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Horace Mann’s One Big Mistake

traditional classroomAs you know, Horace Mann is credited with creating our current system of public education. He was known as “Father of the Common School” because he wanted to ensure that every child in America could receive a basic education. Mann believed that political stability and social harmony depended on education. http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html

I have disparaged Mann’s system often enough, calling it a “factory model” that was invented to create factory workers. But the truth is, that system was created at a time in our history when we were shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. So preparing factory workers with a basic education and understanding of democracy was meeting a need. And it was very innovative at the time.

It was the first time in WORLD HISTORY that the idea of educating EVERY person in a country was ever thought of, much less implemented. And it was free to students; paid for by taxes. Before that, people thought that only leaders and other important (read wealthy) people needed an education. The common people didn’t need to know much.

Bur Horace Mann persisted. He sold his radical idea first to Massachusetts (via his position as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.) Soon, the rest of the states embraced the idea. Not only that, but Mann was influential in developing teacher training schools to professionalize teaching. That was a new concept too.

Horace Mann made one mistake though. Unfortunately, it was rather a BIG one. He chose the Prussian system for his model of delivery (mainly because it was cheap and easy to implement). The Prussian system seemed to be exactly what was needed at the time.

The problem was that Fredrick the Great had created the Prussian system to teach obedience and solidify his control of his nation. Frederick wanted to indoctrinate his people from an early age. To that end, he focused on “following directions, basic skills, and conformity.” He isolated students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms, “intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.” No one cared what students thought. They were there to soak up the information Frederick thought they needed. thenewamericanacademy.org

So, today we have an educational system where public education is free to every citizen from Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. We have a system of training teachers who are viewed as professionals. That’s all good. But many people are questioning our Prussian-based educational delivery system.

We are no longer in the Industrial Age. We have entered the Information Age and we need to change our public education system to reflect that seismic shift. We need citizens that can think independently, work collaboratively, and create solutions to the problems we face now as well as those we haven’t yet encountered.

“The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education. It’s time to unhinge ourselves from the many assumptions that undergird how we deliver instruction and begin to design new models that are better able to leverage talent, time, and technology to best meet the unique needs of each student. In doing so, we can put Mann’s innovation in its proper context: as the foundation for our commitment to a public education but not as the blueprint for how to deliver it.” Joel Rose, The Atlantic, May 9, 2012

I agree with Mr. Rose. We have a commitment to public education. But it is time to change our educational delivery system. The factory model doesn’t fit our needs anymore. The good news is there are many people working to change it.

Groups and institutions have sprung up all over the country whose focus is updating our educational system. Individual schools and districts are working to create educational models that meet the needs of all students and include students in the design their own learning. Philanthropists are funneling large amounts of money into technology and promising educational programs. Coalitions of like-minded educational organizations are being formed.

This is all very encouraging, but there is much work to be done. As another of our early educational innovators, John Dewey, famously wrote in his book Schools of Tomorrow in 1915, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Let’s not rob our students of tomorrow.



PBL: Four Essentials for a Great Project



I love the idea of project based learning (PBL) since it gets students actively involved in their own learning and requires them to think critically. It also forces them to do research and collaborate with other students and interact with community members.




According to PBL proponents, “the heart of a project—what it is “about” if one were to sum it up—is a problem to investigate and solve or a question to explore and answer.” Buck Institute for Education’s Editor in Chief John Lambert and Executive Director John Mergendoller describe a good project as one in which “students learn how to apply knowledge to the real world and use it to solve problems, answer complex questions, and create high-quality products.” Gold Standard PBL, April 21, 2015

There are many lists concerning the whole process of project-based learning. But I wanted to know what is needed for the project itself, from a teacher’s point of view.  I found four elements that seem absolutely necessary for a project to be worthwhile.

