The heart of the issue of school reform, student performance, teacher competency, and the testing of all of the above is deciding exactly what it is we want students to be able to do.
I’m not sure we’ve done that.
In school reform, are we talking more school time? A different school structure? A different school curriculum? Alternative school financing? Alternative teaching techniques? Greater student accountability? Tougher testing standards?
As for performance, do we want students to memorize more facts? Read and compute at a higher skill level? Or use those facts and skills to solve problems? And are we doing all this for the purposes of the national economy or for the well-being of the student?
What is the role of the teacher? To deliver facts? To keep students busy? To maintain discipline? To coach students down a predetermined path? To facilitate a learning environment in which students become the workers? To get good test results?
And what are we testing for? Knowledge of facts? The ability to solve problems? If the latter, how do we measure that? And whom do we measure, the students or the teacher? How do we do that? With paper and pencil test, or the performance of a task? Who decides if the results are satisfactory or not?
Let’s start with the student in the classroom, for that is where it all comes together. Students need to learn facts, for facts are the building blocks of education. Students also need the skills to use those facts. That, too, is part of education. But education goes beyond even skills. To own those skills, students must be able to use them in their own lives in new situations of their own choosing.
What we are looking for here, to use an analogy, is not simply a brick maker or a bricklayer, but a thoughtful architect. The bricks are crucial to the process, as is the placing of bricks in mortar, but all of this is meaningless without a design and a blueprint.
So what is the role of the teacher? Well, part of the job is to deliver facts, but it is more than that. Part of the job is to coach students along the way, but it is even more than that. Teachers must be facilitators of student research and experimentation. That means standing aside and allowing individual decisions, even though that may lead to failure, for that is part of learning. The process might be noisy, and it might be messy, but the student is now working and in charge of learning.
A good example can be found in sports. Good coaches teach the fundamentals, guide athletes along the way, then take them to the field, the court or the rink for the game, at which point the outcome is largely in the hands of the players.In my journalism class, students produced pages of news and sports, as well as aired live television broadcasts. After a period of instruction on my part, students essentially took over the task and did the job themselves, refining skills and exploring options as they gained in experience.
I sometimes wondered at the “surface” inefficiency of students at any one time. I could have kept them busy with worksheets, quizzes, and lectures, but should I have? Would that have been better education? My gut feeling was, no, it would not. Busy learning can be superficial learning.
Now, what do we want students to be able to do? We want them to turn out a product, just like in business. We want published editions of the newspaper. We want science projects. We want art portfolios. We want shop projects. We want students to take information and skills and use them in a thoughtful, innovative, even daring way.
The testing of students is now clear—what is the quality of the final product? This, of course, cannot be determined by a national multiple-choice test. Products will first be evaluated in the classroom by teachers and administrators, then, eventually, in the marketplace by those needing the skills and products.
The test for teachers is also clear—it’s that same product turned out by the student, not, again, a national multiple-choice test. If students are turning out good products, teachers are doing good jobs. If not, the teachers and teaching must be re-evaluated.
And what school structure will allow that to happen? Not to avoid an answer, but there is no single answer. All school reformers are right to a degree. They just aren’t right in all circumstances. Individual teachers and schools must be given the freedom to develop appropriate structures. The measure, again, of that structure is the quality of the product.
Perhaps the one common thread in all of this is that students must be the workers. School reform must facilitate that process. One by one. Student by student.