No Longer Optional: 10 Wishes for Schools in 2015

Sunshine on Leith, Scotland.

Much has been written about the need for schools to change in order to reflect not just our enlightened, contemporary understanding of how people learn and the digital tools and access to knowledge now available, but also the need to prepare young people for dynamic, future learning and an uncertain, global workplace. I have previously written about why school change is not optional, and have reflected on the pressure on teachers and schools to find the time to implement essential changes. A growing degree of urgency emanates from the fact that, historically, schools have been notoriously slow to change and, conversely, we now know that traditional approaches to learning are actually counterproductive to the needs of our students today. The educational thinking of the 20th century (much of it borrowed from the 19th century) is ludicrously unsuitable for the world of 2015, let alone the workplace of 2025. In other words, failure to implement meaningful change in our schools represents failure to do the jobs we are employed to do.

Why, then, do many schools labour inexorably towards change, when the purpose of schools is so clear? Would any other enterprise continue to exist in such a context? According to Gabriel Rshaid, the pace of change in schools can be attributed to, “our deeply ingrained obsession with safety and incremental risks [that] have led us to try to change our educational system one small step at a time, with the ongoing result of unsuccessfully attempting to adapt an ill-fitting model to a completely new paradigm.” I sometimes wonder could it be simply that there is so much rhetoric about the need for change, but no specific, tangible guidelines about what needs to change? The charge that schools are slow to change is certainly not an accurate representation of the school I work at and of many others, but I know we are not all 100% where we might wish to be there in terms of the things we claim to believe in. So, how about this? Let us agree to implement 10 fundamental changes in our schools and ensure that they happen in 2015.

Although it is always preferable, I think, to articulate beliefs about learning in the affirmative … i.e. what we should do … I also think we may have arrived at a point in time in our schools when we should simply articulate things that have no place in the learning environments required to educate our students in 2015 … and then, once and for all, insist that we stop doing them. The corollary of not doing certain things should be a learning environment that is closer to the needs of our students and society.

I would suggest that we should consider the following basic principles about learning when approaching this task:

  • All students and teachers can learn
  • Learning needs to be “life-worthy”

  • Assessment is about formative, ongoing feedback

  • Using digital tools is no longer optional

  • Doing what we have always done is not good enough

So, here is my list. In 2015, we must no longer:

