Should the children be in charge?

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Wired Magazine is usually one of my favorite sources for tech news and innovation. But a recent article about “alternative education” left me very disappointed.
First, the article —  read it before we talk about it:
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
*gets another cup of coffee*
I’m all for education reform and innovation.  I don’t know how our current system got into this mess, but the double-punch of over-reliance on standardized test data as indicative of success + the new push to bludgeon teachers and students in the name of the Common Core will decimate student interest and success unless we stop the train and get the kids off.
I also think our system needs a variety of schools  to serve the needs of our diverse population. Kids aren’t a “one size fits all” proposition, you know?  Perhaps most could thrive in good public schools (especially if teachers were free of all the bureaucratic crap so they’d have more time to teach), but I like the experimentation of the alternative schools (like Montessori) which offer everyone a chance to see other options in action.  Sure, private education has its own litany of problems – these schools can be insular, provincial, unregulated, and accessible only to the affluent.  But we need alternative schools.
The Wired article could have taken time to challenge the foundational assumptions that undergird test-driven education and the wide variety of alternative education models. Instead, the author serves up a lukewarm collection of faulty connections and assumptions.  Really, folks, I was so disappointed.
The article opens with the stirring tale of a brilliant student in a below-average classroom tucked away in one of Mexico’s worst neighborhoods. Paloma, the jewel in Sergia Correra’s classroom, is an outlier.  But her story is what the author uses as his primary narrative proof of the way child-centered classrooms offer the only true path to unlocking kids’ full potential.
Problem is, no educational initiative should be based on data on the extremes (unless you’re talking about remediating students who have fallen behind or dealing with the unique needs of the gifted / talented subset).  So from the very start, we’re introduced to a “revolutionary” concept that will “unlock the genius in all students” but our example is someone who would thrive in any educational situation.
The author gives us a bait-and-switch:  As he writes about Correra’s tentative steps into letting students “teach themselves” (one legitimate technique in constructivist education), he focuses on Paloma’s role in lead the other students to figure out new concepts.   The implication is that child-centered learning will lead to unlocking the Palomas in every classroom.
But that’s not every teacher’s experience.  By statistical definition, above-average and gifted students should be rare.   You’ll probably always have at least one student in every classroom who can innovate and direct their peers toward further learning — and good teachers should facilitate that form of collaborative learning.
But that doesn’t make child-centered learning the hero of the story.
 The red flags really hit my consciousness by the middle of the article, where the author told of Sagata Mitras’s computer-in-a-wall experiment in an Indian village school.  He gave students a computer with molecular biology materials and let them figure it out on their own.  They slowly mastered the material (with “mastery” defined by their performance on a multiple-choice test).  This has launched Mitra’s vision to create a new kind of school:

There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”

Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size, on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn them off.”

See that warning flag in my mind?  *whoosh*  I’ve got a whole forest of them hitting my vision.
I spent a decade in middle and high school classrooms doing some pretty innovative things. I know what it means to get out of the way and let students start constructing meaning from the raw materials of a discipline.  I also understand the weakness of our human nature — our passion dries up once we hit adversity; we lose motivation when an obstacle blocks our path.  Further, we always run into the assessment problem: the insistence on measuring learning via written, usually multiple-choice tests.  Learning is so much richer than what such a 2-dimensional instrument can see.
Mitras’s idea amounts to substituting the teacher with a technological container for information.  If education’s goal is to master a certain demarcated set of facts, perhaps his is a viable alternative.  I happen to think that vision of education is part of the problem – it dehumanizes students and makes them merely containers for information – no matter how “creative” or “intelligent.”
Even then, aren’t there a lot of gaps in this model?  Who’s going to challenge improper assumptions, model healthy thinking and communication styles, correct wrong conclusions, and ensure each child gains the full benefit of the educational experience (rather than being sidelined by the strong personalities or brilliant minds in the group)?
If we put the children completely in charge, haven’t we abdicated our role as teachers?
If education were such a straightforward task, wouldn’t we already be doing it right?
I’m not taking aim at legitimate strategies of learning grounded in sound research and educational theory.   But the Wired author would have you think that Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, and many other alternative educators of the 20th century would agree with Mitra’s idea or recognize it as sound educational practice.  I don’t think they would.  For example, in the Montessori system, a well-educated / trained teacher is even more vital to the Montessori environment. Yes, the child is free to direct his attention for learning, but the teacher is the game-master in the background, ensuring real mastery and progress.
Even Finland, the poster child of education reformers (and bane of public school policy makers who are tired of hearing about how awesome Finland’s educational system is) doesn’t structure its schools so that kids simply wander around self-paced.  Play and exploration are important, but introducing a skilled teacher doesn’t mean the end of creativity and student-directed learning.
It’s true that our current educational system was rooted in the Industrial Revolution, so it’s set up to churn out obedient workers who can learn a limited range of skills.  That’s something the Wired author drives home, and I appreciate the reminder of why we need a change so desperately.  Reams of standardized tests cannot teach kids to be innovators.
The author cites research to prove we remember more when we control the pathway of reading or learning.  But the current movements toward more student-directed learning (a good thing) always recognize the value of the teacher’s guiding hand.
(If you’re interested in the work of actual classroom teachers following a student-directed model that’s well-grounded and innovative, try reading the blogs of Pernille Ripp, John Spencer, and Doyle the Science Teacher.)
Some bottom-line thoughts: 
If biblical principles underlie the way we view the teacher, the learner, and the environment of education, then we must recognize the elements of our world and our nature that affect the educational process:
  • Teachers and students, as image bearers, bring into the classroom an incredible capacity for creativity and exploration.
  • A good educational model must take into account the full expanse of what it means to be an image-bearer.
  • But we are also broken by sin and live under the effects of the Fall. Our minds are darkened, our natures are warped, and even this whole world “groans” under the weight of human sin.  So we aren’t on a level playing field, even when Grace is at work to save us and this world from evil.
  • The Gospel changes us, and it affects the very structure of how a classroom works. [This is a big idea, and if you want a rich explanation, read Donovan Graham’s book Teaching Redemptively.]
  • I think teaching is a type of discipleship. Therefore, the teacher is not a “master” or a taskmaster or someone who collects knowledge as a thing to pour into the heads of waiting students. But the teacher is someone special in this equation of education, not a hindrance to “real learning,” not someone who merely follows a written curriculum (as if the textbook series were the teacher, and the teacher simply a mouthpiece!)
  • Left to ourselves, few of us will make good choices.  Sometimes, sure.  But the more immature we are, the more we need guidance and boundaries.  Kids don’t parent themselves, and they shouldn’t be expected to teach themselves either.  Education is relational.
  • Good education must work for the masses of students, not just the elite or the gifted.
  • If education deals with image-bearers (both teacher and student) and is situated in the breadth of God’s creation, then any definition of the educational process that focuses narrowly on learning facts, developing good workers for the economy, etc is going to dehumanize students as it moves toward its goal.
We need innovation in education. Desperately. But it needs to be a wise innovation.  And I think Wired missed the mark on this one by writing an article that’s more sensational than helpful.
PS. Possibly useful older posts of mine:
This entry cross-posted to Teaching Redemptively


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