Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Content and Structure

Roseville, MN. Stardate now...

Read an essay by the Tanner man (see his new blog when it pending) about the need to create creative and revolutionary spaces around us. At the same time, I am all wound up in helping to create, plan, implement, reflect, and otherwise reproduce structure in the Roseville School District. I am a fan of structure. I create it almost instinctively. It seems to me that without structure nothing is really possible. Yet, the question that Tanner's writing begs and that I struggle with often is to what extent is structure necessarily imposed and unified from an external or standard driven construct, and to what extent does structure rise organically from the space within which it needs to be useful?

One of the beliefs that is in currency is that we are BEHIND in America in our efforts to educate our children. This belief is not without its critics, but it is a belief that drives a lot of activity which seeks to impose structure onto schools, and thus teachers, and thus students. This structure has at its core a desire to ensure that students are equipped to be successful upon arrival at their post-secondary educational setting. The imposition of structure also comes with the assumption that if students are not keeping up with the foreign competition, it must be as a result of ineffective practices in our classrooms. Teachers, it assumes, need to be provided with clear learning outcomes and appropriate instructional strategies for bringing their students to the successful acquisition of those learning outcomes. This is not an unreasonable strategy, even if one does not accept the underlying premise that we are BEHIND.

What is often lost, though, is the ability of the teacher, who in many cases is a skilled professional, and the student, who also has much to contribute, to interact in a meaningful way with these learning outcomes and instructional strategies. One truth of teaching that has always struck me as essential is that you cannot effectively teach someone else's lesson. The process of articulating outcomes and designing engaging activities to match those outcomes allows the educator to fully engage the meaning of the outcomes in such a way as to ensure that they can communicate with students effectively. How much more effective is it if the student can also interact meaningfully with the outcomes and assist in the design of their learning activities so that they also understand and engage the purpose of the learning?

The rub in this is that in order for the student to engage the educational outcomes (read STANDARDS) in a meaningful way, they need to have some latitude around how they understand them and in what they do to learn and demonstrate learning. This is considerably more anarchy and revolution than the system seems inclined to find comforting, not to mention the fact that educators are generally not equipped for that level of student involvement in the first place. Of particular difficulty is the fact that to truly engage students in a meaningful learning process takes a lot of time, time that we have eliminated by the dissection of the student day into small, content-driven units filled with STANDARDS that take considerably more time than is already available within those time chunks.

It would seem that efforts to explore this problem differently are generally believed to have failed (as in the Open School model of the 1970s) but there are current examples of how it can work (

Tanner is developing a model for creating the space within which the collaborative of teacher/student/standard could take place. The trick is to figure out the school model within which that classroom model could work.

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