Monday, November 21, 2011

An Idea - warning, long read!

I admit, my idea is incomplete.  That is why it is an idea and not a plan.  A plan would be more comprehensive and would cover more of the practical details.  Nevertheless, I have an idea about how we could morph our current educational system into a more effective and dynamic system fit for the 21st century.

The basis for my idea comes from the very old notions of apprenticeship, where a master teacher takes on only a few students at a time.  Once upon a time, the word school did not refer to a place of instruction so much as it referred to one's instructional lineage of teachers.  In some subjects this is still true.  In my own native subject of music, this is still a common way of doing things, once you reach college and the professional world, at any rate.  There are many advantages to apprenticeship, for both the teacher and the students.  The bond between teacher and student is deeper than we usually think of in our current public education system, both because the teacher is not spread nearly as thinly among their students because there are fewer of them, and also because the teacher is likely to train one student over a few years before sending them to train with another teacher.  Both come down to one thing:  the teacher and student have more quality learning time spent together.  This deeper bond between teacher and student provides the teacher with much better knowledge and wisdom on how and what the student needs to learn, and provides the student with greater trust that their teacher is going to act in the student's best interest.  One potential downside is that there are human beings in the world who would seek to abuse this sacred trust and bond.  We see it happen even in our current system where there are definitive and obvious barriers to attempt to thwart abusive teachers.  The very strength of this model for teaching and learning is also a potential weakness - closer relationships can mean amazing learning benefits, but with risk.  However, I do not think this risk is any greater than the risks we currently face with rampant bullying at every level, and I do not think we would face a rise in the rate of teachers who are abusive.

The advantages of smaller class sizes are fairly well documented, and also very intuitive.  Teaching fewer students at a time means that the teacher is better attuned to the needs of each individual student, has more time to closely supervise and guide student work and inquiries as well as provide direction towards useful resources, and is less burdened with issues of large classroom management and mountains of paperwork (from planning and grading to intervention documentation and disaggregating mass amounts of testing data).  Students get a higher quality (and quantity) of scaffolded interaction with their peers and with the teacher.  A model of instruction based on apprenticeship brings the class sizes down considerably - each teacher taking on no more than 6 students at a time, so as to provide an excellent number for group project work as well as individual studies.  So smaller class sizes are the first piece of the puzzle, and I think the most necessary part.  But to do this effectively and in a practical manner, we must then address (at least) four more things.

First, how will students be assigned to teachers?  Personally, I would love to see a public network of databases with teacher profiles (including any specialties and prerequisites the teacher may have) and contact information that parents could access.  For example, if a student struggles with dyslexia or ADHD, then parents may want to select a teacher who has particular expertise in dealing with those types of students.  Also, some teachers may specialize in early childhood and only take students who are still learning to read, while others may have a certain reading proficiency as a prerequisite before accepting a student.  Parents could then set up interviews with their family and prospective teachers of their choosing, then select a teacher who they feel will be best for their child.  If the teacher is in agreement, then they can accept that student into their class, if not, then they can politely decline to accept a new student.  Because many families either do not have the time for an exhaustive search, or do not necessarily know what they are looking for (or feel confident about this) - I also think that the role of administrators would change... and that administrators would be responsible for knowing their group of teachers well in order to help place children appropriately.  If an administrator feels that none of the teachers in their group are suitable, then they should also be networked with other area administrators that they can refer families to when needed.  I honestly think that with the smaller class sizes, and with a family's ability to handpick a suitable teacher, administrators would be less tied down with discipline issues, and thus have more time to devote to these sorts of matters.  Under any system that uses the idea of apprenticeship, proper placement of students is of paramount importance to maintaining the quality of that system.  Both parents and teachers would need to have a vital stake and say in that process.

Second, we're going to need many, many more teachers.  Oddly enough, recruiting more quality teachers is probably the easiest of the obstacles.  Every year, the school system loses many talented teachers due to teacher frustrations with everything except the students.  Most teachers I know of who quit, quit the profession because of frustrations with how the system works...not because of the children or a lack of desire to teach.  If we eliminated many of the hassles of our current system, I think we would not have nearly the problem we currently have with recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Third, if we are going to have so many more teachers in order to lower the student to teacher ratio, then how are we going to house this many small classes in our current schools?  The simple answer is that we don't.  Sure, teachers could choose to maintain a workspace for themselves and their students at a public school facility...but with technology as it is, there is no reason why they should be forced to.  A teacher could just as easily teach their apprentices/students in their home or anywhere else, as long as a regular morning meeting place was established and agreed upon by the teacher and the students' families.  Everyone needs a home base to begin at and return to, but it need not be at a school building when so many of our current resources are digital.  And for those resources that are not digital, there is no reason why a class could not take a field trip to a library or school campus in order to access those physical resources.  Having this sort of freedom for the community and potentially the world to be the real classroom would be amazing, but I have no illusions about the legal implications here - families would absolutely have to sign a release of liability form for each child, approve the teacher to transport the child wherever necessary for lessons and research on any given day, and permission for the teacher to seek medical care for the children when deemed necessary.  Basically, the forms we use now in order to take a child on a field trip and to ride a bus would need to be in constant, permanent effect, as leaving the "classroom" environment would happen much more frequently.  Yes, this requires more trust.  Because of the trust required to pull this off, it's one more reason why parents would need to choose their children's teachers for themselves.

