Friday, February 25, 2011

Education Opinions Part 2: "Big" Changes

For those of you who haven't already seen Education Opinions Part 1, I recently discussed "small" changes I would make in education (school start times, recess, and lunches). Today I want to talk about "big" changes I would make in education (if I were in a position of incredible power!)--age-based grades, online learning, and authority hierarchy in school. 

Age-Based Grade Levels
I took two electives recently at Redmond Junior High. Everyone asked what grade I was in. It would go something like this:
"Adora, what grade are you in?"
"Ninth grade."
They look incredulously at my apparently seventh-grade style of dress (i.e., sweaters and shirts vs. tank tops and jackets) and say, "You're in ninth grade?"
"Yeah," I nod quickly, and explain, "I skipped a grade."

[Actually, it's feasible that I skipped two grades, since twelve-year-olds are often put in seventh grade (depending on when your birthday is) but usually I say I just skipped one, since I'm now thirteen.]

One's grade in school decides what you'll learn and the level at which you'll learn it. It decides when you'll graduate from high school and even the friends you'll make (most of your friends are probably in your grade or close to it). My question is why your age, not your aptitude, should determine your grade. I am at a loss as to the benefits of putting a group of people of approximately the same age--but of varying aptitudes--into one room where they will all learn the same thing. The quicker students will sit bored while the teacher re-explains a concept they already know from their voracious reading, while the slower students will be confused and left out by the rapid pace at which everyone else seems to be progressing.

My parents homeschooled my sister and me for many years. Why? Because the local school insisted that I, being three, should go to preschool, and my sister, being five, should go to kindergarten. The problem? You learn your alphabet in preschool, and I was already reading chapter books. At the same time, however, I was not so far along with math and science. In other words, I was not "advanced" in everything. Yet many gifted and talented programs try to put students into all-around advanced classes.

Wouldn't it make more sense to be able to take some kind of test (oral, written, multiple choice, or informal discussion with a counselor) to determine what level you would be? Maybe then I could have taken a test which would have allowed me to learn at second grade reading and history level, and kindergarten or first grade math and science.

To me, this approach makes far more sense than sorting students into grades based on when your birthday is. Would you ever tell a son or daughter, little brother or sister, "You weren't born before September 1st, so I'm not going to help you learn your alphabet"? Yet that is what our school system does every year.

Placement tests to sort students into levels would put students with a larger knowledge base into higher grades, but a large knowledge base doesn't necessarily mean a love of learning. I'd propose that honors/gifted status would then be determined by a student's desire to learn and exhibition of independent learning traits (i.e., reading a lot outside of school, tracking current events, etc.). For instance, if you're a ten-year-old who's been advanced to seventh-grade level mathematics, you'd be placed in the honors math class. The material covered would be the same as the seventh-grade level math (because honors classes would no longer have to serve only as a means of providing harder material--you'd be placed in a higher grade if you had that large knowledge base), but there would be more discussion, extracurricular activity, etc.

I personally think that there is no obvious benefit to having an age-based grade system. (Can anyone think of obvious pros?) But there are many obvious, compelling reasons why not to have one.

Perhaps I should add that age-based grades don't necessarily have to be wiped out completely (as in, you could still say, "I'm a seventh grader," "I'm a ninth grader," etc.), but that they would be mainly symbolic and would not decide the level of classes you should take.

Authority Hierarchy in School
I definitely think that students need to get involved in decision-making on a deeper level, beyond simply being on an associated student government or student council. At the TEDx conference I organized last year, TEDxRedmond, several speakers (all of whom were under 18), spoke movingly on their opinions about education and certain ways their schools had supported and/or failed them.

In many countries, schools are preparing students to participate in a democratic environment; yet schools themselves tend to be extremely autocratic, with all high-level decisions being made by adults. Let students have a voice--use online technology to have students give constructive feedback to their teachers and school administrators. Implement student suggestions. Put students on school district boards. Allow students to help form curriculum and get their ideas on which assignments work best for them. Hold regular meetings where students are invited to speak to their school officials.

Online Learning
Every school district should have an online learning framework, so that "blended learning" (partially online, partially in-person) can be an option for students. Students could read more of the fact-based lesson material online, so that when they came to class in-person, time could be used on higher-order thinking skills like experiments, projects, and the like. A lot of excellent learning takes place when students are face-to-face with each other and a teacher, yet there are situations where students may not always be able to make it to class. Should students not be able to continue doing any of their work simply because of a school flu epidemic, school staff on strike, snow days, or absences? 

