An Education Miracle?

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Wouldn't it be remarkable if there were an education design that would simultaneously:

  • Provide significant individual attention for every youngster;
  • Enable teachers to implement new creative and challenging approaches to teaching and learning;
  • Improve the preparation of new teachers, so that they could be successful their first year and not leave teaching shortly thereafter;
  • Encourage college professors to connect theory with practice by spending more time in schools; and
  • Be cost-effective, so that activities are not impractically expensive?

We created such a design at Teachers College, Columbia University, have proven that "it works," and are refining its development and implementation.

The pivotal "differential" factor, although not necessarily the most incisive, are student-teachers working in teams of two to four, rather than individually, which is the traditional arrangement. With the experienced teachers as guides, there are from three to five adults regularly working with a group of 30 youngsters. How does this induce such crucial differences?

Suddenly it's not just a single teacher working in isolation, but a formidable team of "classroom educators" brainstorming project ideas, conducting extensive research, acquiring a wealth of materials, and planning special projects and trips in ways that are impossible for even the most talented teachers. Hands-on projects are implemented in an informal climate of small-group activities, and youngsters receive virtually all of the individual attention they need. This is crucial for so many children--that they be recognized and related to as individuals, and do not get inadvertently ignored or "lost" as so many do in traditional large-group settings.

Classroom activities become more imaginative because they are generated by three to five teachers instead of one, drawing from a broader knowledge base. Youngsters can be challenged with higher standards because sufficient individual guidance is available to help them cope with the frustrations that inevitably accompany great expectations.

Aren't teachers prepared to accomplish these goals by themselves? Most are not. Consider this: In preparing a single half-hour television show, there are professional actors, full-time writers, several assistants, secretaries, et al. ... and our attention often wanders during those 30 minutes. The classroom teacher is expected to prepare four or five activities that are both educational and entertaining every day--about 20 or 25 a week--singlehandedly, and continually be engaged with a live "audience." Should it be surprising that so many teachers are wary of veering far afield from the more controlled, large-group-lecture style of teaching?

However, the teacher who is reluctant to engage in project-oriented, small-group activities when alone usually becomes enthusiastic and enterprising as a team partner/mentor. The process changes the basic academic and interpersonal dynamics so that the attitudes and mindsets of almost all participants undergo dramatic transformation.

Let not the label "student-teacher" be misleading, as though these people's official pedagogic inexperience minimizes their potential contribution. They have studied at least three or four years in college, often have worked with youngsters in a summer camp, religious setting, or after-school program, and many are career-changers with impressive work experience. Combining a substantive background with concurrent college courses, most pre-service teachers are capable of working with regular teachers as novice colleagues rather than unlettered "students."

College faculty members--professors and doctoral candidates serving as instructors--make up a vital element in the design. In addition to teaching traditional programs, they co-teach courses with school faculty, at both the college and the school. They also advise and supervise student-teachers, and collaborate collegially with school faculty members. A climate of relaxed communication emerges that energizes student-teachers and school and college faculty members to generate remarkably rewarding projects that enable youngsters to thrive.

Our design has several variations. The most prominent example is what we call "The January Experience," originated by Professor Jean Lythcott of Teachers College and implemented by a host of exceptional teachers and administrators at Middle School 44 in Manhattan. In this program interdisciplinary teams of student-teachers combine with interdisciplinary teams of regular teachers to form expanded teams that function in ways described here.

The design was created in the context of a "professional development school," a type of education reform that is burgeoning around the country. Unfortunately, the term professional-development school is a misnomer and therefore misleading, because it implies that it is a school, a place. The view here is that a professional-development school has to be far more than a place if it is to be a drum major for fundamental changes. A professional-development school represents a multifaceted idea, a complex concept about collaboration and collegiality in schools and colleges that enables many little education miracles to happen simultaneously.

Vol. 14, Issue 17, Page 37

Published in Print: January 18, 1995, as An Education Miracle?
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