Friday, October 21, 2011

A Shared Perspective... A Defined Paradigm... Teaching Students to Think in a Rapidly Expanding Universe...

South Orangetown Central School District

Dr. Ken Mitchell, Superintendent

Earlier this month, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a trio of American astronomers who have discovered through the tracking of distant supernovae that the universe is expanding at a faster rate than previously believed. This is not unlike the amount of curriculum content that New York and other states are expecting our students to learn. Since the 1950’s there has been a continual expansion of content requirements within each curriculum and across all content areas, yet the amount of time that we spend in school has remained essentially the same.

In spite of this discrepancy, our students have kept pace with teachers helping them to discern what is essential and what might be tested. This coincides with the fact that more students than ever are attending school and for a longer period of time. Prior to the 1960’s students of diverse backgrounds, English language learners, and students living in poverty, in spite of what some people might remember, did not populate the halls of the American high school to the extent to which they do today. Even with a homogeneous student body, the graduation rate was only around 50%. A small percentage of these graduates went on to college with less than a quarter of them graduating with a degree.

Today, we hear that our students need to be “college and career ready” so that America can be globally competitive. This readiness must happen in spite of the fact that the organizational architecture of the public school has not changed, the curriculum continues to expand, and the population that attends school presents more challenges than ever before. Of course, there will be more tests in this era of accountability that will take a different form and be based on national Common Core Standards.

In South Orangetown, we have an aligned curriculum and use assessment, not merely as a tool to determine grades, but as a mechanism to determine how well students have learned content or acquired skills. With that information, we adjust our lessons accordingly, although this often becomes difficult to do when teachers feel pressured to cover the content of a rapidly expanding curriculum.

We have accepted the reality that not all curriculum content can be “covered” well. Yes, it can be disseminated, but there is a good chance that it will be forgotten shortly after the assessment as the brain tends to dump data that it no longer considers useful or for which there has been neither meaningful engagement nor emotional connections. The brain is efficient, unlike those who mandate additions to the curriculum.

To help embed learning by making it more meaningful, district instructors have been encouraged to employ approaches that require students to use information or skills that we teach or to which we provide access to think both critically and creatively to solve problems. In some cases, we present a problem and ask them to find solutions – a task that will undoubtedly be asked of them as they venture to college or in a career.

Gone are the days when American workers are paid well to perform routine tasks that require little independent thinking. Machines, robots, computers, and cheap offshore labor have provided leaders of the free market with greater opportunities for profit without paying high wages and benefits to American workers. This reality has changed our world and economy.

Recently, parents contacted me indicating that their child would learn better in an instructional environment in which there were direct transactions between the teacher and his students – a straightforward dissemination of information – and the students and the teacher – demonstration of content retention on a test. In the experiences and mental models of these parents and many adults of previous generations, this is how school is supposed to work. In such a model, there is control, predictability, certainty, and a clear cause and effect.

This instructional model no longer works in a world in which there has been an explosion of information with immediate access to it. This instructional model no longer works in an information age in which knowledge workers are required to solve problems, create alternatives, understand the complexity of systems, and perform a host of critical thinking processes while technology transforms our society and workplace at an unprecedented rate.

If we want our children to be prepared for a complex future that will likely be packed with more information than ever in our rapidly expanding universe, then we need to require them to become independent thinkers who will have the skills and capacity to manage vast volumes of information with critical and creative thinking. This will require an acceptance and understanding that there is too much information for anyone to absorb and retain, and even if one had the capacity to do so, what good would it be if there was no independent ability to use it in a productive way?

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