I’m a little late to the party on Will Richardson’s “Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere,” which is available as a Kindle single for just $2.99, but I finally read it and I’m so glad I did. I like how clearly and succinctly Richardson lays out his argument—basically, in an age where the answers to standardized test questions are instantly Googleable, schools need to stop teaching students low-level learning that they can access from any device and start teaching students high-level problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity:
learning ceases to focus on consuming information or knowledge that’s no longer scarce. Instead, it’s about asking questions, working with others to find the answers, doing real work for real audiences, and adding to, not simply taking from, the storehouse of knowledge that the Web is becoming. It’s about developing the kinds of habits and dispositions that deep, lifelong learners need to succeed in a world rife with information and connections. The emphasis shifts from content mastery to learning mastery.
Well, ideally anyway.
I wonder if it’s even possible to reform or transform public education. It seems like it would be possible to do what Richardson calls for on a mass level: individual teachers are doing it all the time in their classes of 30 or more students. But entire schools, at least entire public schools, very rarely embrace the notion that students can think, create, fully engage in learning. That’s okay for some students some of the time, but not for all students, and certainly not for the “at-risk” or “below grade level” student, who all too often becomes a problem to be managed and controlled through mind-numbing and clearly pointless busy work.
Teachers come in for their fair share of mind-numbing busy work too, trapped in an endless cycle of assessment and the requirement to document numerically every learning task they assign. My own best tools for assessment in my classroom are often my eyes and my ears, but the rich and nuanced understandings I develop of student learning through my observations and noticings are considered “anecdotal” and peripheral to any meaningful assessment of what’s happening in my classroom.
I think about the results of an IBM study that Richardson cites: employers stress the need for employees who can think flexibly and creatively, who can solve problems, who can work together, who can, in short, think outside the box.
And then I think about what my children bring home from school to show off what they’re learning.
Their take-home folders overflow with worksheets, and they have yet more worksheets for homework. As if 8 hours in school spent doing worksheets isn’t enough. They have weekly “assessments” in multiple subjects. Sometimes I think they spend more time taking tests than they do learning. Even when given an opportunity to be creative, they have to adhere to a factory model of education that limits flexibility and values only what can be quantified.
My first-grade son recently came home with a story he’d written and illustrated about playing football with his brother. Attached was a rubric with three grading criteria (presentation, organization, and mechanics) and four competency levels (Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic.) Although the actual writing of the story scored Proficient, he was merely Basic in Presentation. Why? Because his drawing of two boys playing football in a field at the park only included “3 or 4 colors, 3 or 4 details, and the illustrations cover 1/2 of the page.” For my readers who have never been to South Dakota in November, there are only 2 or 3 colors in nature right now. To score “Advanced” on Presentation, his pictures must “have 7 or more colors, 7 or more details and the illustrations cover the entire page.” Why? Who decided that 7 colors, 7 details, and a full page equate to “Advanced”? (But note: to score “Advanced” on Organization, his story must “make sense and show creativity and imagination.”)
How long is he going to hold onto whatever creativity he has in a system that is designed to kill it?
He asked me why he didn’t have a higher score on “Presentation.” I explained that it was because he only used 3 colors in his drawing.
He looked confused. “But the trees were brown and the grass was brown.”
“Well, yes, I know that. Maybe next time you should try making the trees pink?”
I wasn’t being sarcastic. I am truly interested in what would happen if he colors the trees pink. But I fear he would be marked down because pink trees may be creative and imaginative (and pretty!), but they won’t “make sense.”
As a parent, I feel helpless. And although all of this probably sounds like an indictment of my kids’ teachers, it’s not. I like my kids’ teachers very much. They are good teachers: passionate about learning, passionate about kids, working tirelessly to find a way to help each child succeed in their classrooms. But they are thwarted by the institutions and systems in which they work—systems that position teachers as nothing more than deliverers and assessors of recall-level content and students as nothing more than content regurgitators. Success in such a system for both teachers and students has nothing to do with creativity or flexibility or problem-solving.
And what my children are doing in school right now helps explain what happens in my college classrooms when students are invited to create and play and learn. They often aren’t sure how.