In the United States, compulsory public schooling started in Massachusetts in 1852, and then spread to other states. By 1918, all states required it. Since that time, there has been constant discussion about what constitutes Better Education. Is it reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic? Is it class size? Is it the teacher? Is it the books used? In fact, almost all of the directions that have been tried in schools are still discussed today.
This post will identify five main directions in the quest for better education, and then point out how research and experience seems to be consolidating on a sixth direction that shows great promise.
Direction #1: Longer
In early Massachusetts, children were off from school in spring and fall to help with the planting and the harvest. Later in the cities, the school year was 11 months long so the children could be taken care of while their parents worked in the mills and factories. Various strategies have been used to adjust the school year for better learning – 45 days on with 15 days off, longer or shorter summer vacations and spring breaks.
These days, many schools are calling on the government and school boards to adopt Extended Learning Time (ELT). One of the main reasons given is to compete with other countries like China and India where students appear to be going to school longer in the year or longer in the day. Even President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have spoken up for the importance of more time in the classroom. According to the National Center on Time and Learning, more than 700 schools (75% of them are charter schools) have extended their school day. The National Academy of Education in Washington has calculated that every 10 percent increase in time results in a 2 percent jump in actual learning. Other leaders suggest that time by itself is not sufficient. They say it has to be quality time! It’s also expensive to add more time – in teacher salaries, facility costs, teacher prep time, etc.
Using the longer day concept, Citizen Schools, based in Boston, bring in professionals to mentor children after school. The Citizen Schools movement now aims “to connect schools, students from low-income communities, and professionals from a broad array of fields to provide hands-on learning in beautiful and lasting partnerships.”
Direction #2: Wider
Over time, the curriculum in schools has gotten broader in scope. From just the 3R’s and home economics subjects, it has expanded to literature, math, science, history, and more. The idea is to teach students what they need to know to be: 1) an ideal citizen, 2) a good employee, or 3) a better person. Different curriculum development strategies apply to each goal.
The scope of the curriculum has many stakeholders – federal and state government, school boards, parents, and students — and thus is controversial. The idea is that wider – or more specific and detailed — content will lead to better learning for students. Some groups want to widen math to include algebra and calculus for all. Some feel literature should cover the classics, while others advocate for modern literature, especially culture-based writing. Other groups want character development to be emphasized. Science proponents suggest we need more study of principles and applications. Local, state, national, and world history have different emphases in different places. In fact, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with the Pearson Foundation to create a national curriculum. The Foundation’s intention is to align learning tools with the Common Core State Standards and “to fundamentally change the way students and teachers interact in the classroom, and ultimately, how education works in America.”
Direction #3: Simpler
On the other hand, there are some groups that are pushing for a “back to basics” angle on curriculum. This is also known as traditional or conventional education. This varies with region of the country, but the primary emphasis is on rote learning and memorization focused on skills, facts, and standards of moral and social conduct conducive to success in the world. In one Arizona school, a traditional track is offered alongside the normal track. Other leaders and states have taken a stand against the Common Core Standards, saying such things don’t matter anyway in terms of raising student achievement, or they want to create their own “local” standards.
John Merrow, education correspondent for PBS, said, “I believe the earlier ‘back to basics’ movements failed because schools obsessed about The Three R’s to the exclusion of creativity, fun, art, music, and physical education. The current focus on student achievement is making the same mistake. The problem is not the testing itself but far too much time on bubble-measured ‘education.’” He recommends a new set of “basics” – reading/writing, numeracy, creativity, and health/nutrition.
Direction #4: Stronger
Another direction for making education better has been to create a stronger environment for learning. This involves immersive type education programs, such as are used for language instruction and some educational or athletic camps. There is also an Immersive Education Initiative that is defining and developing open standards, best practices, platforms, and communities of support for virtual reality and game-based learning and training systems.
Another angle on building a learning environment is to re-think what a classroom is or could be. Progressive learning proponents believe that such a class should be “intellectually active” and student-centered. Terry Heick has identified 10 Characteristics of a Highly Effective Learning Environment that range from a variety of learning models to a connected community, from some personalization to modeling of good learning habits.
According to Educause, The term ‘learning environment’ encompasses learning resources and technology, means of teaching, modes of learning, and connections to societal and global contexts. The learning environment is a composite of human practices and material systems, much as ecology is the combination of living things and the physical environment.
Direction #5: Smarter
Better education can also take the direction of being smarter. That means to adopt technological tools to make learning more efficient, or smarter. The U.S. Department of Education has released the National Education Technology Plan (2010) to suggest directions for using technology in our classrooms. The Department says technology can be used to support both teaching and learning: “Technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and hand held devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning.” This is accomplished through virtual or online learning, full-time online schools, blended learning, open educational resources, and using digital resources well.
A 2013 Speak Up Survey from Project Tomorrow identified 10 major technology trends in education. Three such trends, reported in THE Journal in February 2014 were that video for homework is on the rise; mobile computing is ‘beyond the tipping point’; and most kids don’t use traditional computers to connect to the internet at home.” Also, 62% of students want to bring their own devices. These trends have major implications for the classroom. Are we trading efficiency for learning for quality of learning? Or will these devices help us improve our ability to learn? The jury is still out.
Direction #6: Deeper
The final direction that I see education moving is one that has been in the background all along, but never clearly identified. That is to go deeper! Deeper Learning encompasses many of the previous directions, and takes them further. This direction aspires to going beyond the knowledge of content, to something which usually is hard to measure. What is beyond content? Skills like problem-solving, critical-thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Bob Lenz, co-founder and CEO of Envision Schools, says, “Most schools and most of our learning stops at knowing, and we need to move that and broaden it to the doing and the reflecting.” Assessment of these areas is moving towards using rubrics and/or performance frameworks.
The Hewlett Foundation has commissioned a major study of Deeper Learning, and is now committed to promoting it through their grants and partnerships. Deeper Learning is an umbrella term for the skills and knowledge that students must have to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life. The foundation has identified six essential competencies of deeper learning: 1) Master core academic content; 2) Think critically and solve complex problems; 3) Work collaboratively; 4) Communicate effectively; 5) Learn how to learn; and 6) Develop academic mindsets.
They have also aligned these six factors with the Common Core Standards and found that the Common Core seems to be addressing many of them in a good way. They also evaluated the Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests for various aspects of deeper learning. The study found “that the test actually does measure content and critical thinking better than any other test and it does a reasonable job at measuring written communication.” The Common Core emphasis on textual evidence and real-world situations goes a long way to getting students to think for themselves, which appears to be the ultimate goal of all these educational directions.
Deeper Learning holds the promise of actually helping students to go beyond finding the right answer and taking good tests. It proposes that Better Education is developed by training students to go deeper — to be able to use the facts and skills they have learned for a useful purpose, and to be fully committed to lifelong learning.
Next post we will go deep into Deeper Learning to find out more about it.