Other obvious benefits of incorporating online learning:
- Teachers could post assignments, students could submit responses, and teachers could grade them, all online, without worrying about endless stacks of paper.
- Students could keep up with what was going on in class and see instant grade updates.
- Teachers could post multiple-choice tests, which can be easily computer-graded, online, and save themselves from the tedious work of checking multiple choice answers.
- Students could review materials from past lessons before a test.
- Teachers could easily post links and resources online for students to view.
- Parents could keep updated on what was happening in class.
- By using tools like Elluminate, Skype, GoToMeeting, chat, Google Voice, etc., teachers could easily stay in touch with students (particularly when students had questions).

As a student at an online public high school, I see my teachers using many of these tools. Many of my teachers have Google Voice as well as embeddable chat tools, so we can quickly get in contact.

Of course, like the "small" changes, all the "big" changes will cost money. Where will that come from?

Among other places, maybe by cutting some of the money that goes into competitive sports (could we make certain sports co-ed, for example?) They provide excellent opportunities for young people to exercise and learn, but do we really need so much expensive transportation for competitions, coaches, and sports gear? (Not to mention new research showing the dangers of certain sports, like football.) Besides, if you read my earlier "small" changes post, you'll notice I mentioned bringing back recess and making PE a daily fifteen-minute class throughout every school year, making exercise routine and not necessarily competitive.

Finally, students should take international studies classes, since it's often shocking how little Americans know about other countries. (Can you name all the provinces of Canada? Mexico's president? Capital of Denmark?)

I know this post is quite long, and because of the extreme municipal-level management of schools, many of these changes are seemingly impossible. I'm hoping that we can work toward a better school system in the coming days and years.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Education Opinions Part 1

My mom once asked me about the first steps I would hypothetically take to make a "better school." I don't claim to be an education expert, but I do have personal opinions about the ideal school--one I'd like to go to. Among many other things, I said that I would change school starting times, improve cafeteria lunches, and bring back recess. These would be good first steps because they help a lot of students a little bit. Given, they do touch the surface, but they can have wide-reaching impacts.

"Small" Measures: Starting Times, Recess, and Lunches
Starting Times
Studies have repeatedly shown that everyone, but children with developing brains in particular, need a good amount of high-quality sleep. It's difficult to get when you have to worry about waking up at 7 in the morning to go to school. Not everyone is a morning lark, and by starting school so early, not only students but also educators have to stave off yawns throughout the day.

I was at a conference where a well-respected doctor who'd studied sleep habits for many years shared information (which I've roughly paraphrased) that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 AM and end at 11 AM. Yet we're starting school at 7 or 7:30 AM. While I wouldn't quite change school start times to 11 AM (since we have to consider parents who have to go to work), I think it would be reasonable to move them to 8:45 AM or after. Then hypothetically a teenager could go to bed at 12 AM (as many often do), wake up at 8, shower and eat breakfast, and go to school with 8 rather than 5 or 6 hours of sleep.

Another step: make cafeteria lunches better. There would be a cap on the amount of sodium, fat, and calorie content allowed in each lunch. Nonfat or 1-2% milk (and in smaller containers--who really drinks that much milk?) instead of whole, no chocolate milk, no soft drinks, and no vending machines with unhealthy items. A certain percentage of food served would have to be organic and/or local. Have smaller portions to help minimize cost (we all know how much food gets dumped out). Have the school's foods classes, and maybe the entire student body, help make lunch on certain days.

This might be controversial among students, but I think it would be a good idea to have randomly assigned seating during lunch. The social division that occurs when students simply pick out where they want to sit can be hurtful and exclusive to students new to the school or children with difficulty making friends. Also, I think that teachers rarely eat lunch and converse with the students. I've learned a lot from being able to have conversations with adults. So, teachers would be required to eat lunch with the students--at least on certain days--(and really, if they really can't stand students to the extent that they can't eat with them, should they be teaching?) I don't want to sound too uptight, but it might be useful to have lunchtime (or at least part of it) double as a class in good manners and etiquette--particularly helpful for students who don't often have the ability to experience fine dining. Not to mention it might cut down on food fight incidents.

Making nutritious school lunches would be an excellent way to begin combating child obesity; another way would be to bring back recess, at all grade levels. In middle and high school you might have a somewhat more organized approach (as in, now we're going to be playing Capture the Flag), depending on students, because I could envision people simply standing around and talking to each other instead of exercising.

Perhaps instead of a dreaded required class one semester of junior high, physical education could become a fun, daily fifteen-minute vigorous game-playing time? A lot has been said about boys being kinesthenic learners, and I'm sure it wouldn't hurt anyone to move around more.


In my second part, Education Opinions Part 2 (the "big" changes), I'll be talking about changing the age-based grade system, authority hierarchy in school, and online learning.