Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Is More More, Or Is More Less? Or Maybe Less Is More?

There has been LOTS of press lately about the new U.S. documentary Waiting for Superman, by Davis Guggenheim (the same director as An Inconvenient Truth), and about the status of education reform in the United States.
I loved an Inconvenient Truth.  Author John Kotter  was likely impressed by how that movie helped build a sense of URGENCY re: the need for action to address global warming.  It was a very compelling presentation on the perils that faced us if we remained inactive!  I suspect the director may have approached the issue of education reform from the same perspective with his most recent movie from the early reviews I've read online.  I'm conflicted though, likely given my position immersed in the education system, that while I haven't yet seen Waiting for Superman, I think I can already tell I don't like it!
(note:  I'll probably go see it.  Or rent it.  I get curious.  I had to see the Blair Witch Project too.  I still regret that, actually)
I don't disagree that education needs reform.  That belief is affirmed every day when I read, see, or hear about kids not getting what they need to maximize their success.  I feel it in my stomach when I am unable to provide the best solution to an issue and have to 'settle' for the best we can do at that time.  I know we need to change.  I disagree with anyone who suggests it is primarily only teachers who need to change.  The changes that have occured in society are huge, and I think corresponding huge changes are needed in education to help address our needs. 
I am completely impressed by the direction our system is heading here in Alberta to look at building teacher capacity and enlisting the cooperation of the community to enact the reform we need.  I hope we move away from the incredibly prescriptive curriculum (are there really over 1200 specific learning outcomes in grade 7?) to a more descriptive system that allows us to focus on the core skills AND ALSO those deemed critical and relevant by the community and the students!  A committment to helping develop emotional intelligence anyone?  That can work!  We've got great teachers and eager students and families ready to go, let's get pointed in the right direction and get going!
I see education reform as promoted by politicians and business leaders in the U.S. as short sighted.  The focus I see advocated for in Waiting for Superman, and being promoted by Charter School advocates in the U.S., to add more hours, more resources, etc. is something I think is misguided.  How can that be sustainable?  How can systems and families sustain that kind of effort over time?  Superman, as an individual, does not exist.  The strength of superheroes does exist however, and it is the power of the collective.  Of community.  Of collaboration.
It makes me wonder how what are reformers like Bill Gates seeking to accomplish?  What is the function of their desire to see more rigidity?  Why is the fourth way presented in the book The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change (by Hargreaves and Shirley) that incorporates partnerships and capacity building as a comprehensive solution to education reform not being embraced by those who might be Waiting for Superman?
Is it Replicability?  Are those in private industry, used to the scientific method of building consistent and replicable means of production, seeking to apply the skills they know to the more human-focused system of education?  Frederick Taylor's scientific management methods (and the standardization they imply) can't really be effective in education, can they? 
Would they work for you in your current job?  What if you were a student?  Would mass standardization work for your 13 year old son or daughter?
Is it all a labor ploy?  Are the Waiting for Superman advocates focused on teacher unions as the scapegoats for the results of the education system in the U.S. so they fail to recognize other factors (such as societal expectations and behaviors) as being influential to the output of the education system (i.e. student acheivement)?
The bottom line for me is that society has changed, and continues to change faster than most of us realize!  Ultimately, if we want creative and innovative thinkers, perhaps we need less rigidity, and more focus on meeting local needs.  Less is more.  Lets get more parents involved and focus on less objectives.  Let's spend the most time on what is most important.  Let's put our limited resources where they will make the most difference.  Any successful reform must involve parents and the community.  As supporters and partners, not as the experts those Waiting for Superman seem to think they may be.


Greg MacCollum said...

A thought provoking post about what's going on here. I've often wondered in reading posts from our American colleagues how we compare to what's going on there. I really like to think that we are working hard on improving our teaching in Alberta, and that change is happening. I wonder though if we do not face some of the same problems that seem common in the US so that change appears painfully slow.

One of my colleagues has pointed out that it is hard to deal with teaching students more than writing and reading, when it is only writing and reading that are tested on the diploma exams. While I may not be in total agreement with this I understand his sentiment. There are a lot of great teachers that I work with, but sometime it seems that the ability to change is hamstrung by things over which we have no control (as you mention with your discussion of curriculum, and I would add provincial exams and so much more).

Still there is definitely change that is occurring and I am excited to be a part of the change at my school, and I am interested how many teachers are choosing to take part, including ones that I may not have thought would be involved. I certainly think that the AISI funding has been used successfully in improving many aspects of our delivery (although there never seems to be enough money or time!).

Phil McRae said...

Well stated...very thoughtful piece.

Phil McRae said...

Well said and very thoughtful post.