Educational Reform Could benefit from Divergent thinking

Gone are the days when students went into a classroom, learned by reading, writing, doing math and learned things off by heart. Today’s classroom has a far bigger audience than the classrooms of fifty years ago.

The audience is no longer just the students; helicopter parents, standardized test scores, school boards, school districts, technology companies, teachers’ unions and potential employers are now the audience of today’s educational system. Everyone has a vested interest in education not only because we are educating the citizens of tomorrow, but education is big business here in America. The victims are good teachers and the students themselves.

In Matt Richtel’s article In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores we learn that Kyrene school district in Arizona has injected $33 million worth of technology into the classroom since 2005. According to Richtel, “Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But test scores are not.” Kyrene’s test scores have remained unchanged in reading and math since 2005.We are told that due to a “digital push” in the Kyrene School District , technology in the classroom, “turns the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer.” The respect given to teachers in the past is replaced by respect for new technology, smart boards, ipads, laptops and ebooks.

From The Cartel to Waiting for Superman to an NBC 20/20 documentary entitled “Stupid in America“to a New York Times Magazine article Can good Teaching be Learned? and also The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand, the consensus is that our system of Education in America is not working. Classroom size, too much technology, lack of educational funding,  money hungry unions and teacher training have all come under the media microscope in an attempt to explain why out of, “30 comparable countries, the United States ranks near the bottom,” according to a 2010 CBS documentary Reading, Writing and Reform. Here’s the real shocker, we’re spending more per student than most comparable countries.

According to the CBS documentary we’re spending, ” just over $129,000 from K through 12,” per student,  “The other countries average $95,000.” The results do not match the expenditures.

What was wrong with the old way of doing things anyway? Some might argue that because children are inundated with technology they expect it in the classroom and are bored or unenthusiastic with out technological stimuli. Opponents say that this inundation of technology might be affecting children’s brain waves, although it may not be apparent now, it might manifest itself in more serious ways in the future.

How children think and process information has changed. There’s nothing wrong with a pencil and paper classroom. That concept still exists and good teachers know when to use it.  Collaborative thinking is how children process and learn today. They gather ideas from the internet, books, talking to the teacher and each other. If a classroom is effectively run there will be more discussion than silence. What happens during those discussions is vital to building a better world. Respect for other’s opinions, accepting differences, knowing the facts and formulating sound arguments with real facts. A collaborative thought process connects the students and teacher and a deeper far more meaningful instruction is taught and learned.

Sir Ken Robinson in a speech for TED Talks does a better job of explaining this than I.

Robinson says, “The problem is the current system of education was designed, conceived and structured for a different age.” He cites the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution as two driving factors that shaped how we educated and still continue to educate our children. Robinson continues on to say that intelligence used to mean an ability to use deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics, “Academic ability,” he calls it.  The Arts in particular according to Robinson are “victims of this mentality.” In conjunction with the description of Amy Furman’s “technolgy-centric” classroom in Matt Richtel’s article In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores,Robinson says we are living in a period where children are “living in the most intensively stimulating period in the history of the earth,” Robinson says and adds, “they are besieged with information from computers, iPhones, advertisements and hundreds of television channels,” and when they get distracted they are medicated for ADHD because, Robinson says of “medical fashion.” He says the ADHD epidemic is fictitious and notes that prescriptions for ADHD increases as you move toward the eastern seaboard of the US. Robinson also states that the incidence of ADHD has increased with the growth of standardised testing. “We are getting our children through education by anaesthetizing them,” Robinson says.

“We have a system of education that is modelled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it,” Robinson continues. The companies who benefitted from selling and installing all the technology in the Kyrene school district classrooms certainly have a vested interest in education. The standardised test scores of students in Kyrene that have remained stagnant  since 2005 are more about conformity and standardization than acutally measuring what the students have really learned according to Robinson.

Standardised tests ignore divergent or lateral thinking, which is the ability to come up with multiple answers to a question. In reference to the book Break Point and Beyond Robinson draws on the example of testing a kindergarten classroom with divergent thinking. Five years later the same group were tested at ages 8 – 10. As Kindergartners they scored at 98% for genious level divergent thinking, by ages 8 – 10  only 50% scored at genius level and when tested again five years later at ages 13 – 15 the group scored even lower on the scale. We are born as divergent thinkers, but education and stanardised testing force us to abandon it and conform  to industrialisation.

Education is in transition. Teachers’ Unions dislike this transition because classroom technology costs money, budgets have limits and classroom populations will increase and teachers will lose their jobs. Why are unions involved? The less teachers that pay into the union the less money there is. Even the people who print, design and correct and distribute these standardised tests have a vested inetrest in the current system of education.

Technology companies love this transition in education, because until we find the new paradigm for education we’ll stock the classroom with smartboards, ipads, ebooks and computers. Until teachers find what works we’ll follow the next fad.

Parents and students are unsure of the transition. They still are the victims of these standardised test results. According to notable educational theorist Howard Gardner there are multiple intelligences,

“We are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves.” Yet we only test students in a logical-mathematical way.

In defense of technology, I can accept a paperless classroom. I think it works and is a sound argument. However, does a computer screen work for every intelligence? As Robinson said, aesthetic is where the whole body “is alive” and appreciating what it sees and hears. Not everyone appreciates a lesson about Shakespeare when it is broken down to blogging as one of the characters of “As You Like It,” as the students in Kyrene’s school district did. An actor’s portrayal of the play would appeal to some, but not all. The real issue is how do you teach to all the intelligences and transfer that learning into stanardised test results that show learning has taken place? Can technology help with that?

Maybe we should abandon the current system of testing and rethink how we measure intelligence. In the meantime Teachers’ unions will be unhappy about educational reform, technology companies will be delighted with it, and parents who themselves are the products of traditional educational systems will continue to ponder whether or not their children are learning in school, some will even become combatative with teachers. Why would anyone want to become a teacher if the profession has become less important than a smartboard, trade unions and technology companies see us a dollar signs or a parent thinks they can do the job better than us?

There is one thing we can all agree on I think, teachers are no longer respected as professionals. That is also a part of what needs to be reformed in education. Although tenure does protect teachers that are not at their peak, we need to recognize the good teachers and award them that respect, they’ve earned it. To say that teachers have transitioned from being a “sage on the sage to being a guide on the side,” as mentioned in Richtel’s article puts forward a notion that anyone can teach as the profession now only requires someone to guide the students. Behind the scenes, as every teacher knows, there is lesson planning, re-teaching, researching and grading papers. It is a difficult job, one that doesn’t stop when the classroom doors are locked. Educational reform should start with teachers and students, not technology, unions and pressure groups.

Transition is never easy, but currently we are all working for our own vested interests. Divergent thinking would not only benefit classrooms, but also educational reform and everyone connected to it.

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