Because our middle level learners are ready for more independence, age-appropriate challenges, and they crave mastery of skills, we need to teach them differently. Middle level learners need to spend less time memorizing content and more time developing skills. They need to imagine more, choose more, produce more so that they like school more. A skill-centered curriculum, using content as a vehicle for skill development, is the future of middle level education.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Student-Centered Classrooms Happen Best in Teacher-Centered Schools


In this time of abundant school redesign, many of us are thinking about the ideals of student experience and how those might be made manifest in our existing schools or those we could start from scratch. For those of us with a progressive bent, the tenets of the student-centered classroom are an anchor to this. While this has spatial design and student-teacher ratio ramifications, we need to also think about the redesign of the teacher experience.  If we want to have authentically student-centered classrooms, we need to reconceive our school cultures in relation to what the job of teacher means to those who are filling it.

Student-centered classrooms are predicated on the philosophy that skills are best developed and knowledge best obtained when students are designing and producing products that require they show mastery of content and skills. This is an active paradigm- contructivism- which prizes collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and application. Educators who have begun to fully actualize this model’s potential report unparalleled student-buy in and skill development and the evolution of a classroom culture that genuinely celebrates collaboration and independent thinking. Imagine how energizing and gratifying teaching would be if the same were asked of the educators? What if our schools could take their fundamental organizing cue from the culture of student-centered classrooms and were reconceived to be “teacher-centered” schools?

Let’s use project-based learning as the analogue to help us imagine how the teacher-centered school would function. PBL has four central tenants: student-choice is important; products must have a practical application; considerable programming time is devoted to individual or small group working time; and there is a facilitating presence which is supportive and evaluative. If you have taught in this way, you know well its power for creating student-buy in, skill development, and ultimately, community. You also know just how difficult it is to effectively orchestrate. And, you know how profoundly gratifying it is to see students engaged in the process of envisioning, creating, refining, and presenting their products for your summative assessments.

In the teacher-centered school, the daily classroom “teaching” is the summative assessment; that is when the fruits of the individual or group labor are made public, thus useful. What happens leading up to that is what makes the teacher-centered school so radically different: it dramatically increases the amount of teacher working time devoted to program development- and has administrators who are devoted to active facilitation of teacher collaboration and program design. The teacher-centered school assumes that teachers will be better at their jobs if they are endeavoring to produce content in a way that honors their intelligence, their drive to succeed, and their creative powers.

And because the teacher-centered school sees deep teacher success as the key to its viability- that is, the key to its delivery of deep student learning- it prioritizes the structured time needed for those endeavors. It’s not an add-on- it’s an integral component. It becomes part of the working day and the school year, and teachers are paid accordingly. This means that teachers have their “planning periods,” but are also meeting collaboratively after school, and that pre- and post-planning times in the summer are substantially expanded. They are working more hours, thus they would get paid more.  What creative, energetic educator would not sign up for that?

Could this be a paradigm for our future schools? Its’ power, in part, is that it elevates teaching and it would draw more of the creative class into the field. Most importantly, however, is that it would be one of the lynch-pins in creating the type of curriculum which will truly deliver the skill development and life-long learning that progressive school reformers value. Think about it, if you could start from scratch, wouldn’t you want to build a teacher-centered school?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's in a Name? Labels are Driving the Middle School Curriculum

We need to continue to refine our understanding of what form of education best serves children ages 10-14. Exciting work is being done on this front, but the scale of our misunderstanding of the task is belied by the nomenclature we use to label the schools that serve the group. Until we move away from the term “middle school,” students ages 10-14 will continue to experience a curriculum which is not truly for them.

Middle school used to be called junior high school, but that name fell out of favor as new understanding of the age group’s developmental realities suggested that there was more to its members than being just smaller versions of high schoolers. This was certainly a positive step in the evolution of the education of this age group. I would suggest, however, that the qualifier “middle” continues to suggest a limiting paradigm about their nature. “Middle” denotes an existence relative to two end members, an thereby connotes relative insignificance. That paradigm reveals the purgatorial state of the default educational philosophy for this age group: its need only be transitional, a bridge from the concrete years of elementary school to the elevated thought processes of high school.  Thus, we need only gradationally reform those sheltered, concrete thinkers into the schedule tolerant, information processors they will spend the last 4 years of their pre-college education being. As long as middle school remains defined by its adjacents- and charged with the task of serving them- we will continue to mis-educate the age group and neglect its most valuable attributes. As long as transition defines the curriculum, the specialness of the age group will not be honored. It's time for the developmental realities of the age group to drive the middle school curriculum.

I would suggest a new fundamental pedagogical paradigm for educating the age group. The result would be a 4 year program of spiraling skill development which brought students to a pinnacle state at age 14 that allowed them to really soak up the new skills and content offered in the secondary setting. This paradigm acknowledges that information retention is not a primary strength of the age group, but that collaboration, creative expression, boundary pushing, and content production are. With a goal of launching them into the next stage with maximum curiosity, self-confidence, affinity for institutions, and attachment to community, the new curriculum would be entirely skill driven. Content would matter only because it was an effective medium for skill development. Assessment would be practical: it would show skills being practiced. Knowledge attainment would only be contructivist. Teachers would be facilitators of skill absorption and monitors of student progress on the spiral. The daily experience would be meaningful to the individual students’ developmental realities. The curriculum would be driven by where the children are right then, not some distinctly foreign things they are in between.

When we commit to meeting our 10-14 year-olds where they are and to offer them the opportunity to daily practice the skills they are naturally developing, we will cultivate a culture of learners who want to embrace the challenges of the world they are growing into. Refining the label we place on the schools for that age child will come hand-in-hand with refining the attitude we take towards their educational experience. If we give them something that feels right to them, we ought to name it something that honors them What a nice gift for them- and for all of us who will come in contact with them.