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Administration, Education, Leadership, Reform, Teaching

See the Forest…Focus on the Trees

The forest of my mind

cc flickr photo by shirokazan

Unless you are relatively new to the educational reform discussion, it is likely that you are familiar with Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate video entitled, Changing Education Paradigms.  The video addresses the “manufacturing model” of schooling and its inherent problems – perhaps none more appalling than the system’s inability to address individual needs of learners.  In fact, the structures of the “manufacturing model” are so deeply embedded that it begs the question of whether we need educational reform, or educational revolution.

Those of you who are regular readers know that I truly believe that effective teaching is one of the most challenging professions in the world – now more than ever.  Consider for a moment what we ask of our teachers.  In addition to addressing academics (for which a standardized test has inexcusably been deemed an acceptable assessment of student performance and teacher quality), we expect teachers to meet the social and emotional needs of their students.  They act as advocates, counselors, mediators, health assistants, referees and in many cases, parents in absentia.  I am not arguing that this shouldn’t be the case.  In fact, I think we all understand that these roles are inextricably connected…and necessary.  Unmet needs in one area will inevitably lead to problems in another area.  So, I would argue, the problem doesn’t lie in the level of expectations for teachers, but within the system in which we ask them to meet those expectations.

We want our kids to be recognized as unique individuals with different needs, interests and talents.  We want them to be appropriately challenged, have freedom to create, opportunities to explore, and time to pursue their passions.  Conscientious educators are scrambling to provide learning environments in which this is possible, but in many instances, it still has to get done within the structure of the all too familiar “manufacturing model” of education.  Bell schedules, highly qualified requirements, furniture arrangements, computer lab accessibility (or lack thereof), transportation issues, scheduling, test preparation, “seat-time” requirements, funding and standardized testing all present hurdles to a truly student-centered, individualized education.  In public education, it is becoming increasingly more challenging to see the trees through the forest.

Charter schools are popping up everywhere in Arizona, most designed to address a particular niche.  Charters often subscribe to, and benefit from, the “field of dreams” philosophy – design a school to address the needs of a specific type of learner, and they will come.  Want a school that emphasizes a traditional curriculum?  We have it.  Want a school that places value on physical activity?  We have it.  Want a school where kids have three hours of homework every night?  We have it.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with giving people options, but what happens to those who don’t realistically have a choice?  What about the kids who don’t possess the means, transportation, initiative, or capable advocate?  Don’t they deserve an education that is tailored to their interests and passions?  In order to meet the individual needs of ALL of our students, we don’t need to change the system — we need a new one.  An educational model that destroys all remnants of school as a factory, removing obstacles to innovation, and allowing teachers to do their jobs.

In the meantime, educators will continue to keep one eye on the forest, with the other intently focused on the trees — doing their best to individualize in a system with a plethora of distractions and obstacles.  Keep up the good fight!


About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


3 thoughts on “See the Forest…Focus on the Trees

  1. As a special educator, perhaps the most infuriating byproduct of this mentality is that, since all students must take The Test and it is put on such a pedestal, and because my students are often two years behind, they will never be recognized as anything but written off failures. Differentiation is meaningless when everything is judged by standardized tests. Poor kids.

    Posted by Matt Ray | March 11, 2012, 6:59 pm
  2. Hi Jeff,
    We are opening a new ‘choice’ school here in BC, Canada: http://inquiryhub.org
    The reality is that the majority, if not all that come, will be self-selected with parent advocates. That said, we’ve had teachers at all levels interested and a number of them asking us ‘how can we do this kind of stuff in our school?”

    I’m all for a transformation, but I wonder if we don’t hold some advantage in redesign rather than revolution? High schools offer incredible choice of opportunities for electives and variety, that a small school would struggle with. Our new school won’t have an auto shop, for example. And I’m not sure if a 13-14 year old is old enough to decide on going to a small auto shop magnate school?

    I LOVE your appeal for “… An educational model that destroys all remnants of school as a factory, removing obstacles to innovation, and allowing teachers to do their jobs.”

    And yet I have questions about the approach to get there? Toyota improved the factory model by empowering its’ workers to share/contribute/provide feedback. They didn’t throw out the model. Big high schools will always have a place in our educational systems, so how can we use these learning spaces in new, innovative ways? Creating a multitude of small schools, magnifying administrative, secretarial, custodial & maintainance costs, isn’t an ideal model. Worse yet, would be privatization of these small schools!

    We may not be doing it ‘right’… We are years away from knowing the effectiveness of our approach. But learning what we can from a small group of select schools, that admittedly do not offer ‘everyone’ an equal opportunity, seems like a viable way to ‘transmit’ (for lack of a better word) good practice into all schools. Let the speedboats zip through the shallows and help the cruise ships navigate into new uncharted territories. 😉

    Posted by David Truss | March 11, 2012, 9:54 pm
    • Thanks for the comment David. Always good to hear from you! The new school looks fantastic…I will be following it’s progress.

      I certainly don’t disagree with you…I do think we have to learn from schools that seem to be getting it right and implement what works. The high schools in our district seem to be on a pretty good path. As you mention, they are able to offer a tremendous amount of choice and specialization. Students really do have the opportunity to develop their own “learning plan” and pursue their interests.

      At the junior high, we are just not able to offer that kind of choice — at least within the structure of the current system. In fact, what I see happening, is that many kids are filtering to small schools that cater to their interests/learning style (which I honestly understand), further reducing our resources to meet the needs of the kids that stay with us. Traditionally, this has meant a “retreat” back to the “bunker” of core classes — cutting electives and reducing choice. I don’t believe we can afford to continue this pattern. We need to be creative about how we utilize our staffing and resources in an effort to value individualization. This is going to require a significant departure from the way we currently “think” about the school structure, but I think it is something that can be accomplished. Just haven’t figured out the “how” part…yet 🙂

      Let me know if you have suggestions.
      Thanks again for taking time to interact!

      Posted by azjd | March 12, 2012, 6:04 am

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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