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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Not NEW Standards... Flexible Standards

Not NEW Standards... Flexible Standards

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Psychologists have known for years that each person develops at their own pace. Yes, there are generalizations that can be applied to age groups, but there is no guarantee that any one person will meet a milestone by the general time frame. So, why do we have standards that expect this to happen?! Maybe the answer isn't in bonuses for teachers; nor is it in asking them to work harder; nor is it in blaming a sub-group. Maybe it's just time we look at changing our structure to allow kids to progress through the standards at their pace. Not the one we prescribe. Teachers are expected to be flexible in the classroom, why not with the standards? If we went back 50 years, how different would a school's structure look? In front of each room was a teacher with a large group of kids in their seats. The same is true today. The groups contained a mix of abilities, yet they were learning the same thing. Same as today. The main reason for this set up was convenience for the teacher. It was the most practical way to deliver instruction. The student had to fit the mold because there wasn't a more practical way. However, today we have the technology that will allow us to deliver differentiated instruction and testing to every student. The hardware is ready, we just we just need to build the software to fit education. See my post in Personalized Learning for a better picture about how this can happen.

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Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher


I think you have hit on an important roadblock for the reform effort. Our warehouse model, which still retains elements of its Prussian birth, is far from pedagogically sound. Unfortunately, most people can't imagine how things could be changed so that classrooms really could meet the needs of learning children. Most people don't realize that even very young children can exercise a high degree of self-government if we give them the right kind of support and incentive.

One central goal of Montessori education is to empower children to be independent operators in our environment. Our classrooms are carefully planned to be developmentally appropriate for the students who use them. Our classes span three age levels and students remain with the same teacher for three consecutive years. Low turn-over (1/3 per year)allows the transmission of classroom culture quite seamlessly, and perpetuates the opportunity for independence (since students see it modeled).

Our lessons are decentralized, so most students work on independently as teachers give lessons to groups of 4-8 students (elementary level). If students have difficulty understanding a procedure, they indicate the need for teacher help and then proceed with some other task until help can be given. When a task is complete, students often key it themselves to get immediate feedback. Other assignments are submitted to a teacher and we strive to give feedback within the work period.

These are all elements of structure which could easily be translated into a public school classroom, given the right teacher training and adequate adult involvement. It does require a favorable student/teacher ratio. I think the tougher transition is going to be the change in thinking required to trust students to follow a work plan and take responsibility for their own tasks. This probably seems utterly impossible to most people, but it's unusual for us to have students who don't learn to do this.

Now some folks think that has to do with our creamy clientele, saying we can cherry pick because we do not have to take all comers. Keep in mind, though, that students pay our bills and it does not suit the bottom line to turn them away. Consequently, we rarely refer a family out, and only after many attempts at intervention. Also, we frequently attract families who have tried public school and had less than favorable outcomes. Sometimes it is because of a low performing school, but very often it is due to the fact that the student learns in a way that is very different from the norm, or has behavior challenges or learning disabilities which had not been adequately addressed. Our classrooms sometimes trend upwards of 1/3 special needs students.

When we learn to work with nature instead of fighting it, when we create spaces and plan experiences which draw students instead of repelling them, when we trust students to make good choices and work with them when they don't, then we will be ready to make the leap to real reform. Without the underlying philosophical shift, even good ideas like individuation and technology based instruction will not meet with widespread success. What's actually wrong with schools has to be fixed through a revolution in thinking before it can really change the way education is delivered to most kids.


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