Tipping education

09.16.13 | Learning on the EDge | 3 Comments


I am wondering what it will take to tip education into a more student-centered approach to learning. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 book The Tipping Point charged me up — change can happen! Gladwell described transformations that were epidemic in nature, both for good and bad. The good ones included the antismoking campaign, the proliferation of book clubs, and decreasing crime by fixing windows. The bad ones — well, we don’t need to talk about those.

At the time, I thought we needed an epidemic in education, something that would transform schools so they worked for young people, especially those who struggle in traditional school environments. I still believe this, but I’m not encouraged by what I see around me. Certainly, there are pockets of change (and I don’t mean five — and ten-cent change; I mean $100 bills, to stretch my pun), individual schools mostly, that have bravely made their environments hospitable to learning and learners, both adults and students. Does anyone have an example of a district that has done so? A state?

What can help education tip to student-centered learning?

When I visualize student-centered education, I see students pursuing their own interests and passions (curriculum-related, because what cannot be related to curriculum?), choosing how to learn — with others, online, independently, interviewing experts, experiencing and experimenting — and how to share their learning (through a presentation or demonstration, a play, a model, a letter to the editor, etc.). I see them going deeply into what they care about and, as they do so, naturally going broader. I see teachers as guides, working alongside students for learning. I see teachers as learners themselves, engaged in their own and their colleagues’ learning, as well as the learning of their students.

What stands in the way of this vision? It seems to me, having worked in policy myself, though briefly, that policy does. That quick answers to complicated issues, testing, for example, get in the way. I have long advocated for a minimal state role in testing, in which the state merely samples students and subjects on different years, just to get snapshots of performance. Districts do the same, and assessment happens locally and publicly (public exhibitions of learning).

Teacher evaluation threatens to stand in the way of this vision, aligned as it is with testing. As long as test scores define the effectiveness of teachers, teachers will pay attention to test scores, and student-centered learning will be hard to achieve. Even if evaluation systems include other measures of teacher effectiveness, such as observations and teacher portfolios, people will still look toward test scores for the simple indicator of a complex issue.

What can help education tip to student-centered learning? Strangely enough, I think the Common Core State Standards can play a part in this epidemic. If educators take them for more than face value and resist testing them in usual ways, the Core might be leverage an infection that reaches epidemic proportion.

What do you think? Am I mistaken in my view that student-centered schools are rare and districts and state educational systems even rarer? What barriers do you experience in terms of student-centered education? What hope do you have for student-centered learning?  And, how much does student-centered learning really matter?


About Lois Brown Easton

LOIS BROWN EASTON is an educational consultant based in Tucson, Ariz. She is also the writer for the Kappan Professional Development Guide which is published with each issue of Kappan. Her most recent Kappan article was “Forever: A unique approach to philanthropy,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2012 (Vol. 93, No. 8),  22-27.

Comments on Tipping education

  1. Bev Koopman says:

    Standardization across states has made it easier for the free market to enter the field of education. That has come at a cost. The number of multiage programs, like the one I teach in, and other “non-traditional” schools, have declined dramatically across the nation, especially at the intermediate level. This reflects a shift away from concerns about child “wholeness” which includes social and affective needs, and our society’s recent, almost exclusive focus on intellectual needs. Now that truly big money is a part of the educational landscape, I do not see this trend reversing. But a few stalwarts, like my own school in Buffalo, MN, will hold out.

  2. David C Hemphill says:

    I agree with your thoughts that we need to shift to a student centered education. However decade after decade of teachers who learned “school” from the teachers that taught them will make this change incredibly difficult. Teachers and teacher ed programs will need to train and provide professional development to make this paradigm shift happen. Students will also have a difficult time, with this change. They have been conditioned to learn facts and spit them back out for the test.

    Over time I feel that education will change, but it will be slow. In the book Disrupting Class, Clayton Christiansen makes a case that we as educators need to disrupt class with innovation. It is already happening in some cases, schools around the nation have begun to do more with technology and are becoming change agents in our education system. As this process quickens its pace, others will have to come along or be left behind.

    I don’t know that the common core is necessarily the answer. I say this only because what is following this curriculum model is again a test which holds teachers and administrators responsible for making sure students are proficient in their knowledge base. As long as educators are held so tightly to these measures, we will have a difficult time of breaking away from what has always been done.

  3. Lois Easton says:

    I agree with you about how resistant we (teachers and students alike) are to change. It’s the old change-from-within problem; it’s harder to do than we imagine. I remember trying to convince my students that writing didn’t have to be done in pen, once, for a final draft. They didn’t like the idea of writing as a process one bit. Until. . . until they started learning it along the way in elementary school. Until that was the way they learned to write. Then, they expected 7th grade English writing to be like what they had learned. As teachers — if they decide to teach — they might just be teaching writing as process now. It’s the art of the long view, isn’t it?

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