  1. … use the word failure to describe the achievement of our students. If learning is formative and our objective is to achieve successful learning, then, while we may refer to a student not meeting the expected standard, we should eliminate the term failure from our vocabulary for good. It is simply at odds with everything we know about how people learn. Yes, we have all heard the arguments about how “real life involves failure” and I will happily accept that logic so long as we apply it consistently to everything to do with schools. We are a long way from deviating from our selective use of the real life excuse.
  2. … dedicate significant vital learning time on the passive transaction of note-taking. Why would 20 students consume time and energy in attempts to take the same notes when teachers have the technology at their disposal to share their own notes while an entire class – even grade – can collaborate on one set of notes? Yes, note-taking is a valuable skill in a world in which knowledge is transmitted by a single individual to a group. It is an outmoded use of scarce time in a world with smartphones, Google Docs, and other collaboration tools. Now, this may be an apparent contradiction … but I think there is a lot to be said for the process of annotating important information and transcribing it in summary form, whether digitally or in handwritten format (depending on the individual learning style). This is a skill we should intentionally teach as part of our methodology in teaching students how to learn. Having students sit in rows while they passively transcribe the words of a teacher on a regular basis is not learning. Like all learning, the purpose of note-taking must be made explicit to students in those instances where it is critical. It should never be a routine “instructional” tool.
  3. … manipulate the assessment process to “motivate” students. If the achievement level of a student is an A or a 7, giving that student a B or a 5 so they “have something to aim for” is never good professional practice. If the assessment process is to intended to represent genuine, formative feedback, then it must be honest and authentic. If we can get this right, then I think we should expect teachers to spend less time on formally documenting learning in report cards and also find ways to make this happen. The teaching profession deserves standards as high as any profession and it is, in my experience, populated by exceptional professionals. Can you imagine a doctor intentionally misleading a patient about the existence of high blood pressure as a motivation to exercise more? Perhaps this happens. It should not happen in the learning profession.
  4. rely on printed paper materials and our “favourite documents” … just because we used to. I am a staunch advocate for digital classrooms and believe that schools waste huge amounts of printed paper. But there are certainly times when a printed document is an essential learning resource. So, the pragmatic approach is to honestly ask ourselves: is this the best learning resource I can provide students with and will my choice of medium – printed or digital – prepare them well for the workplace and life beyond the classroom? Would the aviation industry permit a pilot to ignore contemporary cockpit technology because he or she has a printout of a PDF he or she created in 1996 that always worked as an instructional guide in the past?
  5. ask questions that Google can answer. There is, apparently, a growing problem with plagiarism in our schools. If we are to take this news at face-value, students are being increasingly dishonest and not crediting sources in their work. The issue of “academic dishonesty” is certainly a significant one, especially within the constraints of externally moderated examination conditions (themselves an anachronism). But is what we call plagiarism today in fact “dishonesty” or does that term need a reconsideration? Our need as educators is to embrace technology, not fight it. The Danish model is notable. My son, a first-year college student in Scotland, was recently required to download his winter exam, then had 24 hours to submit his answers. Things are changing, at last. If Google can answer questions that we ask students, then we should direct them to the search engine. Higher order thinking cannot be replicated with a search engine. Much of what is considered plagiarism is often an indictment of poorly designed assessments than student integrity.
  6. assign homework if we do not provide timely feedback on it. The jury has been out on homework for a long time. I am not sure what is taking people so long to accept that, unless homework has clear, worthwhile, learning purpose, it is a waste of time. If we are not sure about learning purpose – more importantly, if students are not – then we should not assign homework. Worthwhile homework must be associated with meaningful feedback that connects it to clearly established and communicated learning targets. This especially includes the assigning of worksheets, often the lowest form of learning, and the pointless repetition of skill practice, especially of skills already mastered.
  7. have desks arranged in static rows designed for the passive delivery of content. As Larry Cuban points out, in an insightful blog entry on this topic, many classroom furniture arrangements look disturbingly similar to classrooms of former generations. The teacher talking – “the sage on the stage” – should no longer be defined as the centre of our learning environments and represented as so in the layout of school furniture. The days of the central delivery of knowledge are over as are the days of classrooms having a “front”. All learning spaces should demonstrate, through the strategic use of furniture, that collaboration and active learning have replaced the traditional paradigm.
  8. make recommendations for tutoring or other support services unless we have offered to provide it first ourselves. I am fortunate to work in an inclusive school that has systems and support for all learners. But we increasingly live in a world in which schools are quick to recommend educational testing, suggest medication for attention disorders, and mandate additional paid services to support student learning. While some of these recommendations may be justified when made by the appropriately qualified personnel whose job this is, no teacher should ever recommend an intervention to support student learning until he or she has pursued all available avenues and sought support from qualified support specialists in the process.
  9. resort to misplaced kindness when speaking to parents about their children. In the culture of a caring school, it is not difficult to fall into the trap of making this mistake. The one thing parents do not like is being taken by surprise when it comes to hearing about their child’s learning progress. Yet there is a danger that teachers – who tend to really like their students and respect their parents – can occasionally be less than economical with the truth when speaking in person. All teachers can recognise this, to some extent. It is easier to be more honest in writing, several months later, when report cards are issued. We do need to be respectful when we speak about our students to parents, and this respect includes the mandate to tell the truth, diplomatically, but clearly.
  10. place an undue emphasis on the “dangers” of technology above the potential it offers students. Scott McLeod’s TED talk says this much better than I can, though I have also written on the topic here. I simply can’t understand the obsession with the “dangers of the internet” by so many people, especially in schools. Parents ask for programs to “warn” young people about technology. We should certainly speak to students about respectful and responsible behaviour, about what Marc Prensky terms “digital wisdom”, but we must simply demonstrate the learning potential of tech to our students as the way to ensure that they will use it for positive learning purposes. We need a more balanced approach; the balance should lean towards empowering our learners, not controlling them.

One of the many challenges facing schools today – and teachers in particular – is the amount of change being required of them. In 2015, no teacher should find any of the above to be new or unduly daunting, while most good teachers will consider these ideas to be self-evident in the thoughtful support of learning. But all teachers need to adhere to and demonstrate these beliefs through practice. If we limit the list to 10 concrete things, then perhaps we can make sure these things are implemented and improve learning in the process.

Maybe there are things missing from this list, things that are more important than those I have devised. What things do you think should be on a list such as this?