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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Can Teachers Fix Our Schools?

I don't have a hook or a pithy anecdote to begin this post. I do, however, have the most important question I can think of in all its simplicity: How do we fix our schools?

Now, unless you're teaching with your head in the ground, you'd have heard by now that our educational system is fractured and under fire. I'm not willing to say it's totally broken, however, because it's still held together by the filaments of our country's unique dream -- that of providing a free and equitable education for every student.

We here at Edutopia.org know that there are challenges to achieve this goal. But along with our mission to provide a forum to share what works in public education, we also work to provide a venue for problem solving. We believe in teachers, and their ability to collaborate and solve any problem put before them. We also know that the only way schools can be "fixed" is to have teacher voices at the table.

Your Mission

And just as many times science has its infancy in science fiction, perhaps the answer to the question of just how do we fix schools lies in educational-fiction first. Think about that for a moment.

I can see you already shaking your head as you hit budget barrier after budget barrier in your thoughts. But the most effective solutions begin with the fantasy; so don't get bogged down with the nays yet.

Still not willing to jump in? Still getting shut down with thoughts of how to fund adult education courses for parents, providing nutritious meals for every child, Internet access for each district home, and daily collaboration time for each teacher?

OK, you're right. Maybe it's too much to start thinking about that which we can't control. And as important as we are, teachers cannot single-handedly fix all of the problems we currently face. But we can fix some. And some is better than this stalemate of broken that we now find ourselves in. So let's just start with fantasizing about that which we as teachers can fix. Just think about that which we can do something about.

Here are just some of the ways I believe that we teachers can spearhead some important changes in our schools:

Taking Action

Use project learning to solve community needs.

Set the students to the tasks ahead of them in the future. What are the local community needs? The global community needs? How do we solve them? Create project learning opportunities at the district, local, state, national level that pose real problems and set the students to implementing solutions of their own creation. Better yet, have them research and discover what those issues are first. Use writing and math and history and science to create the reports that will be used to persuade the policy makers at every level.

Allow the skills that your students need in their future to help drive the curriculum.

The year is 2020. What skills do college graduates need to know? Create a list with your department or school of those predicted skills and have that help in developing your thematic units and lessons. More importantly than the standards, make sure your lessons apply to skills that your students will need to have in their futures. (Read up on 21st-century skills.)

Adjust our rubrics to reflect the ability to communicate content, not just knowledge of content.

"Able to teach" should be the highest possible achievement on a classroom's rubric. After all, it says that to communicate an idea is as important as understanding the concept in isolation. Communication is a skill that should be on everyone's list of future skills. Students will need to not only understand content, but also to communicate that content to others. Our rubrics need to reflect students' abilities to communicate verbally and in written formats -- both online and offline.

Use brain development data.

As Judy Willis suggests standards should be based on the developmental brain research of what the age of the brain is capable of doing, not based on what we assume the brain is ready to learn. There are still traits of those old chapbooks in education. That is, prior to the illustrated primer, kids were taught like little adults.

We have come a long way since then. We're still not always teaching what students can do (more of what adults feel they should do). Maybe it's time to flip that philosophy? What triggers learning? Study the brain and what happens when it learns. Study MRIs when a second grade brain is stimulated, a fifth grade brain is stimulated, and a ninth grade brain is stimulated. Use that data to help guide our practice. If the brain is stimulated using certain methods, we should embed those strategies into our lesson delivery.

Pitch a new elective class, or start a new club.

Find your own joy in teaching again. It would make you happy to teach what you love, and that happiness trickles down to your students. Besides, our schools should sing with the sounds of extracurriculars. Remember when the standards weren't the goal, but the given, and we were rich with electives? Budgets may be to blame for their demise, sure, but enthusiasm for teaching electives has also been beaten out of many of us.

Rise again with the enthusiasm to teach that which you have loved your whole life -- photography, soccer, art appreciation, or engineering. I want remote controlled robots darting through the halls like a scene from Star Wars. I want to hear a kid tuning up his guitar in the quad, and I want kids coming to class sweaty from activity (and I'll want deodorant awaiting them when they do.)

What Next?

Granted, these changes are only a fraction of the equation that can truly turn our schools around. The families, the government and funding, and the students themselves all have to make changes if our schools are going to truly succeed.

But if we as teachers work to fix what we can, and if the other variables begin to stand up and take notice of our efforts and begin their own change, then maybe the filaments of our country's unique dream will begin to slowly strengthen and re-knit, forming the muscles that can perhaps engage effective healing.

So, I've given you five low-cost ways that teachers can begin the grassroots reform that we need in our schools. What does your list for teachers look like?

