Teaching Opinion

Reimagining Schools in a New Year

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 02, 2014 4 min read
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If we want to be a nation that leads the world, why not lead the world by reinventing education, not by bringing forth one agenda or another, but by bringing together the all the energy and the money being poured into one reform or another and do something innovative? As we enter 2014, let’s consider this is a beginning place, free from the powerful ties that bind us into this current mold. It seems counter intuitive that we are being called upon to develop youngsters who are innovators when we appear to be unable to innovate beyond the classroom. How can we develop innovators when we, ourselves, are not?

In his book Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner writes about Finland, four decades ago, as “a poor country with an agrarian economy and an underperforming education system” (p. 199). As a country, we are not poor (though poverty certainly exists within it), we are not agrarian (though our schools are organized around a calendar when we were) but we are underperforming...well, that’s the big issue. Now, forty years later, Finland’s “students start school one year later, do less homework, and have a shorter school day and year than students in most developed countries, and the country does not administer any tests for accountability” (p.199).

We are neither recommending we imitate the Finish method of schooling nor the targets they set for change. What we are wondering is why not reflect on their process? Again, according to Wagner, these are highlights of how Finland accomplished their change:

  • They did radical overhaul of their teacher preparation programs helped to transform the teaching profession
  • They pared the curriculum to include concepts that are deeply understood
  • They placed a high value on career and technical education in grades 10-12 and in their postsecondary program offerings
  • They emphasized independent learning and gave students choices about some of what they study
  • They have encouraged innovations in teaching and learning at all levels (p.199).

Imagine what it would be like if we had phased in a more rigorous curriculum and related assessments on the high school level while shifting to the Common Core Standards K-12 and gradually introduced assessments in grades 3-8. What would it have been like if over the course of those same years, we removed the Carnegie Unit from high schools?

The worst-case scenario is that teachers have worked, for decades now, to cram information into students’ brains in order to get a certain amount of information back out of them at the end of the year. For those really fine educators who love their subject and their chosen career, this is offensive. They want to further explore their content area and engage it with their students. For them, learning is an information exchange and an investigative process. Yet, we have a system built on units that separate content areas and determine time blocks. Is that the best we can imagine? We have developed a kind of shorthand for each of the courses we offer to high school students. In New York State, we know what American History, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2 Trig, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and 11th grade English mean. The syllabi have been long published and Regents Exams have stood as the accompanying measure.

What would it be like, if the school day and school year were not created around the agrarian calendar, or childcare needs, or sports schedules, or bus runs or existing teacher contracts? What would it be like to organize our schools and curriculum around principles of learning that we are coming to understand through the work of cognitive and social psychologists...or around Wagner’s “seven practices that appear to be central to any successful instructional-improvement effort” or his four C’s, (workplace competencies, citizenship competencies, competencies for life-long learning, and competencies for personal growth and health)? How exciting would it be if we, as leaders, felt we could become really creative, ourselves, in 2014?

Can we agree that improving education requires systemic change, not tinkering? Raising standards or accountability without fidelity or alignment to the measures is proving to do little, if anything at all to improve our systems. And, it creates resistance rather than encourages alternative and creative thought. But as the new assessments, new standards, new accountability nibble at our practice, what if we focused on system-wide, bold reinvention as a local response? These measures are disruptive to our present practice and we still hear about the doubt of their effectiveness regarding positive change for our students. There must be ready communities and leaders and faculties across the land poised and ready to agree on how to best implement what is being required and use the moment to move us all forward. Can’t we find a policy way to support those innovators? What a wonderful way that would be to start a New Year. Have a happy...

Wagner, Tony. (2012). Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. New York: Scribner

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