Monday, June 17, 2013

Wishful building

In the course of our district’s facilities planning process, we’re hearing dazzling visions of what the Classroom of the Future will look like. In the future, the district’s consultants tell us, education will be “student-centered,” so:
Buildings and grounds should provide a variety of spaces for hands-on activities, project-based learning, student collaboration, research and study space, and presentations.
The consultants showed us pictures of spacious classrooms where students work together at communal tables, while teachers work with one or two students at a time. None of the pictures showed a classroom with more than sixteen students in it.

The process has succeeded in getting at least some in the community talking about what kind of education we should be designing our schools for. I’ve recently heard parents, for example, envisioning classrooms in which the teacher is the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage,” and where students spend more time working collaboratively on solving problems, and where there is more “critical thinking” and less rote memorization.

That conversation is great to hear, even if it is just in its early stages. But I have to wonder whether we’re deceiving ourselves that “student-centered” education is the wave of the future. Everything indicates the opposite. State and federal laws have increasingly imposed a standardized vision of education on all kids. The newly imposed Iowa Core standards require teachers to cover a very particular—and extensive—body of content in each grade. They are accompanied by lengthy standardized tests to make sure that everything on the list gets covered. And “accountability,” many argue, requires us to make teachers’ jobs and raises depend on how well their students do on those standardized tests. Meanwhile, our state’s education department has taken the position that “improving educator effectiveness” is a better use of money than reducing, or even maintaining, current class sizes.

If your job depends on making sure a big group of kids knows an extensive, predetermined body of knowledge well enough to score high on a standardized test, how much project-based learning will you allow? How much will you be a “guide on the side”? How much time will you have to “foster creativity”? Anyone want to guess how the desks are arranged in a Kaplan SAT prep class, or how much independent inquiry goes on there? I’m afraid that’s what our standardized-test-driven future looks like.

Our district decides what the buildings look like, but the state and federal governments decide what goes on inside them. During the facilities planning process, we’re being encouraged to picture our dream schools. Once the money is spent and the buildings are built, what type of education will we actually get?


FedUpMom said...

Chris, I have such mixed feelings about this. As I'm sure I've written before, I would love to see progressive education done well, but I never have. As you point out, it certainly won't happen in the world of Common Core and NCLB.

When the consultants talk about "student-centered" and "guide on the side", they're just throwing around buzzwords. It's a thin veneer that gets pasted on top of a completely traditional authoritarian system.

To the extent that progressive education has any effect on our schools, it has the effect of hollowing out curriculum. There's no good news here.

FedUpMom said...

Also, on the poster you show, aren't they missing the word "next"? "meet the needs of the generation" doesn't sound right.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- I hear you. It's easy to imagine some aspects of "student-centered" education (for example, some efforts at "project-based learning") being an utter waste of students' time. In my opinion, it's easy to imagine aspects of old-fashioned ("sage on the stage"?) education being a total waste of time, too.

Despite all the talk about research-based practices, we don't really know much at all about the long-term effects of any particular curricular approach -- especially since so much of what gets "learned" for hour upon hour in school does not get meaningfully retained in adulthood.

My own feeling (which I don't claim to be able to prove empirically) is that people are more likely to benefit educationally from an experience if they've freely chosen that particular subject matter, and that that free choice is more important than whether the instruction is "traditional" or "progressive." The kid who really wants to learn about the space program is going to learn about the space program, but forcing people to learn something they're not interested in and don't need in their lives is always going to be a low-percentage enterprise. That's one reason I'd be in favor of a curriculum that gives kids a lot of autonomy over what they learn: I think it's less likely to be a total waste of their time.

Anyway, I do think it's good that people here are talking about these issues, when so much of the local conversation has been about buildings and boundary lines. Maybe the facilities issue will spark some interest in curriculum that will continue after the facilities discussion dies down. One can hope!

Chris said...

Related post: Teachers’ union president: Overstuffed school day will short-change kids and cause morale problems

Karen W said...

I think I may have spent too much time in Montessori classrooms, but the spaces seem largely empty of books and materials and rugs and appealing art work to me. They might be talking about collaboration but they sure aren't setting up independent choice--there's not much out to choose from.

Love the photo from the presentation of the glassed-in secured space filled with tables and not much else labeled "a feeling of home." Not so much.

Chris said...

Karen -- Yeah, I laughed at the full caption at that one, which read “Transparent environment, easily observed, access controlled, a feeling of home.” Not really my idea of a feeling of home, either.

I also wondered, when I looked at the pictures of classrooms with huge windows looking out onto open fields: Where are all the chain-link fences? Are those windows bullet-proof? Why are there no armed police officers in the room, "building relationships" with students?

StepfordTO said...

Interesting. Is form expected to follow function here, or vice versa? The whole discussion about school design reminds me of similar discussions in the corporate world, especially in high tech, where supposedly "hip" companies like Google and Twitter boast about the innovative design of their offices, and how that reflects (or enables?) their progressive work environments. But has the corporate structure actually changed all that much in these companies?

I agree with FedUpMom that a lot of buzzwords like "student-centred" and "21st-century learning" get thrown around in education, without really meaning anything concrete. And certainly building design alone is not going to change anything, though I do believe that good design can have an effect on kids' well-being. My middle school was a new, open-concept building designed by a well-known (Canadian) architect, and we all loved being in that school, though the open concept didn't lead to or reflect much innovation at the curricular level.

It seems to me that the Finns once again get it almost right. When they decided to revamp their entire education system in the seventies, building design was taken into consideration and integrated (as far as possible) into the plans. Some interesting and truly innovative schools were built. Here's an article about some of them. Of course, the American spin is that good design boosts "achievement," because, of course, that's all anyone -- parent, kid or educator -- could possibly care about!

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I wrote a response to your comment here:

Progressive or Traditional? More Thoughts