Planning the Revolution (Education Reform)

Article excerpt


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. …