I pretty much can't go a day without running across a post in my Google Reader or a Tweet in my Twitter stream excoriating lecturing, or flipped classrooms, or drill and kill, or homework, or a variety of other techniques that are currently out of fashion. And, to be clear, I often criticize many of those methods as well. Critique is good, and I'm not suggesting that we stop critiquing or that we can't continue to innovate and find better ways to help our students learn.
But my concern is the black-and-white nature of many of those critiques. It's not just that they think lecturing or a flipped classroom (for example) is bad for students, but they think it's both horrible and evil. It's not just that worksheets or homework are perhaps not always best practices, but that anyone who utilizes those methods is either incompetent or wholly owned by corporate reformers. I think that approach is wrong, and a tragedy.
It continues to amaze me that folks who rail against standardization and who believe in individualized learning, who believe each student is unique and has unique needs, who think that one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed, still apparently have no compunction whatsoever about criticizing a teacher 1200 miles away in a school and a classroom they've never visited, with students they've never met, and with curricular requirements, school structures, and other local cultural norms and expectations that they know nothing about. Apparently one-size-fits-all is wrong, unless it's their one-size-fits-all approach.
So I'd like to propose a New Years' Resolution for the folks who are reading this. Cheeky, I know, since I just got done telling you that mandating from afar has some issues, but bear with me. This resolution has three parts:
- Part one is to continue critiquing. Please. It's vitally important that we continue to question our practices and point out questions and concerns about those practices. I would suggest, however, that some folks could perhaps do a better job about simply critiquing the ideas, and not disparaging the practitioners.
- But after you're done critiquing, part two of your post should be making constructive suggestions about how to improve that particular practice (not doing away with the practice completely, but how to make improvements to it to try to address some of the concerns from part one. For example, if you were going to critique something like the Flipped Classroom (which I have many concerns about myself), part two might look like:
Have you considered having students watch the videos after doing inquiry and exploring the concepts in class first, as opposed to replacing the inquiry with recorded lectures?
(or something like that, this is just an example)
- And after you're done suggesting improvements, if you have an alternate, perhaps more radical approach you'd prefer, then in part three you need to describe that, in at least some level of detail within the structures and restrictions of the particular school and classroom you are critiquing. For example, if you were going to critique practices at my high school, then here are just some of the facts on the ground you'd need to address:
- I teach at a high school with 2150 students. We can argue all we want about whether that's too large (I would agree that, for me, my ideal size would be a lot smaller), but that doesn't change the fact that that's the reality, and it's not going to change any time soon. So if you're going to suggest a PBL/PLN/Individualized-Constructivist-Inquiry-1:1 classroom, make sure you give some details about how to accomplish that in a school of 2150.
- We have a variable schedule at Arapahoe, which means that while some classes meet five days a week (for about 58 minutes a period), other classes only meet MWF, or TR, or MWRF. For example, my Algebra class meets four days a week for 58 minutes a shot (minus quite a few days taken for testing, or shortened classes for assemblies or PLC days, etc. etc. etc.), so please make sure you take that into account and don't equate it to your Algebra class that meets for 85 minutes a day five days a week. Oh, and keep in mind that our students also take an average of 9 classes at a time due to the variable schedule, and well over half of them are involved in athletics and activities after school.
- It's hard to really tell how much money we get in our district, but it's in the neighborhood of $7200 per student. That's more than some places for sure, but compare that with the $14-16,000 per pupil that some of my friends in the east coast get. Even accounting for some cost-of-living differences, that's a significant difference. At $5000 per student, that would be over $10 million dollars more per year just my high school could spend. (Yes, I know it wouldn't all go to the school, but theoretically it could since our overhead is currently covered within that $7200.) Yeah, we could perhaps make some changes with $10 million more per year, but we don't have that money. Deal with the reality we have.
- My school allows students to bring their own devices, but we also try to provide many devices as well. It's all well and good to say we should be providing chromebooks/netbooks/iPads/Macbook Airs to all of our students to ensure a level playing field, but my entire budget for technology at AHS is $12,000 per year. To be sure, the district spends a lot of money on network infrastructure, and Internet access, and servers, etc., and sometimes is able to provide us with some machines (we got 28 staff machines for staff this year, as well as a 26 replacement computers for one of our business labs), but in terms of day-to-day funding to try to provide a 1:1 experience in my school, I get $12,000 per year, or approximately $5.22 per student and teacher in my school. Please keep that in mind when you suggest that BYOD is a travesty.
- Feel free to rail against the Common Core State Standards (I frequently do). But please keep in mind that my high school is in Colorado which, like 44 other states, had adopted the Common Core. Which means that teachers in my school are required to teach to those standards, whether you like it or not. So we can (and should) continue to advocate for changes to those standards if we disagree but, in the meantime, it's the law of the land in 45 states so please stop telling teachers they should either ignore them or quit their jobs in protests. Yeah, that's going to help our students.
I could go on (and on, and on), but I think you get the picture. Each and every school has their own structures, restrictions, and culture. Please note that I'm not suggesting we don't advocate for and try to make significant and perhaps radical changes in our schools. What I am suggesting is to stop trashing teachers who are trying to make the best of the current situation. Some folks argue that anything that incrementally improves the status quo is verboten, because it makes it less likely we'll achieve their picture of educational nirvana. Other folks, and I'm one of them, say let's do the best we can with (and for) the students we have in front of us, while still pressing hard for those larger changes we believe in.
And next time you critique someone for their use of lectures, or worksheets, or homework, or anything else, please consider following the resolution above and completing parts two and three as well.
As always, comments are open.