February 09, 2006

Sizer, Gatto, Littky, meet Warlick, Richardson, Dieu

Reading Barbara Dieu's excellent overview about blogging in education made me reflect on some other reading I've been doing recently.

There is so much good stuff out there but it is still hard to find because of time constraints. I rarely do searches, and am often pointed to great sites by other bloggers, teachers, web-surfers, etc (rarely by colleagues, unfortunately, hardly any of whom are web-conscious, and only 1 of whom has a blog).

Recently I have been reading John Taylor Gatto and Ted Sizer and about Dennis Littky (some links are here )

These 3 people have ideas about educational change which in some ways are similar to, and impinge on, the kinds of ideas Dieu talks about in her article. For example, in "Horace's Hope", Ted Sizer writes about the boredom and meaningless that characterizes many high schools: students are earning credits merely by spending time in class (kinda like jail!). He urges changes that make the student the focus, that make as their top priority the intellectual development of ALL students' minds (regardless of race or socio-economic status) which means challenging students to learn to use their minds (much schooling is unchallenging and boring), that foster genuine understanding (as opposed to mere memorizing and regurgitation of facts). To attain these objectives he proposes small classes and schools; a narrower curriculum that explores topics deeply rather than superficially, and an interdisciplinary approach to learning (this idea is echoed by Howard Gardner and his Multiple Intelligences theory), which will accentuate the relations and connections, rather than dividing a school day up into 50-minute chunks of quite unconnected chunks of knowledge; having the students demonstrate their understanding by doing or making something and using this as their main assessment rather than relying solely on pencil and paper tests; collaboration between teachers to create a student-centred curriculum and to develop suitable assessment methods. All these changes require changes in the ways schools are organized and managed. Sizer quotes studies done that "characterized restructuring as the movement away from a bureaucratic or more traditional form of organization to a more communal one.

These 2 organizational definitions were introduced and tested in earlier work (Bryk and Driscoll, 1988; Lee, Smith, and Bryk, 1993). A bureaucratically organized high school is marked by its high degree of specialization and, frequently, its large size. Teachers work in separate departments or programs, with little collaboration; students choose from multiple and varied course offerings; and management and decision-making are handled in a top-down style. In contrast, a communally organized school is characterized by more personal contact and, frequently, by smaller size. Roles and tasks are more flexible, and teachers work together toward a common set of goals and share in decision-making. Students share a common curriculum. ...

Lee and Smith set out to determine whether schools incorporating elements of restructuring that move them toward a more communal organization have a positive effect on student achievement. Using available data, they were able to show beneficial effects on both achievement and equity through 10th grade. They then designed their second study to see if those effects were sustained throughout high school and to determine with more precision which aspects of organizational change were the most powerful. 'the results of the study were clear and consistent: schools that implemented three or more restructuring practices posted significantly higher academic achievement than other schools.'
the second study was able to determine that only a small set of school features actually accounted for the differences in learning related to restructuring.
The 4 features ... isolated... were classroom teaching that fosters active learning and students' construction as well as reproduction of knowledge; a narrow curriculum which offers little variability in academic courses; teachers who together take a high level of responsibility for student learning; and steady pressure on students to pursue academic excellence."

The changes made by Dennis Littky, principal of Thayer High School in New Hampshire, were very similar. He began by talking individually to all the students, and helped create individual learning plans for them with the help of advisors who were assigned to small groups of students.

It seems pretty clear that, while ed-tech teachers like Dieu and Dave Warlick and James Farmer and Will Richardson and many others who write on this subject, focus mainly on technological opportunities and potentials, and while they are also constantly talking about how use of these technologies must influence actual teaching practice, their whole approach, influenced as it is by open-source software and the democratic, community-building thinking that goes with it, has much in common with the ideas of Sizer and Littky. Gatto's point of view is more radical: he suggests that the powerful forces that created compulsory schooling are too implacable to allow of significant change. However, he worked in this system for 30 years, and the ways and means he devised share many similarities with Littky's and Sizer's: personalized learning plans and assignments (which of course means getting to know the students personally), networking with the local community in order to find mentors and apprenticeships for students, involve parents as much as possible, and so on.

Sizer formed the Coalition of Essential Schools, a loose organization of like-minded schools (Littky's Thayer High School was the first).

I imagine powerful forces being unleashed if the ed-tech people joined up with something like this Coalition!


Bee said...

I'm not ed-tech but a secondary school EFL educator active in the classroom for the last 33 years. I do not think technology in itself will change the world but it surely helps to weave distributed connections, rhizomes which you would not make alone at school. It's the awareness that you transpose to your practice and extend to your community that slowly makes things change.

Marco Polo said...

Bee, thanks for the wise words, and I stand corrected. On reflection, it probably wasn't fair to label Dave Warlick or Will Richardson as "ed-tech" either. Nevertheless, these teachers, like yourself, are "pushing the envelope", demanding that schools and teachers recognize that Internet technologies have penetrated the walls of the classroom, made them permeable, and that fact impinges heavily on teaching approaches and methodology. Sizer, Littky et al, are coming from a different direction, but are saying similar things, and for some similar reasons: community-building is one, an education that is aimed towards the future and not based on an outdated industrial model is another.