Saturday, March 13, 2010

Removing Versus from Our Ed. Reform Dialogue

by John Clemente

TED talks are often an incubator for iconoclastic thinking - the talks in general carry the message think out of the box. And so it comes as no surprise that the TEDxNYED conference speakers last weekend delivered a message that runs counter to the current big trends in education- There is a national movement towards developing common standards. There are incentives for states to lift caps on charter schools. States are building complex electronic assessment systems to track and analyze standardized student test data.

The speakers at TEDxNYED emphasized their ideas are at odds with these trends. They spoke of how the classroom environment needs to be redesigned to foster collaboration and self-directed student learning; how we need to shift from standardized assessments to portfolio assessments that focus on the creation process. They spoke of how we need to co-opt gaming/fantasy culture, social media and incorporate real world problems to engage students in learning; how broadening the curriculum (not narrowing it) is critical to preparing our children for tomorrow's world.

Many of the talks were inspiring and that kind of thinking needs to be more prominent in the national education reform conversation.


All of the talks stayed inside the box with regard to how we dialogue about education publicly. It is a well-worn war paradigm... whole language vs. phonics... core knowledge vs. critical thinking skills... Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader... good guys vs. bad guys metaphor of your choice...

This paradigm doesn't work in the best interests of a child's education. When I was a teacher, my 6th grade students in the Bronx endured changing reading programs 3 times in 5 years. Switching philosophy in a reading curriculum is good politically- those in charge get a clean slate and time to implement their new initiative. But it is disruptive to the child’s learning experience. When we switch from whole language one year to a phonics focused program the next, students lose consistency; something all too familiar for the students I taught.

Michael Wesch said something that resonated on this chord for me. He described his experiences studying the people of Papua New Guinea. Instead of putting people on trial, they put the failed relationships between them on trial. We need to shift our national education dialogue this way. There should be less finger pointing, wagging and gesturing in our dialogue, and more hand holding, shaking and slapping with an emphasis on building relationships and making connections between ideas that people often rush to say are inherently at odds. We should view all of the current innovative ideas –including those that carry the banner of “market-based reforms” and those that are of the “school 2.0/21st Century” ilk- as a patchwork of thinking that it is our responsibility to weave together.

The thought leaders that spoke at this conference need to be assertive in the way they connect their ideas to the thinking of the people carrying forward reforms with a focus on accountability and standards. There will be common standards, there will be more charter schools, there will be a bigger emphasis on standardized assessments. All of this will happen whether they choose to engage with them or not. While there is reason to be leery, there is also tremendous potential for good in these trends. I suggest we all weave our solutions to that quilt.

There are nascent innovative projects like School of One, a project to rethink human capital in the school context and utilize technology to personalize student learning, that would benefit greatly from the thinking of the speakers at TEDxNYED. I implore these innovators to knock on the door and invite themselves to sit at the table to make connections between their ideas and the reforms rapidly taking root. This challenge is perhaps more difficult than setting the course for education independent of the accountability movement; but it is also a much more worthy cause. Otherwise, for these provocateurs, the echo of their voices will continue to fade into the background- lost to the next generation of leaders.

John Clemente is the Director of Educational Services at Teaching Matters


  1. OMG! This exactly the way I have been thinking for sometime now. There is no question that we should be teaching our students to use technology to learn. Our school district is in the middle of a huge controversy right now with the school board at odds with educators. Right now both sides are pointing fingers and as a result nothing productive is getting done.

  2. John - your post emphasizes the practical, a very important point. This is always an issue in reform - big thinkers and visionaries are frequently not the people on the front lines (with some exceptions). There is a freedom in the lack of accountability that comes with not being in the trenches. But I am sure you agree they serve an important purpose. A recent cartoon post of mine (Luddites & Visionaries in Educational Technology talks to this point. As the tide rises all ships raise up. It IS important for people such as the thought leaders (I love that term) to dialog meaningfully with "on the ground" leaders and deal with the changes that are occurring, but it is at least equally important for them to keep visioning for the future, suggesting new ideas, and moving forward in 'out of the box' ways - and remain iconoclasts challenging conventional thinking.

  3. John, I hear you. I've seen it in my work with teachers. Back when the NAS, NRC was in the Final Draft for the NSES, I formed one of hundreds of Focus Groups of scientists and teachers to review and comment on this work. We did a consciensious job & they are good science standards that focus on learning science content through the process of inquiry. What happened is typical to what you describe in reading. Perhaps we are observing a symptom of our culture.

  4. "They spoke of how we need to co-opt gaming/fantasy culture,"

    This is quite possibly the most absurd idea I've ever read as a means to improve education. We need to stop looking to the lowest common denominator within pop culture as our guide. We also need to start thinking more like adults and not like kids. Psychologically, this really does underscore the theory of delayed adolescence and the Peter Pan syndrome within our populace.