The Soul of the American School—Big Data or Meaningful, Engaged Learning?

Overheard at an educational conference, “Our new program allows us to track the data in such detail.”

Florence & Lyman Moore StudentsLater that spring I watched several middle school students engage in a lengthy conversation with Florence Reed, the founder of Sustainable Harvest International. They were sharing what they learned during their project for the Samantha Smith Challenge that addressed finding ways to solve hunger in their community. And… they were quizzing Florence about her work.

For me, the two incidents just put into perspective  the immense battle going on for the soul of American public education.  Do we spend our limited and precious professional development time reducing children to numbers or do we develop approaches that really revolutionize our educational system?  I say…Let’s use our time to create opportunities for students to explore topics that engage them in meaningful and productive ways. Let’s ignite our students’ curiosity and thirst for answers to big and small questions.

Watch this video!  Pierre did much of his learning on his own, but he brought his idea to school and involved many other students.

Pierre developed a vision of what he wanted to accomplish.  Do we take the time to help our students develop a personal vision for their future?  Would projects that impact communities in positive ways not be a far better use of educators’ and students’ intellectual talents  than to spend class time responding to artificial reading and writing prompts and or to use PD time to classify kids?

  • How much reading and viewing for comprehension did Pierre have to engage in to learn about hydroponics?
  • What kinds of math application do you suppose he had to use?
  • What skills of argument did he have to devise and employ to convince his school to let him build the hydroponics greenhouse?

I can hear readers remarking…

  1. What about accountability?
  2. Pierre was self-motivated.  Our students aren’t like that; they need structure. They could never do project or problem-based learning.
  3. Improvement in reading will only happen with carefully scripted lessons.

Have we forgotten about motivation and its role in improving students’ comprehension? What’s the point of knowing math algorithms if we cannot apply them in authentic situations? What about having students write for real audiences about topics they care about?  There are examples of this type of learning all over the country.  Here’s an example from King Middle School in Portland, Maine.

Another example is the Samantha Smith Challenge.  Over 500 students were involved this past year, and in several schools all students on a particular grade level participated in a project to address an issue important to them.

Images from the Day of Celebration for the Samantha Smith Challenge

Maine's First Lady, Ann Lepage, talks with students about their work.

Maine’s First Lady, Ann LePage, talks with students about their work.

Authentic audiences inspire students to work hard.

Authentic audiences inspire students to work hard.

These are not new ideas, but rarely does a school system use them as a vehicle for improving learning.  Why not?  Well, these days my cynical-self says, “There is no money to be made by big corporations when schools do this type of work.”

We’ve done No Child Left Behind and Race to Top and Big Data for too many years. It’s time to infuse our public schools with curriculum and instruction that galvanizes students into learning in ways that guarantee bright and sustainable futures for them.

Postscript: I realize this post is an oversimplification of issues facing American education. However, I believe, each educator has to decide where to put his or her stake in the ground. Is it closer to a vision of regimented, scripted curriculum with data points representing children  or closer to viewing classrooms as democratic, problem-based learning communities.  It’s not a question of either/or—I believe there is a continuum.  Each of us needs to decide where our stake is going to be driven into the ground and what we want for all of our children whether they live in rural Maine, Miami, Chicago, Scarsdale, Fairbanks, Honolulu, or Lubbock, Texas.