I read a lot of articles about innovation in schools and have been impressed by schools and educational organizations that promote student-centered learning, project-based learning, and technology in education. I love reading about programs and schools where students actually have a choice about how and what they learn. It is a very exciting time to be writing about education.
But the truth is, those innovative people and schools I read about are still only a tiny minority in our school system. I recently visited an elementary school that I had attended as a child. NOTHING had changed. I could have walked in as a 4th grader today and not missed a beat.
I’ve visited several elementary schools in the past months and talked with kids about their experiences at elementary, middle school and high school. As far as I can tell, the factory model is still firmly entrenched in our educational system.
And it seems that the majority of parents are fine with that. I suggested an innovative charter school to a parent for her middle-schooler who doesn’t fit the typical educational mold and is therefore struggling and unhappy with school in general. She and her husband had the opinion that because they made it through that system, their son should be able to also. I’m afraid that attitude is still the norm in our country.
So what, if anything, has changed in our schools? Most of the changes I see are cultural…changes that have happened in our culture and sort of spilled over into schools. Mostly these changes are good, but schools have a long, long, long way to go to be truly innovative and student-centered.
The old adage ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is not in vogue any more in our society. Parents who spank their children are looked down upon. School personnel report bruises and suspected abuse to the authorities. Teachers are not allowed to use corporal punishment anymore and indeed, the most prudent behavior for school personnel is to not touch students at all.
Today’s discipline is usually rooted in behaviorist theory and involves rewards and punishments. But the attitude doesn’t seem much different from the days of corporal punishment. Students will follow the rules or there will be consequences. And today, those consequences often involve suspensions or expulsions. A comprehensive report on school discipline titled, The School Discipline Consensus Report was published by The Council of State Governments Justice Center. The consensus was that current school discipline policies are not working and unfair and that changes need to be made.
In my own high school days, we had a strictly-enforced dress code. Girls were required to wear dresses or skirts and those dresses had to be a certain length (read: no mini-skirts). Boys wore slacks (no jeans) and shirts with collars. Shortly after I left school things began to change…slowly.
In most of the schools I have seen lately, students wear pretty much whatever they want. Some things (e.g., gang paraphernalia; shirts with unacceptable messages, seasonal outfits that show too much skin) are outlawed and some schools require uniforms, but the majority of students choose their own wardrobes.
Of course, all of this is being hashed out in the courts, where students have challenged dress codes on the basis of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. See a FindLaw.com article, School Dress Codes, for specifics. So dress codes have changed and continue to change, but those changes really have nothing to do with how school is conducted.
Technology in this country is a force unto itself. Most people realize that having technology-free schools doesn’t work with students who are growing up with technology and using it every single day in their non-school lives.
But the most common forms of technology that I see in schools today are more practical than innovative. There are systems parents can use to check grades and communicate with teachers. And there are tablets such as iPads that are issued to students. The tablets replace heavy books, are convenient for note-taking, and are loaded with skill-and-drill games that students can play when they finish their work. Not very innovative.
According to an article by Katrina Schwartz on Mindshift.com, “…the iPad is a great utility tool. But for the most part, students aren’t doing anything on the iPad that they can’t do with pen and paper, although admittedly, it’s much faster and more efficient to use the iPad.”
Overall I am disappointed with what I have observed,
but still optimistic for the future of education.
The innovators are out there. I will keep reading what they
have to say, writing about them, and supporting their efforts.
Maybe by the time my great- great-grandchildren start school,
the innovations I am reading about today will be mainstream.