Education reform and failed attempts at reform has been a hot topic for quite a while. I have become even more attuned to these issues lately with several pieces I have read. Below I summarize some of the recent things I’ve read and my own thoughts on education reform. Importantly, I believe we must address teacher beliefs of learning before any reform efforts will pay off.
First, Aaron Eyler writes about pet projects & silver bullets in education reform. He notes that a new paradigm is not likely until enough individuals have had enough with the current system. I particularly like his point that politicians want to brag about how good their system is, not call for complete modification. As long as reform is only the addition of pieces and not the restructuring of these pieces, it will not be long-term.
Deron Durflinger’s writes concerning using technology to provide students with choice. While I do not fully agree with Deron’s ideas, I like the kind of thinking he is using. Having players within the schools considering drastic reform efforts is the first step to effective change. We must be willing, as Deron clearly is.
Weston & Bain (2010) write a very nice published article on education reform that notes the critiques of the techno-critics such as Larry Cuban could apply to nearly all past reform efforts. I particlularly like the last two sentences they write below. When we do not address the fundamental beliefs of teachers, we get nowhere.
Ignoring this truth, techno-critics, retreating to presumptions about the power of teachers and schools, have misstated the case. Doing so, they invoke a more pervasive example of a naked emperor in education that in fact, most change, innovation, and reform efforts have been problematic. In education most attempts at improvement were done “to it not by it” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Improvement efforts consistently did not attend to what teachers do and value (Cuban, 1998, 2003; Cuban & Usdan, 2003). Not surprisingly, most have done little to change, innovate, or reform education (Noddings, 2007; Pogrow, 1996).
Weston & Bain go on to mention that technology needs to become seamless and become a part of the profession rather than an add-on. Much like a surgeon uses a scalpel, they do not even think twice about the technology, they just use it. While there are some problems with this mentality (ignoring the deeper impact of technology on the greater culture), I tend to agree with Weston & Bain.
Then Weston & Bain make what I believe is their most important point. Research based instruction ought to be the focus of reform efforts. Rather than looking to the computers to lead the reform, we must think about how we can use technology in ways that support what is known about teaching and learning. While their message is directed toward 1:1 computing schools, the take home message for me is the same: teachers set the direction of reform.
Adding to their thoughts and invoking the ideas of Neil Postman (technology has a bias and that bias is usually detrimental to authentic educational goals) I believe computers in the hands of ineffective teachers will be used ineffectively. Perhaps more dangerously is that the implicit messages of computers could encourage average or even good teachers to adopt ineffective practices. If we focus our efforts on how to use technology in the classroom, I fear we waste our time. Instead, we must cut to the quick, get to the heart of education. The question education reformers ought to be asking is how do we help teachers better understand how people learn and how to use that knowledge to inform their classroom decisions regarding content, strategies, and tools.
Reform must focus on teacher knowledge & teacher decisions. No strategy fits every situation, so we must build teachers’ knowledge of learning & how to apply that knowledge. We must better educate our educators, not simply give them strategies divorced from strong rationale rooted in what is known about how people learn. That is, too often the magic bullets (as Aaron Eyler noted) are “sold” to teachers without helping them understand why they work. When we get to the deeper reasons for why strategies work, the strategies can be modified by the teacher as they plan for each classes’ needs.
To summarize, I think the reason so many reform efforts have had problems is because they do not address the fundamental issues at hand in education. Most importantly is the role of and decisions made by the teacher. Instead of giving teachers shiny new stuff (whether that be superficial strategies, or technology), we must address teachers’ fundamental views on learning and how to build student knowledge so that it is deep and transferable. (something that can be done with or without the use of modern electronic technologies). Until we try to modify fundamental teacher beliefs about teaching & learning, our reform efforts will be wasted.