Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Fire for Educational Change

In my last blog post I discussed an independent learning experiment taking place in a high school environment.  A small core of students were being given near complete freedom to design their own instructional goals.  Further, they were being given the freedom to plan the ways in which they would accomplish these goals.  In today's educational environment, giving students the reigns over their educational program takes a great deal of courage.  I outlined some points I thought must be in place for this to work. 

These points were as follows. 

  • There must be an innovative and fearless principal at the head.
  • There must be a cadre of teachers who believe in students.
  • The teachers must be willing to let go the reigns.
  • The program should probably start with a small core group of committed students.
  • The core students will become the evangelists of the program as other students observe their freedom, choice and control of their lives.  
  • The program should be allowed to grow organically as students are motivated.  
  • The students should be given strong initial training in "how to be independent human beings" by mature independent adults.
    But I would like to deal with the "fire" that must be burning in order for such an independent learning program to take place.  Most of the fuel for the fire resides with the students.   The fuel for the fire  will be the initial core of students who have chosen to take on the challenge of a completely independent environment.  But, who provides the spark.  The spark is provided by a courageous, innovative and creative principal.  The second spark will come from a cadre of innovative, creative and courageous teachers.

    I listed courageous first for the principal because, in my view, most are not courageous.  Most principals are brought up through the ranks or hired to follow school procedures to the letter.  Just as many AP's are told to follow zero tolerance policies to the letter.  Most principals, in fact, will find themselves without a job if they choose to run their buildings too far off the rails of district policy.  These men and women have children, families, homes and obligations that curtail their desire to take risks.  I can't fault them.  The people, as a superintendent, I would be looking for are those who have the support of school boards who care about student achievement in spite of state curriculum demands and superintendents who actually want to run schools instead of factories. 

    The principal who will act as a "spark" will be one who is open to innovation and creativity.  Such a principal will be one who cheers those who are the outliers.  Such a principal will look to the teachers who sometimes fly under the radar for the kids, those who have the guts to supplement the purchased curriculum even if they have to do it surreptitiously, and the ones who value creativity to catch a child's interest rather than blind conformity to a purchased, planned curriculum.  Such principals will see their buildings as their children for whose welfare an success they are totally responsible even if it requires being an outlier.  Principals of this nature will not believe in canned solutions.  They will look to their most brilliant people to help them innovate so that we can reach all kids even the ones who school does not seem to serve well.  Frequently, those students are the ones who don't fit the mold.  They will be the kids who march to their own drummer.  I strongly believe that we would be hard put to find a creative genius who walked with the crowd or a successful school leader who did not leave the developmental administrative factory to go out on their own genius. 

    Such principals will have a number of characteristics.  They will go out of their way to hire and keep innovative brilliant and sometimes hard to manage faculty.  They will make a school that can be a home to innovators.  These principals will be innovators themselves looking to their faculty to support them in the things that they think will bring success to their individual buildings rather than the building even a mile or two away.  They will not shy away from innovative methods such as completely individual learning for students.  Principals of this type will realize that schools, regardless of the hype, are still training automatons for the workplace.  Principals who value these characteristics will understand that they have to get off the new programs back for up to three years to see if anything develops from a program.  They also must understand that kids when given freedom will most likely run with it when they realize the freedom is real.  Students are used to pronouncements of freedom to be a code word for testing a new teacher/administrator led program.  They will be suspicious at first as they should be. 

    The teachers will share some of the same characteristics but will be different in some key ways.  They will not be rule followers.  Often these are the teachers you will see who have many students in their rooms before or after school because the students know they are in a safe and supportive environment.  They are the teachers who will fly under the radar helping kids in ways the curriculum automatons would not approve of at all.  They will be the ones who work from their own brilliance and knowledge base to bring students the best of what is happening in the field.  They will encourage students to go out on their own to learn on their own, do their own learning projects and help the students when they need help.  I have seen near miracles performed by teachers of this nature who do what the student needs without following what the canned curriculum prescribes.  They will be the teachers who have the intellect to ask questions that lead the students to the answers in ways they will remember.  They will be rebels.  They may not fly where they can be seen but the brilliant principals will pick them out.  One more word about the principal.   He or she will have the guts to refuse to attend the inane meetings that often take them off campus several days a week.  The great teachers will be in their classrooms when ever they can be there.  The great principals will be out walking the halls looking at instruction, bringing along young and inexperienced teachers and encouraging the innovators.  Further they will be encouraging the paper pushers to find employment at a less innovative school or change their ways. 

    School innovation like the independent learning project in the last blog requires brilliance.  Unfortunately, brilliance is being subjugated in public schools for obedience to the programmed curriculum that is purchased for enough money to build a substantial part of a building in today's market.  

