When I think back to my favorite memories in school I immediately I think about recess, PE, drama and hanging out with my friends. If I think about my favorite moments as a learner, they were times where I felt engaged, interested in what I was doing and I made a connection to a teacher who demonstrated a passion for teaching and learning.

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Similarly, when you ask a teacher what the best teaching moments are, they will rarely mention a crowded class, report cards, standardized tests, a lack of resources, stacks of grading, the gleaning new curriculum or reaccreditation.

Why is this? Because these things…suck!

What then, really matters in education?

I believe that learning is the number one purpose of education. More than just learning, if we think about what’s really important, both educators and students require a tenacity for learning and a motivation to learn continuously if we are to be successful in any area of life. Sometimes, however, we get caught up in the lesser important features of education and this can be diminutive towards creating a learning rich classroom. At times, it can seems like we all have tunnel vision on a steam roller. Beep Beep I’m coming through. Meanwhile, students rarely remember anything after the test so I find myself wondering what’s the purpose of education anyways?

In this post I will focus on how curriculum, bureaucracy, and dare-I-say it, technology are all known culprits that can disrupt and impede the learning process. (Yes, I know that last one may have thrown you off a little but wait for it…I have a point!) Beyond pointing out these pitfalls, I would like to suggest a mindset shift for each one in an effort to redesign education and actually create learning rich classrooms.

Curriculum

In Bruce Dixon’s article, How Modern is Your Curriculum, he points out the conundrum teachers face between following the curriculum verbatim and exhibiting some freedom in when, why and how they teach a particular concept or unit. The side he takes becomes evident when he writes, “It might seem unfair, but I think this dependency on outdated legacy curriculum is in fact unbecoming of the teaching profession.”

One could even take it a step further if we reconsider the futility of curriculum as I described in my post, The Past, Present and Future: Part 3. As I  mentioned, Will Richardson, acknowledges how curriculum is just a guess and he questions why still we cling to it so much. In a different article by him, Let Me Count The Ways: Readying Teachers In The New World Of Technology, Richardson points to Seymour Papert’s quote, “At best, schools teach one-billionth of one percent of what knowledge exists in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly over what one-billionth of one percent is important.”

So whatever your views on curriculum, the reality is changing. Papert seems to jest at the impossibility of curriculum whereas Dixon urges us “to rethink the purpose and possibilities of what we call curriculum, and take a fresh look at the role that it too often had in the past in inhibiting teaching potential and innovative practice.” Like Dixon, Richardson and Papert all purport, the traditional power attributed to curriculum inhibits meaningful and long-lasting learning experiences. The non-adaptive, unresponsive, non-emergent and impersonal nature of strict curriculum thwarts the development of a learning rich classroom. Specifically, an overindulgence or infatuation with curriculum and the accompanying feeling that curriculum is a burden that simply needs to be delivered, stands in the face of what we know about how kids actually learn. In this case, clearly a paradigm shift towards the perception of curriculum is needed.

Documentation, Standardization and Bureaucracy

Another feature of teaching which all too often rears it ugly head and squanders the learning environment, is all the documentation, standardization and bureaucracy. In The Atlantic article titled, To Fix America’s Education Bureaucracy, We Need to Destroy It, Philip K. Howard outlines the legislation, unions, documentation, standardization and bureaucracy that hampers the learning process. In addition, he points to the sign of a good teacher is someone who has a “a commitment to teaching and a knack for keeping the students engaged.” However, he alludes to the problem that all this bureaucracy affects the formulation of a learning rich classroom. He also said,

“Humans can only focus on one thing at a time, sociologist Robert Merton observed. That’s why it’s vital for teachers to be thinking only about how to communicate the lesson to the students in front of them. Any diversion of this focus is apt to be seen as indifference or boredom, and will break the magic.

This is why we must bulldoze school bureaucracy. It is a giant diversion, focused on compliance to please some administrator far away. Every minute spent filling out a form or worrying about compliance interferes with the human interaction that is the essence of effective teaching.”

Standardized testing too proves to divert a teachers attention away from deep learning opportunities and towards scripted delivery of the content. Alfie Kohn describes at length in The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools how we are “measuring what matters least” with our infatuation with standardized testing. In many cases, Kohn also alludes to the dissonance surrounding standardized testing among educational stakeholders when we says,

“An awful lot of teachers—particularly those who are very talented—have what might be described as a dislike/hate relationship with testing. But support for testing seems to grow as you move away from the students, going from teacher to principal to central office administrator to school board member to state board member, state legislator, and governor.”

