Education Opinion

Time for a New Metaphor: Student as Worker

By Robert Rothman — November 10, 2014 2 min read
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In a recent blog post, the veteran journalist John Merrow described three of the “best” schools--or, more precisely, classrooms. One was the preschool his three-year-old granddaughter attends, one was a science class in a Philadelphia high school, and one was a journalism class at Palo Alto High School in California.

What these classrooms have in common, Merrow writes, is that the students were the workers, all producing things that mattered outside the classroom. The teachers were “conductors, directors, supervisors, guides, or docents.”

The products the students made varied, of course. The preschoolers made turkeys to decorate their families’ Thanksgiving tables; the science students designed age-appropriate toys for children; and the journalism students produced real journalism: a newspaper, radio programs, a television program, and five magazines. (Disclosure: the journalism teacher at Palo Alto High, Esther Wojcicki, is on the board of my organization, the Alliance for Excellent Education.)

For schools in the Deeper Learning Network, this kind of student activity is old hat. Their students do things like this all the time, and their teachers are practiced in guiding them. Indeed, the science class is part of Science Leadership Academy, which Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath profiled in their recent book, Deeper Learning.

But it is hard to overstate how uncommon this remains. According to the Australian researcher John Hattie, 80 percent of classroom time is made up of teacher talk, where teachers do the talking and students listen passively. And when students do get to talk, much of what they say is in response to a teacher’s question. Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg describe a typical interaction, this from a seventh grade classroom:

Teacher: What did the Sumerians use to control the Twin Rivers?

Student: Levees?

Teacher: Right.

What will it take to transform those kinds of classrooms into the classrooms Merrow describes? Merrow suggests that changing current policies, particularly teacher evaluation policies that rate teachers’ effectiveness in part on student test results, would be one way. Such policies create strong incentives for teachers to drill students on what they need to do to be able to get high scores on (primarily) multiple-choice tests, rather than to give them opportunities to work and produce things that matter.

But other things have to happen as well. One would be for teachers to exhibit the kind of intellectual courage Ron Berger described on this blog. By showing themselves as learners, teachers can model the kind of inquiry they want students to demonstrate.

But public attitudes about teaching and learning also have to change. Many American adults (and adults in other countries too, probably) have an image of a classroom in which the teacher stands at the front and students sit at their desks and listen, look at textbooks, or complete worksheets. Those are, after all, the classrooms we experienced in our school days. Parents often resist changes that look unfamiliar. And classrooms in which students work in teams to produce things can look chaotic in a brief visit.

Changing attitudes will take more vivid examples like the ones John Merrow wrote about (and perhaps these examples will show up on PBS soon). Parents and taxpayers need to see that another image is possible, and that it yields the kind of learning all students need to be successful.

Metaphors are powerful too. It’s time “student as worker” caught on.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.