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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 12/21/2011

Education reform paralysis — and how to fix it

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

The world of educational reform is stuck.

Don’t you get bored repeatedly reading about variations on the same topics? Standardized testing, useful or harmful? Charter schools, the answer or the new problem? Teachers maligned, teachers defended, teachers resistant to change. No Child Left Behind, revise or eliminate?

How many ways can we turn these topics?

I recently revisited the classic book Crisis in the Classroom , by Charles Silberman, circa 1970, and thought: “That could have been written this year!” There’s little he reports or advocates that isn’t relevant today. And the classic by Willard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching , written in 1932, describes classrooms that are much the same as most of ours.

Fritz Perls, the psychiatrist who developed Gestalt therapy, once wrote that boredom is blocked action. Maybe that’s part of it. Is it my own feeling of collective impotence in producing real change that has me finding all of this boring?  

Edwin Abbott’s classic book Flatland tells the story of a square that falls into a world of three dimensions. Returning to his two-dimensional world, he tries to explain his incredible experience. But how do you explain a cube to someone who can only conceptualize two dimensions? Ultimately he’s branded a heretic and jailed.

I think we are in many ways like the square. There’s certainly nothing wrong with creating new and improved squares, triangles, and octagons. Project based learning, for example, is certainly a better one. But for the most part we’re having difficulty conceptualizing anything beyond that.

Most teachers and administrators, dealing with the daily challenges of teaching, don’t have the luxury of thinking beyond the present paradigm. They’re too busy dealing with meeting student needs, designing engaging lessons, and responding to external pressures, from assessment to the latest mandated “innovation.”

But for those of us who have the luxury of time to think and lead, reformers and policy makers alike, I think the relative paralysis should be a matter of concern.

Perhaps we need a trickster to wake us up and boot us into another dimension. To many Native American peoples the trickster is the raven, the rabbit, the coyote.  The trickster is the teacher who surprises people and wakes them out of their routines. It is also the trickster who sometimes provokes us into leaving the safety of our present worldview.

I have neither the vision nor the arrogance to presume to know what that third dimension of educational reform is. But we’ve had ideas from educators with some vision that extends beyond our same old room, ideas that for the most part, like those of the square in Flatland, have been ignored or rejected. And there are teachers who could help take us there, if we would provide them with the luxury of time to develop their ideas.

As one example, years ago Louise Berman, in New Priorities in the Curriculum , challenged the idea that we must organize our curriculum in the present way. She focused on processes rather than our traditional way of organizing subjects. Her organizers (perceiving, communicating, loving, knowing, decision making, patterning, creating, and valuing) are debatable, but at least she stepped out of our present dimension and challenged our preconception of subject organizers.

Take this a step further. Why should there still be an English department? The constellation of processes and skills includes reading, writing, the art of presentation, communicating through the computer, expressing oneself through varied media, and visual literacy. English itself is just a small part of this. And what if a new Department of Communication used the classroom only as a command center for a learning process that involved local media, worldwide web communication, and the creation of integrated imagery and words shared with the community?

The concept of schools without walls is not a new one, and yet in this age of instantaneous electronic communication, as we freely Skype and network in multiple ways with people all over the world, how can we possibly think of education as taking place in a building in blocks of 49 or 53 minutes?

Why is outdoor/wilderness education reserved for a few schools, most often those with so-called at-risk kids? If we look closely enough we can see that most of our adolescents are at risk in various ways and a deeper connection for them to our natural world is probably there in that third dimension of education.

While I don’t know exactly what a new paradigm should look like, the little I see suggests that it might include classrooms as command centers to coordinate schooling without walls, with present subject organizers vastly changed, the line between teaching, facilitating, and counseling blurred, the functions integrated, and a seamless connection between the school, the community and the land itself. This is not boring!

And there would be a teaching consultant in every school, a seasoned tribal elder, to continually guide younger teachers. Certainly too, each school would have a full-time psychologist/counselor, not just a part-time person or one who focused almost exclusively on college admissions.

But of course, even these ideas of mine are no more than those of a curious square occasionally peeking into another dimension of educational reform.

I also think it would be refreshing if educational reform wasn’t such a ponderously serious business. Maybe we need a Brigade of Educational Tricksters, to keep waking us up, making sure we aren’t taking ourselves and our varied positions too seriously, helping us to see beyond our present paradigm, and making sure we are able to laugh at the absurdity in the educational world we inhabit.

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