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Shifting the Paradigm in Education

February 9, 2011

Each Friday, our faculty gathers for 90 minutes of professional development.  It is a valuable time spent collaborating with colleagues and discussing how to better meet the needs of our students.  This year, our school is in the midst of the WASC accreditation process.  So, recently our time has been spent examining our school’s practices and the ways we create valuable learning experiences for all our students.  Much conversation is focused on the dispositions we hope our students embody when they graduate from our school.  There is universal agreement among the faculty that this involves much more than standardized test results.

This past Friday, we watched an animated video clip in which Sir Ken Robinson discusses changing education paradigms.  During his 10-minute lecture, which has gone viral especially within the education community, Robinson presents a compelling argument about the nature of education and the importance of closely examining the structures of our schools and assessments.  He asserts that there are two fundamental questions societies currently face about education:

  1. How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century?
  2. How do we educate our children so that they have a sense of cultural identity while being part of the process of globalization?

Robinson asserts that the our current system of education was “designed, conceived, and structured” in the “intellectual culture of the Enlightenment” and in the “economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.”  The result is that “deep in the gene pool of public education” there is the notion that there are two types of people:  “academic” and “non-academic” or, in other words, “smart” and “non-smart.”  There is also a system of education still modeled on and in the image of industrialization with such factory-line modalities as ringing of bells, separate facilities, separate subject matters, and grouping by age (presumably based on the assumption that “the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are”), and by extension, standardized curricula and testing are further exhibits of this factory-line mentality.  Robinson questions the benefits of such a system of education that marginalizes students and their abilities.  Why should we maintain a system of education based on what was done in the past rather than changing the paradigm for what is necessary in the future?

This thought-provoking video sparked an animated conversation among our faculty.  What type of learning do we value as a society?  Is our current model of education meeting 21st Century demands?

I fear that relying too much on standardized assessments has a truly negative impact.  It shifts the focus of educators away from valuable skills that we should be developing in our students.  What are those skills?  How about the skills you and I are required to use every day:

  • Be creative and have original thoughts of value
  • Engage in “divergent thinking” to come up with several possible solutions to a single problem
  • Skillfully communicate and collaborate with others to establish and accomplish common goals
  • Utilize technology in ethical ways as a tool for learning and exploration
  • Make healthy choices and develop coping skills and strategies for effective mental health
  • Be a good global citizen who accepts responsibility for personal actions and embraces opportunities to improve the community

I feel quite fortunate to work at a school that embraces the importance of teaching these skills.  While still accountable for teaching the standards, we have the flexibility to create curriculum that focuses on much more than rote learning.  We also have built into our curriculum multiple opportunities for our students to strengthen their skills:  from research projects, annual exhibitions, and peer-tutoring to off-campus internships and community service programs.  None of this can happen, however, without an administration that also embraces the importance of creating student-centered and learner-centered classrooms and provides teachers with the freedom to collaborate and create meaningful curriculum.

A while back, I attended an off-campus professional development session with area teachers and principals.  One of the principals shared with us a binder that includes a list of every student and their CST test scores from the previous year.  This binder accompanies the principal to every classroom visit, faculty meeting, professional development session, and parent-teacher conference.  The test numbers were clearly the focus of the teachers and administrators at this school.  It left me wondering.  What is missed when the learning we value is reduced to an A, B, C, D or F?   And, how should we “grade” creativity, innovation, and civic virtue, life skills that are arguably just as important as mastering the CST questions?

In his State of the Union speech a few weeks ago, President Obama spoke of “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”  In education, that moment is on the precipice of great change.  There are too many students, particularly those from impoverished communities, not being served adequately by our current models.  In our nation’s race to space, it was innovation, creativity, exploration of new ideas, and understanding that there may be more than “one right answer” that successfully guided our journey.  Our own race to improve education will only succeed if teachers are given the opportunity to create curriculum, accurately assess performance, and challenge students with authentic learning opportunities.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011 9:03 am

    Wonderful post! I was able to attend a conference with Sir Ken Robinson last fall. Very inspirational message, but only effective if every teacher and every school acts on it, as yours is doing, by deciding how they can best effect the changes that need to be made within their own classrooms.


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