26 February 2013

Revolution, viva la!

I made a snide remark the other day on facebook about how nervous it makes administrators when I greet them with a clenched fist and the word "revolution". The remark was largely in jest, (even though I do routinely greet my bosses this way) but it got me to thinking; what would really revolutionize teaching and school in this country?

So, as I was walking out of a classroom where the book work for the day was dutifully transcribed onto the board, I was thinking about how we could really really revolutionize teaching in America. I was pondering how we could adapt to the Information Age, how we could move everything online, the power of data to personalize instruction and what all of that would mean for schools, especially for the roles schools fill that are non-academic.

I'll admit, my brain was hurting. I couldn't think of any changes that didn't have huge obstacles. The path seemed blocked, dear readers. And then, as though in a vision, my co-contributor, Dr. Dick Johncock, came to me in a vision. In his dulcet tones he spoke to me. He uttered one short, simple sentence: "It's the books, stupid".

I was taken aback, mostly because I wasn't carrying any books. (Also because Dr. Dick usually doesn't appear to me at work. He's more of a 3-5 adult beverages kind of apparition.) Then it dawned on me. Dr. Dick was trying to help me in my moment of perplextion. He was providing the answer. I was taken aback again, because his answer for an educational problem wasn't in acronym form. And we all know (I hope), how much Dr. Dick loves a good acronym. He was telling me that books were what was holding back the revolution.

He's right, I think. If we ditched books, education in this country could take a quantum leap forward. I'm not just talking about getting rid of text books and replacing them with iPads or Kindles either. The problem isn't that books are heavy, or get damaged, or whatever. The problem with books is that they create a mindset in the teacher that the book is the boss. 

(A quick aside. When I say "books" I really mean textbooks. Supplemental readings are great, and I would never step out and say "Open a school without To Kill a Mockingbird". I mean, that would downright Nazi-esque. Seriously. They burned books.)

Textbooks are a trap. They let teachers get complacent. Teachers think that since the book is there, they can just assign some reading, maybe a couple of questions, a guided reading worksheet or two and viola! kids will have learned. 

(Math teachers are, I'm sure rending their garments, and I will admit that teaching in that discipline is far different that in the soft subjects. However, I'm confident that creative teachers would find a way to make it work.) 

If we got rid of textbooks, while at the same time opened the wide swath of information on the Internet to students, I think we could actually revolutionize education. But teaching attitudes would have to change. We would have to trust students. We would need to give them the freedom to explore, and to make mistakes. We would have to accept that many questions have multiple correct answers, instead of boxing them into standardized, multiple choice tests. 

This isn't just hypothetical for me. I once taught Econ for an entire year without a text book. Sure, it was hard. I built projects and had to create units from scratch. That is hard. However, the class never sat and mindlessly copied out of a text book, which for far too many students is what class looks like in America. We have to change the culture in teaching that says that the book is the boss. Teachers have to (especially at the high school level) be subject experts, and confident in their material. Why should a student in the spring of their senior year of high school be answering fill in the blank worksheets? In 4 months they'll either be in college (where I hope they aren't doing worksheets) or the workforce (where I hope/know they won't be doing worksheets). We as teachers need to recognize that simply having kids read from 445-451 and answer questions 1,2,3a and 5 isn't doing anybody any good.  

School boards and administrators need to trust teachers. We need the Internet unfiltered. I need to be able to stream confirmation hearings in Government, to show video of asteroids exploding over Russia in Geography. I need to be able to send them to sites where they will find information that is far more real, more interesting, and more useful that what an editor thought would make a good geography book in 1999. 

In turn, teachers need to trust students to find the right information, to present it, to take charge of their own learning. It certainly won't be easy, and I don't pretend that getting rid of text books will be a silver bullet. Students will still attempt to see things they shouldn't. (Like this is new. Raise your hand if you looked for pictures of African natives in a National Geographic in your school library.) But the benefit is that they will be operating in the world as it is, a world with far fewer limits on what they can see and do.

I love revolution so much that I once designed a shirt with that image on it. Imagine how nervous it made principals to see that wandering around the school on kids. Now imagine a world in which it doesn't make the principal nervous, because they are a part of the revolution. I could get behind that.

(editor's note: The shirt had this image in the middle front of the shirt. Was it called the "facepunch shirt"? Yes, yes it was)