    School innovation that is on the edge will be the only thing now that will save schools.  Most public schools are zombies.  They just don't realize they are dead.  They are slaves to published, managed and ideology driven curriculum programs voted on by boards who are entranced by what they see as idiot proof programs.  Such schools and school districts will never light the fire of change.   The fires of change will be lit by the schools and school districts led by courageous, brilliant and innovative leaders who are without fear.    

    Friday, April 5, 2013

    Independent learning in schools

    Recently I viewed a student produced video featuring a program in which students designed, planned and executed their own curriculum.   I will put a link to the video in this post.  The program was very small being an experiment being done by a bold principal and strong teachers who were willing to try what I think will be the next wave of learning programs in many schools.  The students met each day to report on their work.  They also used the meeting to support rone another with any difficulties they may huave in their lives.
    The students in the program had literally no prompting from their teachers as to what to study.  The students had agreed to create substantial questions which they would research during the week.  Each student produced a product which was presented to other students in the program.  Their fellow students commented and critiqued the work.  Not all the criticism was positive.  The presentations in soe instances confused the other students who expressed their confusion.  The presenting student then reworked the presentation to make it more readily understandable.

    As many would expect not all teachers on the school staff were supportive of the program.  Their primary concern seemed to be who would determine what was worth learning as well as how quality work would be determined .  These students shown in the video were exemplary in their ability to handle the work.   They were also able to decide on valid topics.

    In many ways this brought to mind the unschooling style of home schooling.  The program worked with complete independence.  These seemed to be very mature students who had been selected for their ability to work independently.  Perhaps not.

    I am a huge supporter of this concept in spite of what may be serious questions.  Can all students in a school setting make this work.  How early can a program of complete independence start.  

    Can all students in a school setting make this work.  This problem seems to depend on the leadership in training students used to completely directed learning and the  motivation of the individual student.   An enormous stumbling block for modern "school" students is the almost complete elimination of anything internally driven.  They are used to being given everything from what to study, how to study, assignments and methods.   Further, they are not often allowed to evaluate their own work.  These problems could be remedied by highly motivated teachers who would help them evaluate their own work until they could be independent.  But,  the peer students seemed to take care of this issue.  I have found during my teaching career that students are at first confused by the new found freedom.  But, soon they realize they actually are responsible.  Then they rise to the freedom given them by becoming more and more responsible for their own work.  The best example of this concept is trying to teach young people about the value of money.  My mother who was perhaps ahead of her time opened the check book to me when I wanted something that cost money.  We were not rich although I didn't have a good sense of that as a child.  She then gave me choices such as food or the toy.  She also gave me an allowance to supplement the small jobs I did as a boy.  I soon learned that I had choices which had real consequences.

    Perhaps the same concept will work to encourage completely independent programs in schools.  Another worry teachers voice is what is their role in this system.  Their role would be more important as they will be guiding, counseling, and working as true mentors to students developing their educational program. So what is the bottom line for this kind of program to work?  One must realize that much reeducation of both students and teachers will be needed.  My musing in  this single blog post will serve only to offer thoughts.  But I would like to organize a few thoughts that strike me regarding qualities that will make such a program successful.

    • There must be an innovative and fearless principal at the head.
    • There must be a cadre of teachers who believe in students.
    • The teachers must be willing to let go the reigns.
    • The program should probably start with a small core group of committed students.
    • The core students will become the evangelists of the program as other students observe their freedom, choice and control of their lives.  
    • The program should be allowed to grow organically as students are motivated.  
    • The students should be given strong initial training in "how to be independent human beings" by mature independent adults.

    Wednesday, April 3, 2013

    A Teachers view of two days of Staar Testing

    Today I helped administer the latest version of the Texas State Academic Skills test know as the Staar.  If you have seen my FB posts, my twitter feeds or my posts on various blogs you now I already have a bias against this type of testing.  I don't want to pretend to you to that I in any way support the current state testing scheme.  It is horrendous. 

    These tests are simply a snapshot on a bad or good or average day.  On any of these days any given student may have experienced a wonderful morning or a morning when his parents split up as happened today.  Yet his academic achievement will be judged by this false snapshot on one of the worst days of his 13 year life.  Another student came from a home where he found no support at all.  Another student came from a home where his parents are so invested in the testing craze that they pressured him to the point that he threw up on arriving at school.

    Many of the students tried hard on material written by an industrial complex with no sense of how difficult they find school, their learning difficulties, their motivation or their particular situations  which may have been good or bad.  Most of the students finished in the first of four hours.  This may mean they were brilliant and tried hard.  Yet it may also mean that they simply didn't care.  The students who tried were finished in about an hour and a half. 

