November 11, 2010

Risk Free Education

I just returned from our parent-teacher conferences for my children, and I am pleased to say that I was able to have a frank discussion about teaching and learning with one of the teachers. During this conversation, I was told what I new implicitly all along – change requires risk, and not many administrators, teachers, or parents are willing to take a risk to try something new. This is particularly the case if there is a perception that change may negatively impact standardized test scores, if the system isn't perceived as being flawed, or if a new approach is radically different from what has been done in the past (the "If it ain't broke..." syndrome). 

Unfortunately, standardized tests do not measure a student's ability to think critically, solve problems creatively, communicate collaboratively, or act compassionately, arguably all skills more valuable to a student's future than the ability to identify the dependent clause in a sentence or round the number 4,367 to the nearest hundred. Where, when, how, and who is responsible for teaching these critical attributes to our children if not in our classrooms where our children spend such a large portion of their days? 

The use of standardized tests allow teachers and administrators to abdicate their responsibility for teaching students skills that truly will impact their futures. In my children's school, teachers are required by the administration to work through the reading series textbooks page by page, chapter by chapter, using the pre-made fill-in-the-bubble assessments. According to our teachers, this is not optional. But I am curious how many of the teachers have questioned its dictatorial use. I suspect not many, because it is too easy to use - minimal effort is required in planning, implementing, and assessing - and already is established practice. In short, a "no brainer." Given what limited amount I know about human tendencies, the easy, familiar, less rigorous path to a goal is typically preferred over the more challenging, meaningful path. 

So, I was not surprised to hear that many constituencies would be lined up to oppose any change to "traditional" methods of teaching. It is familiar, established, and requires little risk, and presently there is little incentive to change established practice. Change requires risk, after all, and implicitly an admittance of failure, to which few will openly acknowledge, especially not to those over whom they have authority. For many the risks required are too great and very personal - time, energy, ego, power. These are valuable commodities that many are not willing to risk for any reason. But, until a majority of us are willing risk bruising our egos, relinquishing our power and authority over the classroom, and devoting the time and energy necessary to plan and implement instruction that engages students in the aquisition and application of knowledge and understanding in meaningful ways, concrete educational reform will not take place.