Friday, May 13, 2011

Change is Essential

“Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life.”

I came across this quote by Alvin Toffler via a post on Twitter and it captured the week I have had. It seems as if this week I have been engaged in discussions about traditional aspects of schooling. I have been part of conversations about grades, homework, summer reading... Within each conversation there have been elements of educators holding on to or protecting the traditional high school structure/system.

Just as an example, we had a discussion about homework policy and in particular, the amount of homework assigned to high school students. I wonder why we assign homework and why is it often true that a particular grade or weight is delineated for work completed outside of class. The focus should be on learning and not the amount of work a student completes in a defined period of time. I also wonder if we should remove homework from the vocabulary of schools. Is it counterproductive to discern work completed outside of the classroom or specifically, tasks finished at home. How do you separate and quantify thinking done in class to thinking done outside of class?

In part the conversation about homework stemmed from the showing of Race to Nowhere. The film was shown and has since instigated concern about the rising stress level students endure. Exchanges have transpired regarding requirements placed on students that extend beyond the school day. I agree with this argument if the work students are doing has no value and disregards individual passions and interests. Can you blame some kids for choosing not to answer questions 1-20 or complete a text book chapter review section? However, learning cannot be relegated to a scheduled instructional block. Learning is fluid and can happen anywhere and at any time and moreover, from anyone. This is not a policy, but rather a healthy recognition of how critical understandings are developed.

Homework, in the way it has been defined, is reminiscent of a time that no longer has a place in a progressive and innovative learning environment. In my mind it comes back to entertaining the idea of fixing a system that quite frankly, requires far greater measures. As opposed to repackaging a homework policy or summer reading schedule, an opportunity is presented to engage stakeholders in a serious examination about the types of experiences we value for students.

I juxtapose these conversations with a classroom experience I observed today. I spent a couple of hours with Mr. Gutkowksi (@mylatinteacher) and our Classics Academy students. We started a small theme-based senior academy this year built around the study of Classical Civilizations and how a study of these ancient cultures informs students about today. Symposium is the wheel class for this Academy and serves as a central space where students can make connections between the four additional classes that make-up the Classics Academy schedule. However, Mr. Gutkowski has taken a progressive philosophical approach guides the Symposium class.

“The Symposium for the Classics Academy is an exploratory, full-year class that will delve deeply into the concept of creativity. The class will actively implement whole-mind strategies and activities in order to break down traditional modes of learning and to expand students’ views of themselves, as well as their personal concepts of creativity.”- Symposium Curriculum

The year has been full of amazing experiences for both the kids and teacher involved with the Classics Symposium. Today was another meaningful moment. Akemi Tanaka, a respected designer came in to speak. For over two hours students engaged a professional in discussions about the creative design process. In the end, students were allowed to present their ideas to Ms. Tanaka, educators and classmates.

During today, time and space were redefined. Bells sounded to signal the end of classes and beginning of lunch. Students barely recognized these symbols of start and stop times. The conversation continued beyond a scheduled block of time and as a result, was allowed to grow and provided space for individual inquiries to be heard. Yes, students sit for presentations during the school year, but this was more intimate and represented an exchange between equals who shared a similar passion. Deep learning occurred in powerful and meaningful ways.

It was a week of contrast and this brings me back to the quote. I wonder, deep down, why in education, change is difficult. Change is who we are and as Toffler states, is necessary for life. On one hand we have a system where learning is compartmentalized to what is done inside and outside of class and on the other hand, learning is fluid, organic and shaped by a broad set of experiences and personal connections. How much longer can we exist where this philosophical dichotomy has a place in schools?

*To follow today's discussion check out the following hashtag- #mhsclassics