According to the U.S. Census Bureau 79 million students ages 3 and older will be heading back to school this September. Those schools will remain very familiar to the almost 1 in 4 of us who may be heading back this fall. In his article School 2.0 in USA Weekend (August 9) Greg Toppo argues that while many contend that schools have barely changed in the past century there are innovations that will bring fresh perspectives on how to re-energize learning.
Toppo introduces us to entrepreneurs promoting robots in the class room, “change the world” charter schools, the re-introduction of the classics, hands-on libraries and computer powered blocks. But upon closer examination of these innovations, it might appear that each is simply a variation on more traditional approaches to learning.
Computerized avatars and robots while capitalizing on recent technological breakthroughs are really expensive substitutes for peer tutors that have had demonstrable effectiveness in enhancing learning. Break the mold charter schools are all building their success on smaller class sizes, increased pupil contact time and greater parent involvement. These are long accepted methods for improving student performance. Teaching the classics revives an educational tradition that great literature is a wonderful vehicle for improving communication skills, developing common experiences for students and helping them come to understand universal themes. And providing greater interactivity for the learners whether through the use of libraries designed to resemble teen centers or gimmicks like high tech letter blocks increase both motivation and engagement which for decades we have understood to be critical to successful learning.
Now I promised myself that I would never be one of those educators who would surrender to the idea that there was really nothing new under the sun or that change and innovation in education was a relentless cycle of reworking old ideas. I prefer to look at educational innovations as building on what we know about teaching and learning and enhancing what we have always done with what we are continually learning. Innovations in the neurosciences and technology can provide us with new knowledge and increase our capacity to get things done. We should not diminish the importance of any of it, consider all of it and choose wisely the best ideas.
Concepts like the wheel have been reinvented countless times from the first ox carts to the wheels that allow a jumbo jet to safely land. The basic tenets of teaching and learning, while constantly being reconceived, are similarly moving us along a linear progression that makes each iteration a promising improvement on what we have always done and often provides us with the opportunity to do more.
While it is certainly true that teaching and learning have changed less than other sectors of our modern world there has been and there will continue to be a need for innovation and new perspectives that will help us improve on the things we have always done.
Here’s hoping that the new school year will be a learning experience for each and every one of us.