He says that these tests are really good at measuring what can be measured reliably and validly but that doesn’t mean they should inform what is actually important to know. He suggests that we should agree “on some broad outlines for what students ought to know and be able to do, and then address the question of assessment.”

Curriculum, bureaucracy and standardization seem to go hand-in-hand-in-hand as culprits that curb the development of a learning rich classroom because the demands that are placed on the teacher to keep up are too overwhelming. I think, like Kohn suggests, we need remind ourselves about what is important and find ways to measure these deemed important skills, values or learning goals. Just like I argued in Part 3 blog post, a disruption of traditional models of education and a restructuring for the future of learning with non-cognitives and dispositions as central to the new culture.

Technology

Now I know those who know me are all kind of freaking out. I mentioned above that technology can also be considered as a impediment to creating a learning rich classroom but I meant that only for an educator that has yet to truly integrate technology effectively or is so tied to the curriculum that they see the tech as an impediment to the learning. Gotcha there!!!

As a technology integration coach, I am often working with teachers to integrate technology in an effort to broaden the ways students access, manipulate and share knowledge while using technology. Time and time again though people focus on the ways the technology is impeding the learning. However, I think it might be more accurate to say that the technology is impeding the delivery of the dearest and foolproof curriculum?

In their defense though, teaching a new tech skill, app or workflow can take time. In fact, so much time that the first time one teaches a new tech tool or a technology workflow, the learning usually does take a backseat. However, when given multiple chances and given some explicit expectations students will be able to get beyond the tech and demonstrate the learning as desired. In fact, if done correctly, using technology should even transform the learning process in way that was previously inconceivable while implementing traditional learning environments.

We don’t expect students to learn to read on their first attempt to read. Nor do we expect them to excel at anything first go. Yet I think we can all be guilty of expecting mastery of the tech even when we give students such short intervals to use it, try it, learn it etc. In addition, we place too many parameters on the use of tech in class too. You can only use it during this period and only use this app. Work quickly. Ok now were done, close your iPads. Technology integration should not be anything like that. Anything of value, takes time. Not to mention, what kind of message are we sending when we dichotomize learning so much that learning and technology cannot be addressed simultaneously.

Perhaps it is the notion of the digital natives that have misguided people to think that students should innately know how to do all things tech. Digital natives don’t know how to do every tech related task, just like not all digital immigrants despise technology, digital natives just happen to believe that technology is powerful and ubiquitous.

Sometimes I feel like we are all just trying to tick off the tech box. ‘Did you use tech in this lesson? Yes. Well, then good for you!’ But did it really amount to anything creative or transformational?

In this environment and with the mindset that polarizes the tech and the curriculum, did we ever stand a chance at creating a learning rich environment? Mindset’s towards softening curricula’s stranglehold and bolstering authentic and transformative use of technology are in dire need.

What Really Matters?

What do students ought to know…If any attempt at creating curriculum is meager at best and our testing is measuring that which isn’t important and our technology integration is at times underwhelming, then what does create a learning rich classroom?

I have some thoughts…

Deep learning, active inquiry, project-based learning, independent learning, thorough class discussions, autonomy for both teacher and student, passion, slow pedagogy, non-cognitives, experiential learning, authentic experiences, relevant content, fostering a love of learning, fostering nurturing and motivating learning environments, empowering efficacy and other dispositions, and developing a growth-mindset are some things that I believe to truly help to create a learning rich classroom.

I think we all need to put our heads together to re-envision the purpose of education. We need to redefine curriculum as it actually is, a feeble guide for what we should be teaching. We need to redesign or abolish standardized testing as we know it until we can our wrap our heads around what actually matters and then find a way to assess it or change the way we assess. Finally, we need to rethink what a typical day at school should actually look like.

Suppose we decided we should focused on big ideas or dispositions such as critical thinking. Could we not restructure the school day to permit inquiry, ideation, iteration, tangents, deep learning, making connections, multi-disciplinary approaches and problem-solving in an emergent curricular framework. Within this setting, students can be challenged with a research a topic or subject area important to them, to solve an ungoogleable question, to make a product which addresses local/global issues or share their findings with an authentic audience?

What do you think, is there any argument for devaluing curriculum, minimizing bureaucracy, redefining technology integration and redesigning education to teach what matters first? Would this allow content to occur naturally?