by GABRIELLE LENSCH PLASTRIK
Recently, I was in San Francisco for the Learning and the Brain technology conference. While there, there was an accident involving Bart trains at the West Oakland station. Hundreds of people crowded the Powell street Bart station, eager to find a way across the bay. Finally, a train arrived heading toward Dublin. People crammed into the train, looking like pictures of train stations in Japan. I could smell the wool of the woman standing next to me’s jacket. We were close. The train moved two stations, to Embarcadero where the powers that be decided that the train was going back to where it came from. Everyone had to get off of the train. The problem was, though, that the Embarcadero station was crammed full of people. There was hardly enough room to squeeze off of the train. The roar of people made it nearly impossible to hear the announcements about what was happening. There was mass confusion and little progress.
Thankfully, I called my sister, who lives in the Bay Area, and she said I could hop on a bus four blocks from there. I was one of the first twenty people to leave the station and one of the first four or five to climb the stairs of the nearly empty bus. We were in Oakland within a block of our destination in twenty minutes. Every single person on the bus was exceptionally nice, helping others to find seats, locate their cars, call loved ones, figure out directions, make change, and pay fairs. Meanwhile, hundreds of people sat and waited in the crowded subway stations for upwards of an hour before boarding trains. We had breathing room, a happy, rather than frustrated, community, and arrived at our destinations instead of just going back and forth.
To me, this story is allegorical of the current educational situation. Many schools are on a path that seems to be “the better path,” the same way that most passengers would prefer to ride on trains than on buses, which are older and sturdier, but also slower and more individualized. The giant factory high school with lecture-based and content-driven classrooms moves quickly through the stages of education. It is educating the masses in a way that factories have shown is very successful at mass production. The problem is, our students, children and teens, are not products and are, for the most part, not entering a future that involves working in factories like those of the 1880s for which schools prepare them.
I know that most of the last paragraph’s ideas are not new. The charter school movement demonstrates that Americans are looking for alternatives, that the old model is not good enough for many teachers, families, and students. It frequently also mimics people getting off of one train to ride on another one that may or may not make it to its final destination—remember, two stations forward, a whole line back. Some charter schools are succeeding at getting to their destination stations faster and more efficiently than the public system. Fifteen percent of charter schools nation-wide are performing better than their public school counter parts (Tirozzi, Executive Director of NASSP). That’s something. It really is, but it is not everything.
Why, though, are so few schools leaving the station altogether? School reformers continuously look for ways to board a train, to improve test scores, to fill students with more information, to make that information more interesting. Why not consider moving to a less convenient system that will get individuals closer to their learning destinations? The new model, as far as I am concerned, needs to be a wide array of models. For instance, some new schools are “high tech” schools that focus on teaching problem solving and critical thinking skills in addition to using technology. This model is, in many ways, based on the model of high tech businesses. It will appeal to many students and prepare all students for the increasingly technological world. It’s a good model. Some that are having success with it are the High Tech High Network, New Tech Network, and Quest to Learn. What, though, about the arts? What about languages? What about the pieces of knowledge that are worth passing from one generation to the next that are difficult to discover through problem solving?
Can problem solving and critical thinking skills not be taught through other, less technology based models? Technology can run parallel to other curricula without being the central focus. At the conference, I listened to presentation after presentation arguing for these tech-based models. One after the other demonstrated how history, math, science, PE, and language arts skills could be taught based on this model. Literature was markedly missing.
I have long been a proponent of teaching humanities courses instead of just literature classes. The skills we teach in the analysis of literature can be applied to the analysis of movies, physical art, dance, opera, theater, and music. It can only benefit students to be exposed to a greater variety of art, and it seems like it would help them hone their writing and speaking skills to have to transfer those skills across genres. With that in mind, these arts are markedly missing from the new tech model. Students might be creating art of all varieties, but they are not being trained to analyze them. The mental acrobatics required to analyze a piece of art and synthesize one’s argument help train the brain to solve problems on a more sophisticated level (Great Books Foundation). Without practice students will become adults who cannot do that skill. That is just how the brain works. Brains prune what they are not using (Judy Willis, author of Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, and Challenging).
Almost every keynote speaker at the conference argued for giving students time for focused thinking. I know no better way to provide for focused thinking than interpretive discussion of a challenging text. Interpretive discussion teaches problem solving and critical thinking. It is decidedly low tech. I’m not sure that this successful and long-standing strategy for effective education should be left in the dust just because it does not incorporate technology, but I can feel the rush toward trains leaving the station without much attention being paid to where they are going or for how long. If we are going to climb out of the subway station, perhaps we should check first with someone outside of the station already and see what is working and with which students. I could not have found the bus if I had not contacted my sister. Likewise, without looking at schools that are successful or studying new ideas within our own schools, is it necessarily the best idea to leave behind what we know?
Now, I am certainly not arguing for the status quo. I am, however, arguing for caution. Jane Healy, the author of popular psychology books such as Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child’s Learning Differences, pointed out that we do not actually know the effects of extensive screen and computer time on 3 year old brains. Just because we can hand them an Ipod touch does not necessarily mean that we should. She was certainly not trying to persuade her audience that technology does not have a place in pre-school classrooms, but the reminder to consider the consequences of progress seems well-timed.
I want schools to use technology. I even want some schools to be based on the new high tech models. I just also want educators and reformers to think they are leaving the station when they are really just on trains going back and forth: If we use technology to reinforce models that have proven not to be successful, we are not making progress. If we embrace any reform without considering the consequences and weighing the benefits, we are not making progress. Everyone should probably have left the station and gotten on buses. It was the most efficient, effective, and logical solution. It’s just also important to remember that we got on different buses and went to a wider array of locations.
I guess the core of my argument is that part of the problem with the old model of schooling is that there is one predominate model. Let’s not make the same mistake again and let’s not just abandon strategies that are working because they are part of the old model. The ideal would be to look at our kids and the world they need to be prepared for and, using backwards design, plan schools that adequately prepare them, test those schooling models, and then employ a wide variety of them, giving families choices about which educational path to pursue. Progress is possible.
Gabrielle teaches English and Drama at a school for gifted students in Madison, WI.