    The remainder of the students sat still and silent for the next several hours as their peers finished whether they were highly motivated or simply dogging it.  Restroom breaks were minimal, water breaks were minimal, nutrition was nonexistent, students had to remain still and quiet for many hours whether working on the test or not.  For today the State of Texas forgot anything about preteen and early teen human development.  For today the State of Texas essentially forgot about the ARD's of the kids who have ADHD and various other learning problems to become a unified mass of human material which was gauged by the same standard, in the same time, and on the same material without regard for their development emotionally, physically or mentally.  Further their motivation was simply thrown out. 

    This is what the false Texas miracle is today.  It is a simple snapshot test written by people who do not live in the child's school deriving millions upon millions of dollars on the backs of Texas school children. 

    This is one of the best reasons to pursue independent learning.  Home schoolers simply do not have to worry about this kind of testing.  They learn freely, developmentally and in a way which helps them develop independent thinking and learning skills which will serve them extremely well. 

    Before I close this entry I want to congratulate the school at which I was working today for making it as humane, efficient and kind as possible.  This was not the case in every Texas school.  I am lucky to work for an enlightened and kind administration. 

    But as a parent you should fear the testing scheme of the State of Texas.  It drives everything that happens to your child in school, threatens the job of teachers who want to bring in new and creative materials to kids and who want to teach from their best mind and their best heart. 

    Thursday, May 5, 2011

    Modern education

    The world of modern education is not alive to the incoming solar flares of information that can only be absorbed organically.  Nor is it aware of the anatomy, characteristics or capabilities that it seeks to change and enlighten...the human brain.  Education empires have been built on little more than guesses and suppositions about the way the brain works, about the way a child actually learns.  It is a world of intellectual darkness whose philosophy is built on myths.

    Life asks us a new riddle to survive at each turn.  Yet we work and teach in the cells of an excel spreadsheet with little more than bits of data in each one.  Each bit of data is discrete and separate from the other.  Still we seem lost in the belief that a little bit of information processed each day will soon a Newton make.  We are riders in a series of buses changing to another at every stop, unrelated, unintegrated until at the end of each day we have arrived at some new unrelated destination that bears no connection to the arrival point of yesterday.  And, so, we are confused about why we cannot educate our children...

    Yet the information is passing by the bus windows along the way.


    Organic life.

    But the myths are still calling.  The myth that standardized tests lead to intellectual growth, that data analysis of independent and discrete tiny facts will point to the way to educate any child and that slogans, innumerable meetings, "educational" experts who have not been in the classroom in years, curriculum specialists simply moved out of the classroom who magically change from teachers to experts on August 1 of the new year will have the answers.

    To succeed we will have to get beyond the trivia, the meetings, the planning sessions to tackle the actual hard work of learning that most inscrutable of mysteries; the brain.  We must get over our complete insensitivity to the brain to drop our belief in the myths of classrooms, testing and the "educational buffet" which has become school. 

    We must learn that education is the sum total of connections inside that fluid, wonderful, 3 or 4 pound miracle inside our skulls so soft, viscous and organic.  And we must get away from the myth that it processes information in anything like the educational assembly lines we now run.  Especially when an exemplary school can have students who passed the standardized test only because the passing standards are so low.

    We must look at the great masters of literature, music, science, art, and all of the disciplines to find how the masters really learned.  We must ask them when the connections started happening.  We must ask them when they became masters and how. 


    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    Welcome to the new Independent Learning and Homeschooling blog

    The time comes for all things to start anew.  After a period of time dealing with some life changing issues I have decided to start over completely with the faithful old blog Independent learning and Homeschooling.  The blog here will be focused on all forms of independent learning and all forms of homeschooling.  I hope to look at these things at the cutting edge of what is happening in education today and how it relates to independent types of learning. 

    I am convinced that most of traditional education is at least static.  In some places it is dead.... like a zombie, it just doesn't know it yet.  We are still relying on snapshot multiple choice tests to provide information about what a child knows at any given time.  Many schools now rely on ever more standard teaching approaches which wind up being "one size fits all" approaches.  In many schools this has taken the form of computerized curriculum that require every teacher and every class to be in the same place, on the same lesson, on the same objective on the same day regardless of complete understanding of material.  Tragic.  We have know for many, many years that learning takes place by connecting information while processing deeply within our brains.  Teachers know this because so many are surprised that they really learned their subject when they had to analyze it to teach it.  They had to "kneed" the information and "work" it to get the meaning out of all the verbiage. 

    What I want to do here is to examine the various ways, programs, approaches and techniques successful independent learners use to master material.  Then I hope to suggest and provide ways that can be used to make every person who wants to learn anything successful.  You are going to see a lot here... commentary, reviews, interviews, my ravings, me blowing off steam and hopefully some things that will be truly useful.  I look forward to hopefully providing something that is going to be enlightening, useful and thought-provoking as this blog develops.