Teaching is personal. It is the constant, minute-to-minute decisions teachers make about how to best help students, within the context of personal connections, individual personalities, temperaments, and humor. It is a delicate dance of nurturing, challenging, questioning, exploring, and supporting while maintaining the fragile student sense of self.
Learning is individual. It doesn’t conform to grade levels, testing schedules, higher and higher standards or even our best intentions. A child’s mind and educational growth is full of quick bursts, set backs, giant leaps and incremental, steady growth based on innumerable factors.
As any teacher will tell you, the profession has gotten exponentially more complicated and challenging, and educators have fewer and fewer resources. The answer, many think, is to run schools like businesses.
It’s no wonder we are not seeing much success with this model. We have huge institutions overcrowded with students; crumbling, dismal classrooms; teachers forced to teach to a test, on specific timelines; removal of essentially all personal, creative instruction and the flexibility to pursue the interests and passions of both the children and the teachers.
It should be no surprise then that one in three teachers are quitting in the first three years, and fifty percent in the first five years. Teachers are in increasingly hostile, stressful, and demoralizing situations. They struggle with the daily increasing expectations, rushing around and feeling like they are treading water while society tosses them more and more bricks to hold. This has a profound impact on the climate of the school, and ultimately, the students.
What if we finally admitted that teaching and learning is not a business—and started treating it with the care and attention that we would treat our own homes? Personal, individual, creative, flexible, and unique.
What could this look like?
A place where each child is treated as an individual, and not just in name or window dressing. Children come to schools with a unique set of experiences, passions, backgrounds, ideas, skills, and deficits. What if our job as teachers was to uncover this specific set for each child, and map a personal, unique education for them based on this?
It’s an idea so simple. Figure out the intricacies of the child and plan for growth with individual, small group, digital, and whole group instruction.
Collaboratively, teachers, parents and students could develop educational goals to be met for each child, or age level cohort. Available resources include (but are not limited to) Common Core, researched-based math and literacy programs, and other curricular timelines. Teachers, parents, and the students acknowledge that these resources may not work for all students and tailor goals specifically for each child, realizing that each student has their own internal timeline and set of needs.
Growth is monitored through an individual portfolio, using specific goals, and multiple ways of engaging students to meet them. Students working closely with educators pursue goals utilizing digital media, and individual and small group instruction. When possible, student goals will be linked to leadership and community service opportunities. Students will begin to see connections between their daily goals, their educational journey and the health of the local community. Each day, students would participate in reflection about these goals and determine ways to improve their journey.
Through this we will see more motivation, engagement, and purpose than we see in our public schools right now.
How do I know this? I’ve seen it in action with service learning. When students identify a problem, set goals and a timeline, work toward them, and reflect on this growth, nationally we’ve seen high school dropout rates go down, civic engagement, responsibility, attendance and motivation go up.
The days of a sage on the stage delivering knowledge are over. What we need now are small, focused, driven groups of learners under the coaching of trained educators, pursuing specific goals in a nurturing, collaborative environment.
What about the environment? This kind of school begs for smaller, more home-like learning environments. Spaces that have ample and comfortable space for small groups, individuals, and larger groups to meet and work. Reading nooks, creative workspaces, safe spaces, ample books and full access to technology tools are essential.
We have to let go of traditional learning environments to embrace this new model of individualized and community connected learning. Our schools would need to either be retrofitted or recreated into fluid, comfortable learning environments, or communities could take advantage of lower home prices and convert several homes into clusters of age specific learning communities.
The teacher’s role in this would evolve into a mentor, facilitator, collaborator and community liaison. Teachers would be responsible for developing plans with 10-15 students. They would create schedules, coordinating with community and school resources, and teach lessons to help meet each child’s unique goals.
Teachers in an age group learning community would meet daily to collaborate with each other and develop the best educational plans for their students. Invited to these meetings at different times would be parents, specialists, and community leaders. Together, we would constantly grow, monitor and enrich each educational plan.
A morning for a typical fifth grade child would include a morning meeting with age level peers, small group math instruction and practice with a teacher or online, then reading and writing about a topic of interest with an online or in person group of kids. After lunch featuring local, organic and homemade food, the child participates in exercise determined by the educational team: running, yoga, hiking, or team sports. The afternoon is focused on hands on, service learning projects in the areas of science and social studies, but interconnected with all subject areas. As the students grow older, connections and opportunities within the local (or digital) community grow stronger, more individualized, and complex.
This kind of education could also be respectful, inclusive, and appropriate for students who need specialized instruction. Currently, it takes too long for many students with special needs to access their education in meaningful ways. In this new model, specific goals could be written into plans and be less obtrusive, since everyone has a unique plan (unlike our current model, where special education students are the only ones with individualized plans). So, taking the typical fifth grader, if they have experienced trauma, or have a learning disability for example, they could get community based counseling, or skill work as part of their plan as soon as they needed it.
Personalized education will be expensive, no doubt. But our current industrialized educational bureaucracy is extremely expensive as well. Shifting our resources to develop these types of learning communities would take time, careful planning, and vision, but each community could do so by utilizing community and educational leaders, policy makers and school boards. By working together, these entities could develop trust, community and collective vision, and find themselves less at odds with each other. Aren’t we all focused on the same goals of improving education, providing opportunities, and bettering our communities?
If we can put a man on the moon, create cars and the Internet, we can personalize and individualize education and ground it firmly in local communities. This kind of targeted, individualized student growth, closely monitored, will outpace any we have ever seen. Dropout rates will plummet and more students will get what they need. With this significant investment in our youth and local communities, we will see student outcomes that rival those all over the world. What will we gain? Focused, driven, connected and civic minded individuals who know how to work toward goals, solve complex problems, and reflect on their progress. I think at this point in our history, we need them more than ever.
image: by o.lila on Flickr under CC