic person like him, traditional school with the bell model will be really stifling. In addition to the sorts of things you mention holding back older learners, young children don't get to move their bodies or express their creativity at school and often wind up angry and resentful!

  4. @Katy My friend Will says that there is a chain of schools in Cali that does independent study similar to what I'm describing here. It's possible that that there are opportunities like it near Pittsburg, when he gets older. Have you considered home-schooling him? I agree from what it sounds like (without having met the kid) that he might have a hard time sitting still and learning the traditional way when he's still young.

  5. I also have this same dream school in my mind! I wrote about it recently in a post during an online course I took to become certified to teach an online course. It seems like we are moving indeed more and more toward IEP's for every kid - which only makes sense to me!! I really want to teach in a school like this. The only benefit a bell system has in my mind is that I don't have to look at the clock or wear a watch.

    I also wanted to share our geometry dance with you. I have my students learn it for kinisthetic connections to vocabulary in geometry, and this year the whole school learned it for Pi Day:)
    Thanks for your inspiring words!!