Reinventing Education To Teach Creativity And Entrepreneurship

A new Landaff teacher in the 1940s watches as ...

A new Landaff teacher in the 1940s watches as a student writes on the blackboard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our schools should be producing kids who tinker, make, experiment, collaborate, question

We don’t need to memorize things any more, but we still need teachers to guide our students toward learning the best ways to problem solve. The question is: How do you measure that?

But this is not the rant you think it is.

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: As a former high school teacher, I’m not opposed to standardized testing. Common assessments are a critical way of maintaining high expectations for all kids. Great teachers want benchmarks to measure progress and ensure that they are closing the gap between students in their classroom and the kids across town. What you measure should matter. The problem is, most American classrooms are measuring the wrong thing.

Schools used to be gatekeepers of knowledge, and memorization was key to success. Thus, we measured students’ abilities to regurgitate facts and formulas. Not anymore. As Seth Godin writes, “If there’s information that can be recorded, widespread digital access now means that just about anyone can look it up. We don’t need a human being standing next to us to lecture us on how to find the square root of a number.”

Given this argument, many entrepreneurs see a disruptive opportunity to “democratize” education, meaning that everyone now has a platform from which to teach, and anyone can learn anything anywhere anytime. Ventures like Udacity, ShowMe, LearnZillion, and Skillshare increase the efficiency of the learning market by lowering barriers to knowledge acquisition.

Yet there is an inherent bias in the promise of these new platforms that favors extraordinarily self-directed learners.

But by itself, this “any thing/place/time” learning won’t lead to the revolution we seek. We also have the responsibility of unlocking the potential of every student because the world needs more leaders, problem-finders, and rule-breakers. Teachers are perfectly positioned to take on this challenge.

The primary purpose of teaching can now shift away from “stand and deliver” and becomes this: to be relentless about making sure every student graduates ready to tinker, create, and take initiative.

Sarah Beth Greenberg, a visionary elementary school principal in New Orleans, describes this as the balance between the art and science within teaching. The art is in the relationships you build with kids, and the science is purposeful assessment that generates real evidence of student growth.

Which brings me back to my original point. Accountability is a good thing, but only when you are measuring what matters.

Dan Meyer is right when he describes today’s curriculum as “paint-by-numbers classwork, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them.” Imagine a world where the math textbook was replaced with open-ended, thought-provoking opportunities to question the world around us. In these classrooms, students would learn how to think, how to find problems, not just plug in numbers to solve them. What if quizzes measured kids’ ability to question, not answer?

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The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand

Secretary Arne Duncan Visits New York, Discuss...
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MICHAEL MULGREW is an affable former Brooklyn vocational-high-school teacher who took over last year as head of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers when his predecessor, Randi Weingarten, moved to Washington to run the national American Federation of Teachers. Over breakfast in March, we talked about a movement spreading across the country to hold public-school teachers accountable by compensating, promoting or even removing them according to the results they produce in class, as measured in part by student test scores. Mulgrew’s 165-page union contract takes the opposite approach. It not only specifies everything that teachers will do and will not do during a six-hour-57 ½-minute workday but also requires that teachers be paid based on how long they have been on the job. Once they’ve been teaching for three years and judged satisfactory in a process that invariably judges all but a few of them satisfactory, they are ensured lifetime tenure.

Next to Mulgrew was his press aide, Richard Riley. “Suppose you decide that Riley is lazy or incompetent,” I asked Mulgrew. “Should you be able to fire him?”

“He’s not a teacher,” Mulgrew responded. “And I need to be able to pick my own person for a job like that.” Then he grinned, adding: “I know where you’re going, but you don’t understand. Teachers are just different.”

That is the kind of story that makes Jon Schnur smile. Schnur, who runs a Manhattan-based school-reform group called New Leaders for New Schools, sits informally at the center of a network of self-styled reformers dedicated to overhauling public education in the United States. They have been building in strength and numbers over the last two decades and now seem to be planted everywhere that counts. They are working in key positions in school districts and charter-school networks, legislating in state capitals, staffing city halls and statehouses for reform-minded mayors and governors, writing papers for policy groups and dispensing grants from billion-dollar philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp; and the New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein could be considered the patron saints of the network.

Over the last several months, Schnur and the well-positioned fellow travelers on his speed dial have seen the cause of their lives take center stage. Why the sudden shift from long-simmering wonk debate to political front burner? Because there is now a president who, when it comes to school reform, really does seem to be a new kind of Democrat — and because of a clever idea Schnur had last year to package what might otherwise have been just another federal grant program into a media-alluring, if cheesy-sounding, contest called Race to the Top. It has turned a relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could end up overshadowing health care reform in its impact and that is already upending traditional Democratic Party politics. The activity set off by the contest has enabled Schnur’s network to press as never before its frontal challenge to the teachers’ unions: they argue that a country that spends more per pupil than any other but whose student performance ranks in the bottom third among developed nations isn’t failing its children for lack of resources but for lack of trained, motivated, accountable talent at the front of the class.

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