Sunday, February 15, 2015

Enough Already with the Status Quo


One of my colleagues, whom I respect greatly, recently said he wasn’t convinced yet that SBL was worth all the trouble it’s causing. He said that change should happen when there’s a need for change, and frankly, we were doing fine. Kids were happy, parents were happy, graduates came back saying they were prepared for college. Why change a system that’s fine as it is?

Our school has always been a great school in the middle of a state that values education. We are in the top handful of states in most categories, and our school is in the top handful of schools in most categories within the state. We seem to have no pressing reason to change, really, beyond the normal year to year changes that attempt to slowly improve learning for students.

The problem is that I now fundamentally and viscerally disagree with “fine." Five years into being standards-based in my own classroom, I think back on how I used to teach and I bristle at the idea of it being “fine.” It wasn’t. Did most students do okay? Yes. Did many of them excel? Yes. Did I build relationships and provide a safe environment? Yes. Did I teach writing and literature and thinking and grammar and all sorts of other amazing skills and content? Absolutely. In the context in which I was working, I think I was a good teacher, maybe even better than fine.

But if I knew then what I know now, I would be better. And better is better than fine. We can’t pretend that the world is the same as when we were in school. In fact, we can’t even pretend that it’s the same as it was 5 years ago. It’s not. And so we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for 100 years and think it’s still going to be fine. Eddie Obeng shows the absurdity of this in his 2012 TED Talk called "Smart Failure for a fast-changing world." 

Last week in class, a student had an epiphany that really blew my mind. He was trying to connect the printing press to the Internet and was talking it through on the whiteboard while a few of us looked on. Here was his thinking: Before the printing press people didn’t have to do much critical thinking because they were told what to think by those in power and they just accepted it. The printing press allowed people to think on their own because they had access to information for the first time, and therefore they could make sense of it on their own and question it. So access = thinking. Fast forward lots of years, and along comes the Internet, and suddenly people have access to almost everything. So it follows that there would be a thinking explosion, right? But he said the opposite was happening, that access to everything was actually making thinking unnecessary. So access = acceptance.

His epiphany, coming on the heels of my conversation with my colleague, made me furious at our collective acceptance of “fine.”  We have access to incredible information about the brain and learning now, and yet we continue to ignore it, or even worse, get excited about it and then let it go.  Our principal sent us a fantastic article this week about the importance of learning targets and how the brain needs clarity around purpose—exactly what SBL offers. I read it quickly, excited to have another resource to share with skeptical colleagues, but then I got to the end. And guess what. It was written in 1998.  That’s 17 years ago. That was the year I started teaching. That was two years before my printing-press-epiphany student was even born. And what changes have we seen in 17 years? Not many. I mean, really, how different does school look now?

So I’m kind of done with “fine.” We know better and we should do better. That’s it. No other profession would last with the same acceptance of the status quo. Imagine a doctor saying that the surgical procedure he learned in med school was fine. Imagine a lawyer saying that understanding the laws of 10 years ago were fine. Imagine an electrician, an engineer, an architect, a chef, a computer programmer saying the way it’s always been is fine. And maybe most importantly, come on parents—are you really okay with fine for your children?

SBL isn’t going to change education as much as it probably needs to be changed, but at least it’s a change in the right direction. I know we’re in a tough position as educators—I know there is never enough money or time or understanding. But here in front of us is something that is actually achievable—something that can work within the antiquated systems and structures we are stuck with. When I really let myself dream, I can imagine a future for education that is unrecognizable; but for now, let’s just agree that “fine” is not good enough when we know how to make it better.