GRAVES: It's the second mouse that gets the cheeseAt least two trends will radically reshape and improve education in the relatively near future.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell Superintendent
When Washington Irving quill-penned Rip Van Winkle, he crafted not just one of the classics of American literature but also one of the great metaphors for changes and the changeless in life. The overlap with education herein is the peculiar tendency of that field of endeavor to remain relatively unchanged even as society swirls and evolves with breakneck speed all around it. As one wit, Claudia Wallis in Time magazine, noted,
“Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls — every place Rip goes just baffles him.
But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.”
The joke, though it rings a bit less true all the time (the boards today are white!), still chagrins because it still peals with a great deal of veracity. And it annoys the dickens out of me. Technology screams forward and enormous advances are made in so many fields but the classroom looks an awful lot like the one I first occupied in 1968. It is this feeling that education is being left a bit behind in Western Civilization’s advance that keeps me searching for just what genuine (the list of un-genuine reforms in education is sufficiently long that it could and frankly does fill the Internet) changes are ahead for schools and the education of children.
Over time, I have come to the conclusion that at least two trends will radically reshape and improve education in the relatively near future. These can be summarized as individualization and “flipping.”
By individualization, I mean that schools will move away from the factory model of education in which age-mates are grouped together for mass instruction in grade levels and subject areas. This model hasn’t been a bad thing; in fact it was an enormous improvement over the prior model of wealthy families hiring tutors to work one-on-one with their children while the progeny of the rest of humanity was left in ignorance. But, given the enormous potential of educational technology, it is already possible to craft a set of skills and lesson sets, K-12, and move students through them at their own pace, while still offering time for lots of social interactions and extracurricular programming. Such a model of individualization will mean that students can move through instruction at their own pace, avoiding boredom and wasted time. It will also mean that students can take enough time on skills that they need more work on so that they have fully learned content before moving onto the next topic which presumes its mastery. To some degree, a lot of individualization is already being done within classrooms and by specific teachers but it is far from the norm. Teacher-guided technology, and its ability to teach to each child one at a time, will move individualization from an elusive, sometimes-attained, goal to the norm.
A second reform already lapping at education’s beaches is “flipping,” so called because it takes the typical arrangement of instruction being conducted in the classroom with homework done, well, at home. The instruction is then provided via pre-recorded lessons outside of the classroom, i.e. at home, with the “homework,” the student practice of the skills and content from the lesson, accomplished in the classroom under the instructor’s tutelage and thus with him or her available for questions and assistance. Flipped classrooms are already around but mostly at the postsecondary level. Two current concerns limit its promise at the elementary and secondary levels: the lack of take-home technology necessary to allow students to access the pre-recorded lessons and the genuine concern about students’ compliance with the task of both watching them and doing so without simultaneously tweeting, e-mailing, listening to music, Facebooking, and Skyping with friends.
So, yes there are obstacles to these two reforms which I believe will someday condemn Van Winkle to being as perplexed about schools as he is about everything else in modern life. But I also believe these obstacles will very soon — within 10 years in my wild-eyed estimation — sweep into American schools. The issue for educators everywhere is just how to begin. Jumping right in with a new, transformative concept might sound exciting but it can also be disastrous because people — students, parents, teachers, administrators — are often very much opposed to changes in how schools work, the assumption generally being that they should operate pretty much the way they did when adults were in school. Those who move too quickly find themselves in the same situation as the fisherman with the first icehouse of the season on a too-thin veneer of ice. It isn’t enough to be right; it is also about timing.
Our late governor, Bill Janklow, used to speak on the same notion in a discussion of pioneers. To paraphrase, he noted that people found the idea of being the pioneer very enticing but, in truth, the first pioneers often found themselves unhappily deceased, victims of starvation, inclement weather, and various other unyielding forces of nature.
Or as yet another wit offered, the early bird may get the worm, but it is the second mouse that gets the cheese.