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Alliance for Learning: 'We Strive for Seamless Learning'

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"Colleges were the inventions of many centuries later, and they imply a sort of cloistered life, or least a life of rule, scarcely natural to an Athenian. It was the boast of the philosophic statesman of Athens that his countrymen achieved by the mere force of nature and love of the noble and the great what other people aimed at by laborious discipline; and all who came among them were submitted to the same method of education. ... There was a brotherhood and a citizenship of mind.''

From The Idea of a University
by John Henry Newman,1854

If collegiate education has progressed significantly in the directions that Newman called for 150 years ago, higher education has a vital role to play in helping America improve its schools.

Indeed, higher education must play a pivotal role for school reform to be effective and systemic. Of greater concern, higher education needs substantive change if K-12 reforms are to succeed. There can be no widespread, continuing school-reform movement unless all the nodes of formal learning reform are connected, top down and bottom up. I would include the notion of informal, lifelong learning as well. Few reform efforts to date, even when relatively successful, are connected to what happens next on the learning continuum.

If higher education does not address its own reform, there is little chance for successful change at the precollegiate level. Higher education has a major say in what K-12 education delivers. School reform has happened mostly at the elementary and middle school levels, driven by school and district staff--rarely by higher education. Among these initiatives are project-based learning, portfolio assessments, cooperative learning, the spreading use of new technologies, the use of community resources, personal learning plans, mentorships, and changing roles for students and staff alike. While these changes are often successful, rarely are they extended to the education that follows.

High schools and higher education demand a system of clock hours; standardized-test scores; highly competitive students; and learners who can sit, listen and take notes, fill blue-books, and take objective tests. What parents want their children taught in reformed K-12 schools only to find they are unable to meet the traditional entry criteria of higher education? Or worse, a child who possesses a set of new learning skills that may not be appropriate until graduate school? The sad fact is that higher education's policies and practices may be a major cause of short-lived reform efforts in K-12 schools.

I have had the enriching experience of working with a nationally recognized middle school reform project. Reform efforts teach you how difficult real change is.

Nevertheless, I am here to say that reform is possible! With all the problems, it can still work. Students seem to like it and comment on how much richer their learning is. Staff members find it exhausting but rewarding as their role changes from helper to provider. They find it exhilarating to see students take hold of their own learning and make great strides.

Look around, though. There are approximately 16,000 school districts in this country, but meaningful reform efforts--let alone successful ones--are few and far between. It seems impossible to find reform efforts that tie to other levels. Why? There are many reasons, but higher education is not solely to blame.

Society doesn't want reform either. Most parents, most teachers, most community members want schools to remain just as they are. What worked for our generation ought to work for this one. You don't need to visit a school today to find out that it doesn't.

Too many of us in education seem to be committed to changes in behavior for our students, but not for ourselves. Real reform changes the entire system, and that includes changes for us, too. Higher education must be willing to change and help bring about changes in the rest of education as well.

My experiences with reform lead me to conclude that the only way to achieve fundamental reform throughout education is to borrow what works well in the early grades. For many students, interest flags by the middle grades--they fall further behind, and their teachers are no longer able to meet their needs.

In the primary grades, teachers seem to know the students well; often, there is hands-on learning to go with the reading and discussions. There, the clock hours and credits are not measured; there is greater chance for learning to be more integrated, cooperative, interdisciplinary, meaningful, and successful. In elementary schools, you infrequently find minds that have already been made up. It is a workable, effective model for change.

As we move further along the K-12 continuum, openness to change is harder to find. There are few examples of true high school reform. Teachers no longer tailor learning to fit student needs. The curriculum is predefined by a guide or manual, departmentalized, often disconnected.

If the student chooses to enter higher education, reform is almost nonexistent. Other than some universities that use distance-learning technologies and a few colleges with a highly personal focus, there are virtually no reform alternatives to attract students who may choose higher education but who don't fit the well-defined collegiate mold. If learning is truly about change in behavior, and higher learning addresses more and deeper changes, there's an oxymoron lurking there somewhere.

Higher education has great gifts to contribute to learning reform. Our universities and colleges are not only repositories of significant thought and profound understandings past and present, they engage a collegium of learners in dynamic dialogues that constantly push the boundaries of new thinking. The tragedy for so many learners is that one must find a way to get into graduate school before these great "games'' of learning begin once again.

The great teachers in our lives bring a new life to learning by making it enjoyable, a risk worth taking. We learned from them that rarely was there only one right answer or one way to find it. As Eric Hoffer, America's blue-collar philosopher, reminded us: "In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.'' Too much focus on becoming learned can limit our becoming learners.

There's another way higher education compromises effective school reform. Departmental "pecking orders'' find teacher training universally picked on. Education departments strive to thrive among the more moneymaking, often employer-paid, programs. Traditionalists among the liberal-arts faculty express disdain for education programs.

But such thinking isn't limited to the hallowed halls of higher education; the pecking order can be extended down.

Most education professors want little to do with K-12 schools. Their courses are often taught irrespective of school needs and realities. The research that's done often does not inform practice. Practices do not seem to determine research. The textbooks they write embrace static bodies of knowledge and are marketed for mass appeal, not to address reform needs. Whatever reform we may want in precollegiate education must also happen in teacher training and in the in-service college courses for experienced staff members.

We need a connectedness among these disparate points of formal education, a continuity grounded in mutual encouragement, observation, respect, and interdependence among all the learning participants. Members of the business faculty should be talking with education majors; members of the education faculty need to spend more time in K-12 classrooms; elementary and high school teachers should be sharing their hard-learned "art of learning'' with college professors.

Teams of educators at all levels should jointly develop textbooks, software programs, CD-ROM's, and video materials. New collaborations of schools, higher education, and businesses are needed to seek solutions to educational problems more likely to work.

In Newman's day, universities existed to preserve and protect the intellectually "holy,'' rather than to widely share or prepare. For many, higher education is still seen as the maker of the "stone tablets of great truths,'' the commandments of verities that are handed down by the priests of higher education, reinterpreted for "lower education'' as the essential skills and facts you need to learn in high school so you will be able to get into college and succeed.

As a young high school math teacher, I said it, too: "Take my word for it. You need to know this math because you'll need it for higher math, and then you'll need it in college.'' We never talked much about needing it after that.

In the final analysis, all learning is fundamentally a personal experience. In sharing what we've learned, it becomes a communal, even spiritual, experience. From the bottom up and the top down, from the beginning to the end of life, we strive for a seamless, continued, meaningful learning, as individual learner and as groups of learners. Higher education clearly has a key role in this quest. Newman rightly reminds us:

The university "is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected and rashness rendered innocuous and error exposed by the collision of mind with mind and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent and is a missionary and a predator, displaying his science in its most complete and winning form, pouring forth with the zeal of enthusiasm and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers. ... It is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. ... Such is a university in its idea and purpose; such in good measure has it before now been in fact. Shall it ever be again?''

Whether or not it ever has, it must be now. There is indeed a major role for higher education in education reform. There is a role for all sectors of the learning continuum, a need for greater congruence among each of the learning communities. The passing on of the culture of our pasts, as well as the culture we need for our collective futures, depends on it.

D. Thomas King is the associate director for technology and specialized services with the St. Paul public schools and a former project director of the Saturn School of Tomorrow, an experimental St. Paul middle school that emphasizes the use of technology and a personalized approach to learning.

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