Comments (47)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Julianna Dauble's picture

once again you post a statement that I will quote from! Along with Linda Darling-Hammond's new world standards, you outline here exactly where the standards movement has led us astray. Content standards are all well and good, and have a place as a cornerstone for solid public education. There are other cornerstones, however, & we must get back to the integration involved with service learning projects, the reasoning inherent in comunication proficiency, and the capacity for teachers to re-assume the role of expert reaching the child (through brain research and behavioral outcomes, especially). As we work on the next VOICES project, I'm sure these ideas will emerge again, organically. Just as the best, most timely epiphanies tend to do that among caring, intelligent teaher leaders; thanks for a great article!

David Andrade's picture
David Andrade
Chief Information Officer

Teachers, Admin, Parents, Students, and Community need to work together!

Teachers can do things to save money in school:

Change Schools to Motivate and Encourage more students and provide better opportunities:

Matt Pasternack's picture

Hi Heather,

I think your ideas are excellent, and I think that the grassroots change that you describe cannot come solely from teachers working alone in individual classrooms, but must also come from a greater degree of online collaboration than we see today. As a middle school English teacher, my greatest professional frustration, and that of many of the colleagues with whom I taught, was the feeling of reinventing the wheel--investing countless hours brainstorming and researching answers to problems for which other teachers in other classrooms across the country had found great solutions.

High performing technology is virtually necessary to power efficient and effective knowledge sharing, but I found the knowledge sharing tech space in education to be surprisingly weak. Open ended internet searches are often fruitless treasure hunts, so teachers turn to friends who teach in classrooms down the hall to find answers to their questions. These knowledge exchanges are one-off (the same questions get asked and answered over and over again, year after year) and their quality is dependent on chance--the precision of the questions asked and the expertise of the answerers, both of which vary widely.

Online lesson plan sharing, which has grown more competitive recently, is an important exception, but lesson plan sharing is an incomplete solution and maybe captures 50% of knowledge sharing in education. Everything else--how to reach a particular student, where to find the best resources for a specific problem, what classroom policies to use, how to adapt a lesson for students without requisite content knowledge--never makes it into a lesson plan. As a result, information from multiple sources is not aggregated, those in professional development roles get burned out with repeating the same pieces of advice, and highly successful practices are difficult to scale organizationally, not to mention inter-organizationally.

Along with some of the teachers I taught with, I recently launched a new website, EdCrowd, to help transform knowledge sharing among teachers. EdCrowd is powered by the leading platform for scientific collaboration. It is designed on the principles that motivate Wikipedia and Facebook and is also fully integrated with users' existing social networks. It is also free. Although we recently launched the site, I think it's potential power is well demonstrated by Heidy's answer to this classic management problem.

Our biggest challenge right now is getting the word about this site out to teachers around the country who might be interested. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know, and if you have friends who might be interested, please let them know.



Jessica DeBord's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog. Reading your ways to "take action" inspired me to collaborate with my fellow coworkers and discuss change in the near future. I teach Pre-K and think it would be rather easy and fun to involve my students in a project based on a local community need. Participating in a local community need is something I will be consulting with my fellow coworkers.

Thank You,

mag-ja's picture
Secondary Language Arts and Teacher Leader Curriculum Liaiaon

Your insights are invaluable. I just sent a recent article of yours about "last hired, first fired" to my entire union board members. You presented a sophisticated conversation about all the topics we are currently addressing in our district, where we lost over 700 teachers of 2400. Ouch, to say the least. But, in this article you name everything we as teachers, unions and educational leaders should be discussing. Thank you.

Now, how do I subscribe to your blogs? I am a fan.

Nicole Blanco's picture

Think about the life of a teacher. We come in, close the door for 6+ hours, send students home, take a mountain of paperwork with us, and go home. How much time do we spend collaborating with our colleagues? Perhaps the mandated weekly team meeting to go over lesson plans, or the monthly committee meeting to discuss school events and activities? I am currently an elementary school teacher and graduate student in Florida. If there is one thing I am learning through both experiences, it is that we MUST meet with our colleagues to create forward momentum in our schools.
Life itself is a process of learning. As we all know, teaching is not something we are simply born being able to do; it is a life long journey that requires an open mind. Times change, and so must our thinking. We cannot close our classroom doors and expect to reach every child with the "bag of tricks" we left undergraduate school with. Instead, we need to work together to find out what our students need, how can we best reach them, what strategies work best, and above all continue to improve our instruction and learning as seen through student achievement.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Wow! What company you have me keep! Thanks, Julianna, and what a pleasure to hear from you at Edutopia. One day, you will be a moderator that uses the very qualities of authority through guidance, and learning through collaboration. After all, as a great teacher leader yourself, you already know that learning from your group, students, peers, etc...is the way to keep strong in your own practice.

Thanks so much for the kind comment and I look forward to talking to you again here and in VOICE!

-Heather WG

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