  1. It must be real. A good project solves a real-world problem or answers a real-world complex question. “…authenticity infuses student work with purpose and passion…Traditionally, most student work is created for the insulated world of the classroom and is rarely seen by anyone except a teacher. In contrast, authentic projects seek to create work that fills needs or interests in the broader school, community, or world. Project-Based Learning Guide, National Academy Foundation
  1. It must be personal. For students to be engaged, they need some level of choice in the project. “In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice the better…learners can select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present projects…what projects to create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time.” Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning
  1. It must be collaborative. Students need to learn how to work with other students, how to critique others’ work and listen to critiques of their own work, and how to approach community members and others whose knowledge is relevant to their projects. They don’t usually come to class with these skills. “Collaboration is included in almost every list of 21st-century skills—and for good reason. Technology now offers more people the opportunity to work together without geographical restraint, and businesses everywhere are expecting employees to collaborate on projects, both in face-to-face teams and in virtual teams.” Timothy Quinn, G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K Doesn’t Spell Collaboration Education Week
  1. It must be shared. A good project is shared with others. Presentation can take many forms; it might be a podcast or a video; it might be a poster or a model demonstrating learner insights; it might be a letter to a government official. It really depends on the audience. Before PBL, the audience for most student products was the teacher. In PBL, the audience might be the principal, another class, the community, or even the world. “Project Based Learning refers to students designing, planning, and carrying out an extended project that produces a publicly-exhibited output such as a product, publication, or presentation.” The Teacher’s Guide to Project-based Learning, 2012 teachthought.com

Project-based learning is a concept whose time has come. Today’s students are already connected with the world via their electronics. We need to make their school work meaningful and connected with the world as well.

In Defense of Noise in the Classroom

One of the main reasons I went into teaching was because I didn’t like school as a child and I thought I could create a better experience for kids as a different kind of teacher.I was determined that my students would not spend endless silent hours watching the clock hands move and trying to stay awake. I resolved that they would be active learners. I wanted a noisy classroom.

Noisy Learning

I am NOT talking about noise from nearby airports, elevated trains, or construction projects. There are studies that show those kinds of noise can be harmful and make learning difficult as kids tune out the teacher’s voice along with the outside noise.

I am NOT talking about noisy chatter in a classroom, where students are talking among themselves about things that have nothing to do with the subject they are supposed to be learning. Students (and teachers) should be talking about the subjects they are studying.

I AM talking about productive noise, the kind of noise that comes from earnest discussions, movement as collaborative groups change or supplies are gathered, demonstrations of problem-solving strategies…the kind of noise that happens when students explore topics they are passionate about…the kind of noise that happens when students and teachers are engaged in learning together.

Active Learning

Students should be actively taking part in their own education; predicting outcomes, sharing hypotheses, experimenting, sharing results. They should be discussing their problem-solving strategies with each other because there are many possible approaches to problems. If students are allowed to take ownership of their learning, they are more likely to succeed.

Learning should consist of many more ‘ah ha’ moments than ‘ho hum’ moments. According to Nick Provenzano, “A noisy classroom is a classroom where learning is happening. Learning should be noisy, it should be messy, because that’s what exploration is.” How can teachers inspire learning? By empowering students, Dennis Pierce, eschoolnews, May 20, 2014.

Talking About Learning

In traditional classrooms, though, teachers still do most of the talking. When students talk, they are usually answering teachers’ questions rather than solving problems through talk or explaining their thinking. But the days of “the sage on the stage” are numbered. Technology is helping. So much information is available online that students now need the skill of asking the right questions rather than the skill of giving rote answers.

“Since the dawn of language, conversations have been powerful teachers. They engage, motivate, and challenge. They help us build ideas, solve problems, and communicate our thoughts. They cause ideas to stick and grow in our minds. They teach us how other people see and do life, and they teach other people how we see and do life. Conversations strengthen our comprehension of new ideas.” Academic Conversations by Zwiers and Crawford, 2011

Projects for Learning

Students should be doing projects that engage their interest and demonstrate their learning. The Buck Institute for Education focuses exclusively on Project Based Learning (http://bie.org/about/what_pbl) because it, “is a transformative teaching method for engaging ALL students in meaningful learning and developing the 21st Century competencies of critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and communication.”

Exploring and solving problems collaboratively necessitates noise. Rebecca Alber, (Edutopia Consulting Online Editor) describes what she calls a “coveted scenario” for collaboration in a classroom, “several children gathered at a table engaged in a high-level task, discussing, possibly debating an issue, making shared decisions, and designing a product that demonstrates all this deeper learning.”  Deeper Learning: A Collaborative Classroom Is Key, December 31, 2012 http://www.edutopia.org/blog/deeper-learning-collaboration-key-rebecca-alber

This kind of scenario (especially multiplied by 5 or 6 groups in the classroom) cannot be done without noise. And collaboration, along with learning to listen and ask good questions, are skills people need in the world today. So say goodbye to silent classrooms. Let’s make some NOISE!