"There has to be a better way to do this."

That’s the thought that crossed my mind last week during a meeting with one of my clients, her parents, and her math teacher. Said client is an otherwise excellent, intelligent student who is floundering in her current math course — and the root of the problem, the guidance counselor and I both agreed, is a weak foundation on the prerequisites. Math now brings a poor girl to tears because she hasn’t been adequately prepared for her current classwork.

Again: There has to be a better way to do this. And by “this,” I’m referring to public education.

This is not going to be a post discussing obstructionist teachers unions, ill-prepared instructors, indoctrination in the classroom, or laughably dumbed-down curricula (all very real problems in many localities). Instead, I’d like to question the concept of grouping kids by age and expecting them to accomplish a one-size-fits-all set of academic objectives in 180 days. High standards and regular testing, I feel, are necessary — but the artificially imposed time-tables are problematic.

The truth is, we are not all born the same. Some kids are poor mathematicians, while others can fly through their grade’s textbook in half the time allotted. Some kids learn to read early and quickly start devouring books written far above “grade level.” Others take more time — and not necessarily because they’re dyslexic. Yes — public schools do have some forms of differentiated instruction, like gifted programs and special reading intervention groups. But in the end, a public school teacher – even if she’s smart and dedicated, as many teachers are – simply can’t provide individualized instruction for every child. Eventually, she’s going to bump up against a state-imposed deadline. Even if she knows that teaching to mastery and repetitive practice are the best approaches to instruction, she can’t wait for every single child in her classroom to “get it.” Ultimately, she will be forced to move on to the next benchmark.

Students, meanwhile, respond to this structure in maladaptive ways. This is midterm week for my county, so once again, I have been reminded of this fact. My teenaged clients are all stuck in short term thinking; the goal is simply to survive from unit test to unit test. Since they’re not really expected to truly master what they’re learning, they don’t — even when I talk myself blue about the need to go over something again if they didn’t get it the first time. Thus, when the rare cumulative exam finally pops up, we inevitably deal with the mad scramble to re-learn everything that was covered months ago — and once again, long-term retention falls by the wayside.

The above discussion is one reason why, if I one day have a family, I am committed to homeschooling my kids through high school. When you homeschool, the only schedule you need to worry about is your child’s. You don’t have to rush. You can stick with a topic until your child is comfortable with it. You can truly teach to mastery.

Of course, not everyone has the time, the inclination, or the confidence to homeschool — and not every student has the internal motivation necessary to make it through an online program on their own. For various reasons, we still need “boxes full of strangers” to serve everyone’s needs effectively. But that doesn’t mean we need to stick to an outdated model in which kids are trained to be obedient little cogs in a 20th century industrial economy that no longer exists. We have the technology now to do better than that.

Why not enlist our teachers in a project to design computer programs with which students can view lectures, complete practice sets, and take tests and quizzes at their own pace? Such programs can be deliberately designed to prevent a student from moving on until he or she hits a predetermined accuracy level (perhaps 100% for things like basic math facts and 85% otherwise). Such programs can also include a cumulative test at the end of every unit — and can repeat a previous topic if a student forgets a concept and consequently drops below the aforementioned mastery line. With such programs, we could transform our “boxes full of strangers” into administration centers in which trained teachers would stand by to keep kids on task, answer questions, conduct labs and grade essay assignments and class discussions (which really can’t be assessed by machine). With such a system, you could still have standards — and high standards at that. For example, a student wouldn’t receive a high school diploma until he or she has successfully completed all the required course work. What you wouldn’t have is the pressure to complete a course in a single year.

I’m sure there are many kinks to iron out before we proceed with the idea above. Still, I thought I’d throw it out there.

3 thoughts on “"There has to be a better way to do this."

  1. I can hear the potential complaints now…

    “With no structure and no predefined standard benchmarks to hit…no pressure to keep up…some kids will never master certain subjects because they won't be motivated to do so!”

    “Kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods need structure at school because they don't get it at home!”

    “The all-tech curriculum leaves no room for creativity…everyone will be doing prepackaged lessons and and teachers won't have a job that really lets them experiment and try new ways to teach!”

    Not saying I agree with all of those potential complaints…but that is what my liberal friends will say.


