Rebecca, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, has a doctorate in her field. Her dissertation topic was a study of the effectiveness of Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools.
Sizer was an influential educational leader in the late 20th century. His Coalition of Essential Schools was designed to align America’s high schools with principles originally advocated decades earlier by John Dewey.
CES high school proponents believed:
- learning is using one’s mind well
- less is more (depth over coverage)
- school goals should apply to all students
- personalization should be emphasized, with teachers held responsible for individualized student progress
- students held accountable for learning, with teachers serving as their coaches
- mastery of learning determined through student performance of real tasks, using multiple forms of evidence concluding with an “exhibition” of skills and knowledge areas
- a school’s “tone” one of decency and trust based on “unanxious expectation,” not standards and penalties for not meeting them
- interdisciplinary thinking prevails among all teachers, not an emphasis on subject matter, thereby demonstrating commitment to the school’s total mission
- budgets focus exclusively on teaching and learning in such areas as planning time, personalization of instruction, and staff salaries
- school policies inclusive, democratic, and based on equality
With some external funding, these ideas were accepted by many high schools across the nation. Extra funding made it possible to keep schools comparatively small and allowed them to meet the ten principles.
But by 2018 the standards and high stakes testing requirements, as well as political acceptance of micromanaged accountability, destroyed the movement. And the COVID pandemic put the last nail in the coffin.
Rebecca knows much about Dewey’s philosophy, the rise and fall of CES, and how close the language arts SAC is growing toward constructing these processes.
But she has remained silent.
Soon she will try to comment on the ideas bubbling up from Barbara and other SAC members.
They realize two truths: (1) in some ways, they overlap the philosophy of the CES, and (2) they are different as they push the idea of language arts and technology used as core media through which everything else is taught and learned.
Rebecca knows that discussing Dewey and Sizer is an esoteric exercise for a group of building educators. And a hard sell for the district. But she wants to see how the idea plays out.
Because this approach might be at the core of a new learning infrastructure.
Barbara Leads Discussion on Her Summary of Prior Ideas – Part 12
Using my computer and projector, I displayed the points summarized:
The district is moving toward emphasizing project teaching and learning. That approach may require:
- more instructional planning including multiple teaching methods and group interactions.
- teacher imagination.
- acceptance of interdisciplinary considerations.
- real-life applications.
- a mindset that accepts creative language as a medium for incorporating other disciplines.
- skills associated with storytelling to frame complementary ideas and actions.
- creating scenarios that teach probable outcomes as well as alternate possibilities.
Instead of addressing each one in sequence, I asked for questions and comments about any or all seven of the points. Rebecca raised her hand.
Rebecca talked about Ted Sizer and John Dewey, but that kind of academic background information was clearly too philosophical for SAC members to deal with. The faces of most SAC members turned to stone.
Recognizing the issue, Rebecca said, “I’ll revisit those philosophical ideas later. Let’s go back to Barbara’s list. What do you think about her points?”
First grade teacher Billie mumbled, “Did we really talk about those points? They only look vaguely familiar, and it’s only been 90 minutes since the end of this morning’s meeting.”
Others laughed, but I could see there was some agreement with Billie.
“Maybe I editorialized a little to synthesize the ideas we discussed,” I said. “Did I misinterpret or inadvertently add something only I was thinking?”
Billie said, “No, they just seem a little more exotic when summarized. Let me see if I can put them into language first graders might recognize.
“In my classroom students are involved in a variety of things and love to talk with each other about common projects. And, wow, do they ever have imagination!
“My first graders don’t see the world in categories. To them the world is fascination with anything they can see, touch, analyze, manipulate, examine, explore, and wonder about. They see it as an amazing story in which they are a part.
“I laugh when adults use words like conjecture and hypothesis in serious ways, as if they are formal and scientific. My students may not be able to define those words, but they live their meaning every minute of every day. They constantly speculate, wondering what would happen if….”
Third grade teacher Jackie responded by pointing to her laptop, where she had pulled up information about a book titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, written in 1989 by Robert Fulghum.
She read a few passages: “I believe imagination is stronger than knowledge. Myth is more potent than history. Dreams are more powerful than facts. Hope always triumphs over experience. Laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe love is stronger than death.”
Jackie said, “Maybe that sounds like a silly reaction, but as a third-grade teacher I begin to see the flash of curiosity disappear from the eyes of some students. And when I walk down the hall and see my past students, now in upper grades, most of them look almost dazed. They stare at cell phones or nothing at all.
“It’s as if school is drudgery, except for social aspects found in friendship, sports, and relationship-building. What happened to those first graders excited about life and learning? Where does that excitement go?”
Fifth grade teacher Bob, feeling somewhat defensive, said he tries to encourage his students to be excited and involved with life and learning. “I’ve found the way to keep kids engaged with life is to put them in simulated or real scenarios. It’s a little hard to explain, but I acknowledge the existence of social media and recognize much of what my students are reading and saying. I recognize it, though not necessarily accept it as being valuable. But even something that looks like nonsensical trivia is valuable in the context of the larger issues of the day.”
Jack, the high school principal, looked annoyed. He said, “Our job as educators is to help students understand that society requires self-discipline, hard work, and the determination to make good decisions and serious contributions to our communities. That’s what maturity is about.
“Learning that life is not just whimsy and playing pretend. It is preparing adults to enter the real world of work, making a living, and being responsible citizens. Our nation and world need that approach to education more than ever!”
I was not sure what to say after Jack’s declaration. Many people think the way Jack does and with good reason. Responsible behavior is certainly associated with following rules and laws. Meeting expectations. Coloring within the lines.
To those people the concept of creativity is chaotic, uncomfortable, and unpredictable.
It was almost time to end the meeting, so I told the group I would transcribe my notes and begin tomorrow’s meeting with a discussion of the emerging two points-of-view.
How those two viewpoints can be merged to result in a new way of thinking about curriculum.
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