PLANNING THE REVOLUTION
In my last column, I indicated that we need to change our underlying approach to education from one of mass production to one of mass customization. This means that every child's education would be unique, custom - tailored to their needs and abilities. What I didn't say was how we produce such a radical change.
The initial step is the toughest: we have to accept that we can't change the way the education system functions and maintain our current system at the same time. For those who are willing to take my proposal seriously, I offer the following prescription.
First, find a school board that is willing to support a trial project. Next, find a high school principal who is willing to invent a better system for her students, and to take some risks to make a name for herself. She should then spend a great deal of time studying what's happening in the commercial training industry. Educators and commercial trainers don't like each other, and never talk to each other for fear of contamination. But commercial trainers are doing what you will need to succeed: developing computer - based education systems that are cost - effective, flexible, and firmly rooted in solid pedagogical practice. Once you know what they know, and have some ideas of what it might cost to hire the best in that business, you're ready to go back to your school. This mass customization concept may work best within the charter school model, where theoretically, you begin with a clean slate.
You are about to change over from paper - based education tools to computer - based education tools, and change the structure from one where the curriculum drives the student to one where the student drives the curriculum. Since what you are doing is experimental and may not suit every student, have them apply to the student - driven stream, leaving the rest to stay in the traditional stream.
Within the new system, you're going to have to commit a complete change over. You won't have the budget to finance both paper - based tools and computer based tools, and you won't have time enough in a school year for both student - driven and curriculum - driven approaches in a single stream.
Now consider how this will change the curriculum. As a start, let's model our approach on a liberal arts program at the university level. There are certain requirements a student must fill to graduate, including subjects in a wide range of areas, and concentration requirements in her major. Now let's transpose this to a primary and secondary school curriculum.
There would be competency requirements for each student to move beyond a given age category. These categories might be grouped by physiological and psychological developmental stages, such as ages 11 through 13, 14 through 16, and 17 through 19. Competency could be demonstrated through projects rather than by exam or assignment, and teachers could use this to interest students in skills they might otherwise find boring. Hence, if a student wants to create a Web site, the teacher might point out that being able to communicate effectively is more likely to help him achieve his goals. She might guide him into instruction that allows him to learn these skills -- and the end result would be a clear demonstration of what he has learned.
This also illustrates the role of the teacher. She becomes both a guide and an opportunist. In her role as a guide, she helps the student find resources, and points out skills and abilities that he or she will need to achieve their desired goals. As an opportunist, she will look for situations where students can be nudged into broadening their skills beyond those they choose for themselves. Teachers will become tutors and leaders more than lecturers and rule keepers.
Redefining the curriculum and the role of the teacher are enormous projects in themselves -- but there is no point in just creating systems that replicate the mass production model using expensive equipment. So think big. Thoughts are cheap, and will ultimately lead you to a better product than thinking small and adapting.
Now comes the fun. You're going to find money for equipment and materials in three places. Hoarding enough money for everything you need is going to take years, certainly more than five, hopefully less than ten. The first is by not buying any more books (except for literature), workbooks, and by restricting photocopying and other paper - related costs. Give each teacher an individual paper/photocopier budget instead of a blank cheque.
The second place to find money is through the elimination of salaries, which must include teachers. Try to do it through attrition, perhaps by offering early retirement to teachers (preferably ones you don't mind losing). Keep in mind that you are going to need your best teachers. But cutting back on teachers does not meanlosing the money to some other school. That's where the school board comes in. If they're not in on this, the money will be whisked away, and you'll be in worse shape than before. Moreover, they're going to have to run interference with your teachers' unions. If you can't change the function and complement of teachers, you will have a much tougher battle, especially as the unions won't want you to succeed.
The third place you'll get funding is corporate sponsors. For the commercial trainers, it'll have to be a cash - on - the - barrel - head proposition. They don't like you, and they won't trust your promises of pots of gold somewhere over the rainbow. Look for other corporate sponsors that have a community interest in education. Now find or invent ways that they are going to get something of real, commercial value to them, or the money will dribble in, then taper off. Perhaps they can use your facilities for training employees outside of school hours. Perhaps they want to experiment with the computer - based training systems with which you're experimenting. Find their hot buttons and start punching them.
Start with your best and most senior students, and assign your most interested (and hopefully, most creative) teachers to developing a way of marrying a broad curriculum with commercial training technology. Buy equipment gradually, looking for sponsors and donations where possible. Start small, both in numbers and objectives. Use as much of other people's work as you can. Make mistakes and correct them. Bring in community resources -- people who know things your teachers don't and that your kids want.
At the start of the school year, tell your kids what hoops they will need to jump through for things like college entry, scholarships, diploma requirements, and so on, then work with them to set up a game plan to get through those hoops. Beyond this, let your kids tell you what they want to pursue, and then find ways of relating it to curricular materials that you know or suspect will be of value. Keep insisting that the students add breadth and don't specialize prematurely.
Now go back, review everything you've done, and do it again, eliminating things that didn't work, keeping those things that did. You're going to make mistakes. When they happen, let them go, don't cling to them.
Once you've got a grade 12 system that is firmly seated on three legs -- a broadly defined, student - driven curriculum; computer - based commercial training expertise; and the broadest possible range of resources in and out of your school -- extend it to grade 11 and increase the numbers of those in grade 12. Keep in mind how grade 11 students are different from grade 12 students. You will find them even less certain about where they want to go than their more senior peers, so build in ways to expose them to a range of possibilities that they may not have considered. Repeat the process you went through with grade 12 -- only now you will have a wealth of experience, tools, and resources from which to draw.
Eventually, if your school board gets behind it and you are showing good results, your student - driven system will reach down into grade school. What would a student - driven grade one look like?
I suspect that it would have a higher teacher ratio than any other level, that it would offer a wide range of opportunities for kids to explore topics that interest them, and it would provide them access to skills they will need to pursue those subjects that interest them. Such skills would include reading, writing presentation skills, arithmetic (for costing the resources they want), awareness of the world (as in geography, environmental studies, and social studies), and so on. The lower grades should also insist on breadth of exposure, akin to a liberal arts degree in university. Only now, because the students are driving their education instead of being pushed into it, I suspect they will put the pedal to the metal, and leave their peers far behind.
Believe me, there are dozens of problems that must be overcome before mass customized education can become a widespread reality. If each student follows a unique path, how do you grade their performance? How do you reassure parents that their children are learning something of value? What do you do with kids who show no interest in learning of any nature, or kids who are only interested in playing computer games or basketball? How does the teacher's role change? What happens to discipline? What happens when, inevitably, a student winds up exploring subject material that her parents find objectionable?
But then, I never said it would be easy; only that it would be necessary.
Richard Worzel is a professional futurist, speaker, and author of Facing the Future: The Seven Forces Revolutionizing Our Lives. He volunteers his time to speak to high school students as his schedule permits. Contact him care of TEACH Magazine, or at firstname.lastname@example.org on the Internet.
Figure not transcribed Consult original publication…