  2. “With no structure and no predefined standard benchmarks to hit…no pressure to keep up…some kids will never master certain subjects because they won't be motivated to do so!”

    My response: Kids are already failing to master certain subjects. That's why the first months of school are usually consumed with review. If students aren't retaining concepts from year to year, said concepts haven't truly been absorbed.

    Regarding the motivation issue, I think it'd be easy to build rewards into the program. For example: Kids these days love computer games. Perhaps mastery of concepts could be tied to winning power-ups or tokens for an associated game.

    “Kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods need structure at school because they don't get it at home!”

    My response: I don't think my proposal is completely structureless. Kids would still go to school and would still be supervised by adults. They would just be working on assignments that are actually on their level. Nobody would be working on fractions without knowing how to multiply and divide just because he or she happens to be ten. And yeah — this means some kids wouldn't graduate at 18. But why is 18 such a magic number?

    “The all-tech curriculum leaves no room for creativity…everyone will be doing prepackaged lessons and and teachers won't have a job that really lets them experiment and try new ways to teach!”

    My response: There are some things that can't be done online, yes. Indeed, I think I acknowledged that we need off-line settings for things like class discussions and labs. But honestly, I take a low view of this idea that technology leaves no room for creativity. Kids will watch online video lessons from master teachers, but they will still need an adult present to provide clarifications where necessary — and that's where said creativity could come into play.

    In my current profession, I essentially have to follow a “prepackaged” curriculum; to be specific, I either have to cleave to what a student's school teacher is doing or I have to use the test preparation program provided by corporate headquarters. But does that mean I have to act like a mindless automaton and always teach things the same way? Of course not! When students come to me, I can do whatever I feel is necessary to provide an effective explanation for whatever it is they don't understand. There is plenty of creativity involved.


  3. Having reflected on this a little more, I have a few more things to add:

    Number one, it's possible that computer-based instruction in some subjects will actually help the cause of “social justice” that supposedly animates liberals. Think of it this way: When an average class of third graders starts a unit on the multiplication facts, the upper middle class kid with an intact family goes home to two parents who are eager to whip out the flashcards, while the disadvantaged kid from a broken home often gets very little practice in comparison (perhaps because his well-meaning but harried single mother is working more than one job and doesn't have the time). And what usually happens as a result? By the end of the multiplication unit, the privileged kid can rattle off all his tables with ease and the disadvantaged kid is still getting stuck on the tables above five. Can the teacher stop to help the kid who didn't get the requisite practice? She can try, certainly, but at the moment, her job is really to play to the middle. She can't hold back the class until everyone catches up. She is forced to move on — and consequently, the disadvantaged kid is left with a hole in his knowledge that continues to snowball as time goes on.

    If, on the other hand, we use computer-based instruction – in particular, a program that can target each individual child's weaknesses and alert the teacher when intervention is necessary, the disadvantaged kid will be given a chance to learn all his times tables at school under careful adult supervision — and if the computer determines that he needs remediation, he will automatically get it. On the whole, he will be given more of an opportunity to learn concepts completely regardless of where the rest of the class might be. It might take him longer to complete a particular curriculum – you can't erase the effects of a child's home environment, after all – but at least he won't be completely lost when he gets to, say, Algebra. He will learn what he needs to learn, and when he finishes high school (whenever that happens to be), he will not be automatically handicapped by functional illiteracy and innumeracy when it comes to surviving in the real world.

    Number two, pushing kids along at an artificial pace is at least equally likely to reduce motivation as it is to enhance it. Trust me — I see this happening all the time. When a kid is faced with repeated failure because he hasn't mastered some key prerequisite skills, he tunes out. Why bother trying when there's no way on God's green earth that you'll get it?

    Number three, “creative” instruction is often useless and facile. More “left-brained” subjects – like math – can be presented in fun ways (for example, Square One TV, whose approach can be duplicated on a computer-based platform, oh by the way), but at the end of the day, mastery comes with constant, repetitive practice along traditional lines. And as for things like literature and history? True — the more advanced the class, the less we can rely on technological platforms. The fact remains, however, that kids can't “think critically” about such topics without a good grounding in solid factual knowledge — and factual knowledge can be delivered by machine.

    Just my $.02.


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