Monday, July 27, 2009

Classroom Lectures are so Twentieth Century

As I have said before and will definitly say again, our school system is stuck in the past; in the 1970s at best, in the 1950s at worst.

The idea of students sitting in straight rows while the teacher lectures was great when school was meant to create good soldiers and factory workers. However, while soldiers now need to be quick and adaptable, and factory jobs are rapidly going oversees, the schools are late catch up.

Everyone talks about how the twenty-first century classroom needs to be more authentic, more project-based, but few have found a good way to implement it. Yes, I want students to be good at problem solving since memorizing is pointless in this age of instant information retrieval. However, sometimes teachers just need to teach, and there are basic concepts that students need to learn. And many of these skills are difficult or impossible to learn through projects, discovery, or exploration.

Since there are not enough hours in the school year to do it all, I propose putting the lectures online - on my website for instance - and save the classroom for group projects and hands-on learning. A student can learn the quadratic formula alone just as well, if not better, than in a room full of students. If the teacher is going to speak uninterrupted for half an hour anyway, you might as well put it on film. Let the students watch it on their laptops or cell phones the way they want as many times as they need. Save the classroom for question and answer and true project-based learning.

A mid-project assessment (read: quiz) will reveal any students who did not grasp the content, and the teacher can direct them back to the online lesson and to an after-school help session. Even better, the database of online videos could be so broad that the struggling students could watch a couple of other teachers explaining the same concept but in a different style that might reach the student better.

Students need spaced repetition to truly learn, but there is not enough time in the school day for all of that to take part in the classroom. Put it on the web and let a database track who is watching their lessons.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why principals should watch Harry Potter

Ask most Elementary or Jr. High students if they would like to attend Hogwarts, and you will likely get an excited "yes". Of course, their primary reason would be to learn magic - learn invisibility so that they could spy on their friends and shoplift - but it is also because it is a good school.

I have been watching some of the early Harry Potter movies on television lately since the new film is in theaters. I have noticed that the school does not just mirror traditional British schools, but it also can be a model for change for our schools. Here are some ways how American schools should be more like Hogwarts Academy.

1. Hands-on, project-based learning. Though the teachers still lecture, it is always to prepare the students for practicing spells themselves. The classroom scenes always show the teacher explaining the task, modeling it, and providing guided practice. In this way there is a high risk/high reward environment with enough support to ensure success.
2. Learning that is applicable to real life. The skills that the students learn usually, and sometimes too conveniently, pay off later in the adventure. It is not perfect since the students still groan about essays and exams, but students are motivated by the fact that their lessons will pay off in the real world.
3. A sense of belonging. By dividing the students into the four houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin, the school gives every student a place where they are on the inside. Adolescents have a need find their identity, and that is usually done by fitting in with a group. It also means that many are left on the outside. Even the way that the teachers reward and punish the house for the actions of individuals solidifies the tight knit group.
4. Uniforms
5. Rigorous but caring faculty. it is something that students do not realize until long after school; they love challenging teachers. Not just difficult teachers. Ones that push students to do their best by asking a little bit more than the student thinks he or she can do. Almost all of the teachers at Hogwarts have high expectations, eliciting love and loyalty from the students. One of the few exceptions, Professor Gilderoy Lockhart played by Kenneth Branagh, is easy yet incompetent, and the students hate him.

So maybe schools should not look down at Rowlings's books and view them as a model for their schools instead.

New Format

I have not written in this blog for a couple of months because it was simply turning into a place where I documented some of my experiences building the Clickademics site, but a blog is not the place for that. Thus, I neglected it.

However, I was reading the Occam's Razor blog of Avanash Kaushik, and he made an interesting point. A blog should be written more like a book than a diary. No one wants to read journal about work, but book written in installments would be worth reading.

After fourteen years of teaching, I have some definite thoughts about the education system and why it needs to change. My time would be much better spent writing about how school could be much more effective, especially if online video sites like mine are part of that.