How has 'education reform' become such a mean-spirited and small-minded pursuit? Teacher-bashing, ignoring the realities of students' lives, judging education by standardized tests, competing for funding, etc. (I guess the answer is that someone needs a scapegoat, and teachers are the current candidate. Perhaps they want to get rid of (some of?) the last strong unions?)
Let's cherish our young people, and honor the amazing people who dedicate their professional lives to working with them. Let's fund all the schools adequately. Let's remember that we are a democracy, and educating for democracy requires an environment respectful of children's needs.
My vision is of children freely following their own interests, but perhaps that only works when they've gotten the same sort of freedom in their families. Deborah Meier, in The Power of Their Ideas, shows a school where educating for democracy is really happening. It's in New York City, and is proof that open education works in urban areas, with diverse groups of students, not just with the privileged. It's not as free-form as my vision, but it's really working and it's beautiful. (The book was written in the nineties, but the schools are still going strong.)
I found Ira Socol's blog on wallwisher*. In his current post he links to a post he wrote about his amazing high school in New Rochelle in (I think) the seventies. Here are some of the founding thoughts:
The following quotation from [Thoreau's] Walden expresses compactly the major beliefs which generate the form of the new program:
Students should not play life, or study it merely while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?In other words, we are assuming (1) that learning takes places best not when conceived as a preparation for life but when it occurs in the context of actually living, (2) that each learner ultimately must organize his own learning in his own way, (3) that "problems" and personal interests rather than "subjects" are a more realistic structure by which to organize learning experiences, (4) that students are capable of directly and authentically participating in the intellectual and social life of their community, (5) that they should do so, and (6) that the community badly needs them.
This set of beliefs is sometimes referred to as the "judo" principle of education. Instead of trying to forestall, resist, or neutralize the natural curiosity, intelligence, energy, and idealism of youth, one uses it in a context which permits both them and their community to change. Thus, the experimental program reduces the reliance on classrooms and school buildings; it transforms the relevant problems of the community and the special interests of individual students into the students' "curriculum"; it looks toward the creation of a sense of community in both The Program students and adults.
Unfortunately, this lovely program doesn't exist any more. I hope the rough times we're going through push people to experiment with programs like this again.
Visions of Math
I want to get more specific, and think about math. In my Why Math? Why School? post, I replied to Deborah Meier's disappointinly shallow conception of math with a paraphrase of what Diane Ravitch had said about some other subjects:
We will teach mathematics because it is important and beautiful. We will teach it not because it will save our society, not because we "must" know particular techniques, but because we simply do not have it in our hearts to do otherwise.In the comments, Ben Blum-Smith wrote:
I think there's something really deeply empowering about mathematics. I believe the rich deep study of mathematics cultivates curiosity, profound resourcefulness, tolerance of frustration, persistence, and an amazing trust of your own mind. I think these are some of the really big reasons why it's an important part of education.Thinking about why we teach math will help us think about how we might teach it, if we could change the world, and offer students a fulfilling, mind-nourishing set of experiences in school.
Suburban Lion (also found on wallwisher) dreamed up A Rebel Math Curriculum:
In this Rebel Education, gone are the days of Algebra, Geometry, More Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus. Gone are the days of lengthy multiple choice tests. Teachers assess students by analyzing the products they create and encourage the students themselves to critically reflect on their own creations. Students are not pressured to meet Imperial standards, but instead are responsible for setting their own goals for improvement each semester. The students don’t feel like they are competing to score higher than their classmates, but instead learn to recognize that each of their classmates has a different set of skills and that by cooperating they can achieve things that they could not do alone. While the Empire is pumping out clone after clone, the Rebels are producing a diverse array of students with varying sets of knowledge and skills.His vision is filled with games and computer programming. I think games are one great way to pull students into thinking about math, and computer programming works great alongside that. I'd add:
- Cooking (for elementary math)
- History (which adds so much context to math)
- "Living Math" (stories that bring math concepts to life, like The Cat In Numberland)
Let's all think together about all this, and blog together on November 22.
*I don't like that wallwisher hides the url of the site it's linking to. Perhaps there's an easier way I'm not seeing, but I've been googling the blog name to get a proper link.