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5 Changes That Mark The Death of School As We Know It and What To Do

October 27, 2012
I began my teaching career with one thought in my head – I could teach better than those who taught me. Well, at least most of those who taught me.  My passion for becoming a teacher was to engage the minds of the kids in my class and make education fun.

Then I started teaching.  It was hard.  Really hard. Eventually I figured “it” out.  I spent countless hours perfecting my presentations and class assignments, and kids would even say they liked my class.  I got “good” scores on teacher effectiveness and had parents clamoring for kids to be in my class.

Yet what I had created was an isolated piece, for isolated kids, of an isolated positive experience.  I couldn’t differentiate my lessons to meet the needs of every kid.  I viewed my class as one of the courses on a kid’s schedule and didn’t concern myself with other courses being taught by other people.  The activities I created had little to do with learning the skills necessary to be successful in life, but rather skills necessary to be successful in school.  And there is a marked difference between those two skill sets.

In a world where having a degree was a distinguishing factor between those with jobs and those without, playing school is fine.  In a flat world where a degree is just as likely to land you in your parents basement as it is in a job where you can actually live on your own, playing school well is not a given to opportunity.

When the jobs of tomorrow do not even exist, how can we possibly think that what we are doing in the classroom can remain the same?  Regardless of how many times you hear that our kids need to have good critical thinking skills, be innovative, and know how to collaborate, its just true.  Yet we don’t change schools.  We accountability them to death.

So what is next?

Here are the five changes that will change how we do school and mark the death of school as we know it.

1. Wireless devices.  Five years ago, I would have called you absolutely insane if you tried to explain to me what an iPad was.  Five years from now, who knows what the next generation of tech will be. But with the invent of the laptop, then the iPad, and now the economical feasibility of every student having a mobile device, it doesnt matter what we have in five years.  We know that every kid will have some device that works wirelessly and it will have access to more information and content than we could access in a million lifetimes.  Life will be about how to access this monstrosity and apply it.  Teachers will not be viewed as experts in content.  They will be needed to help navigate and guide.  Explanations will be so readily available, waiting on a teacher for an explanation will be considered archaic.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  Putting as much money and time into building infrastructure that supports wireless devices.  Yes, it will be important to purchase wireless devices.  But even more important is to make sure that when the device is handed to the student, the tech infrastructure is in place to meet the wireless access load.

2. Blended Learning.  Educators need to be aware that varied forms of blended learning, a mix of classroom experience and computer/online instruction, is creating havoc on accountability measures.  There are only a handful of public schools across the country that have implemented blended learning for several years.  In those schools, learning outcomes are crushing those of non-blended schools with similar demographics. And these schools are doing it with less staff.  Business leaders understand what a disruptive innovation is.  Educators have no idea.  Yet they are about to become the slaughtered lambs.  We know teachers are vital to the success of students and learning.  However, we are finding out very quickly that by using blended learning approaches, we need less teachers AND we get better results.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  Planning and implementing a blended learning model into every school over the next three years.  This may seem like a short timeframe, but it is not.  Blended learning is the tidal wave coming.  Disruptive innovations are not concerned with people.  They are created by situations where economics and results dictate change.  Its time to get on the wave before you have no chance of getting on it.  If systems are too late, they will find themselves in battles with teachers, PR nightmares, lawsuits, flight from public schools to online schools, and infinitely other issues.  Simply put, instead of making a gradual transition, systems will be forced to make huge cuts at one time and the teachers who stay will not be ready.  A gradual transition will provide schools and systems the opportunity to implement blended learning models with a focus on quality and learn from small mistakes.

3. PBLs.  PBLs are problem/project based learning activities that require students to work collaboratively to apply content and create new ideas.  PBLs are the backbone to STEM education and the business world collective needs – critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration.  Quality PBL work is the closest and most realistic learning activity to business work.  Without PBL work, school is a series of test taking strategies and unapplied content regurgitation.  PBLs are the integral piece to developing holistic student thinking, and increasing student marketibility.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  Defining and describing the planning steps associated with developing PBLs at each grade level.  The PBLs must be cross-curricular and include performance tasks that demonstrate student understanding and application of content area standards/learning targets.  This is an area that is challenging for teachers, as it requires educators to think about schools as a whole, rather than a series of disconnected individual parts or classes.  This year should be the year for someone on every school staff to learn about PBL work.  Next year, every school should be implementing at least one pilot PBL across the content.  Within five years, PBLs should be required across all grade levels.

4. Individualized Learning.  Differentiation is one of the most popular words used in education.  Yet, the dirty little secret about differentiation is that its almost impossible to do.  In study after study, time is cited as if not the biggest constraint, in the top three.  So how can individualized learning be on this list?  Simple.  In the last year alone, all of the largest online education content providers have been working to introduce tablet based courses for almost all the curricula you would find in any school.  The courses include direct instructional videos by some of the best teachers in the country, real time practice and feedback tools, and online assessment opportunities that provide immediate results.  The notion of everyone sitting in the same class, at the same time, with the same teacher, talking about the same stuff is something that my daughters (who are six and seven) will think is asinine by the time they are high school age.  The software is already here for PCs.  It will be here within the next nine months on tablet devices as well.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  In the blended learning models that are implemented, schools and systems should make sure that individualized learning opportunities exist for some of these implementations.  It will be important to pilot a blending learning model, like a flex model, where students pace individually and a teacher holds workshops for students with similar needs.  Needs may include activities that apply the learning completed on an online module, and, of course, remediation for those who are having difficulty with a certain standard/ learning target.  Within three to five years, all math courses should be taught using individualized learning.  Those schools who teach math traditionally will be lapped by those using individualized learning blended models.

5. Grading and Assessment.  For any school not using standards based grading, communicated grades are filled with items that skew the accuracy of the grade.  For example, kids getting credit for doing homework, yet not having mastery over the content is grading malpractice.  Yet we continue to think of grading in terms of quantity, as opposed to quality.  We also focus on when kids know information, as opposed to if they know the information.  As schools adopt blended learning and PBL work, grading will change.  The focus of our assessment attention will move from when and compliance to if and level of quality.  Teachers will have a difficult time making this change as they have very little experience in how to grade any other way.  However, when time is no longer a determinng factor, but rather if the student knows and can show us they know the content, grading will change.  Teachers will adapt, but, ironically, this will be the most difficult adjustment for educators and parents.

What should schools and systems be doing now?  There is a definitive need for schools and systems to look closely at their current grading practices.  An easy intermediate step is for schools to move away from categories in the gradebook of assignment types (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.) and require categories based on standards (in English, for example, writing, literature, speaking, etc.).  This will force teachers to enter grades that only show what a student knows about the standard.  This step should be implemented within the next two to three years.

The next five years will be the most impactful five years in the history of modern education.  We will not recognize our schools.  For those that adapt earlier, we will be singing their praises.  For those who do not adapt, they will be leasing buildings or running prisons.

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