Fourth, if not all of the teachers are going to be in a centralized location, how do we get the students to and from "school"?  The answer to this one is surprisingly simple.  If the locations can be decentralized, then why must the school hours be forced to remain constant also?  Why couldn't the teacher and students agree to a schedule that accommodates everyone in the group and their transportation needs?  The school buildings could have a common schedule of when they are open for teachers and students to use them in order to keep operations costs efficient, but the teachers and students themselves could certainly opt to meet somewhere else if their usual meeting place is scheduled to be closed on a day they wish to meet.  Also, if a teacher's students are all within walking distance of their house (quite possible in many cities) - then no transportation beyond the students' own feet would ever be necessary to get to class.

A few other questions and concerns do spring to mind, unrelated to the practical aspects of implementation, but related to opportunities possibly lost under such a system, and curriculum concerns.

What about sports and other larger group oriented activities and clubs?  How would students have access to those experiences?  For sports, I honestly think that a large number of opportunities exist for this outside of the school setting already, and in greater variety outside of school than in it in many locations.  For other activities, I think homeschooling networks have already provided an answer:  when they need these other clubs, they find other people in the area who also share a desire for the same activity and come together at a regularly agreed time.  One way to accomplish this would be to have an educational "craigslist" of sorts where class-groups could advertise that they were looking for others in their area to join them to create a band, choir, orchestra, theatre troupe, whatever...  I imagine that the same "craigslist" style page would be where teacher profile pages would be searchable.  Unrelated, but something else I would like to see linked to those teacher profiles, would be blogs/wikis/ and moodles that together create a virtual workspace and showcase for student work.  And yes, we would need to teach our students about how to properly license their work online.  They need to know it anyway.  Which brings me to my next topic...

How do we measure student learning in such disparate environments and schedules?  Well, for one thing standardized testing as we currently know it would be entirely useless.  I am personally of the opinion that it is already pretty useless as it does not measure what we truly want to know...but that is an argument for another article.  Suffice to say that I'm not a fan of standardized testing.  But in an educational system where teachers are in vastly different environments on vastly different schedules and calendars, perhaps teaching students who are in 6 completely different levels (and likely not on the same level from subject to subject, as is frequently already the case)...even if those teachers WERE all trying to teach the exact same curriculum to their students, they would not arrive in the same place at the same time every year.  Something that might be possible would be adaptive computerized tests given during the same window of time every year in order to see what a student does and does not know (and thus measure their personal growth in a number of subjects).  The size of the servers needed to handle that kind of traffic during that time...formidable, but certainly possible.  In addition, I believe that students benefit from showcasing their work publicly.  The wisest teacher I had in elementary school insisted that each of her students do research projects on a regular basis, and then went on to insist that we complete a public, oral, and taped presentation of our research to our class.  And then we had to watch the tapes after we were all done.  This was very forward-thinking of her, as I can now think of few skills I learned as useful as those of research, public speaking, and prepared presentations.  This is where having an online workspace and showcase, such as blogs, wikis, and moodles, would be extremely useful.  Parents and administrators could see from this ongoing portfolio of work exactly what the students are studying and learning.  And through either in person interviews or via skype-like software, administrators could speak with the students about their learning.  One of the truest and surest ways I know to determine what a person does or does not know/understand is to have a one-on-one conversation with them and to let them do most of the talking.  Interviews are wonderful tools if you have the time for them.  Regarding the curriculum...I personally do not think a mandated curriculum would be useful in this system.  It lends itself to greater individuality and creativity, not boxy strictures on what to teach and when.  What would be useful would be a checklist of sorts, listing skills in each subject that need to be mastered before attempting something farther down the list.  Most states already have something resembling this, in Texas they are called the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills).  I don't think the TEKS are really a complete listing, but they would be as good a place as any other to start from.  As for the timelines associated with the TEKS and most district curriculums...every student is different, and some will proceed swiftly and others less so.  I don't see why this truth has to be a crisis.  All students can learn all they need, even if they take more (or less) time than is average - why does this have to be an issue and a problem?  If the parent is dissatisfied with the progress of their child with a particular teacher, or if the teacher discovers a learning difficulty which is beyond their training and ability to help, then the parent and teacher can work together to find someone else who is better suited to the needs of that child and transfer the student to another teacher, either temporarily or permanently.  Perhaps the solution would be for the student to visit with another teacher's class at certain times for help in a specific subject each week.  There are so many solutions in the world, and we NEED to find a way to be more flexible.  Our current system struggles with the need for flexibility in how we deal with students because the overall model is more like a factory than anything else.  The problem is that people are not cogs - neither the teachers nor the students are interchangeable pieces that will produce the same product time and again.  One of the glories of humanity is that each of us is as unique as a snowflake, with something different to contribute to the world.  Our educational system should prepare each of us to make that contribution to the fullest of our abilities, whatever those abilities are, and not care so much about making us all the same.  So I do not think a standardized curriculum would even be that helpful.  I suppose it would not hurt to provide one for teachers that want to use it (or even want to use portions of it), but I think mandating that everyone use the same one would be detrimental to overall teacher effectiveness.

Another concern - no teacher can be an expert in everything, how will students get a more in-depth instructional experience in certain subjects once they get older (teenagers, middle/high school levels)?  First, students would not keep the same main teacher and mentor forever.  Teachers tend to gravitate towards a certain range of students anyway, and each teacher is slightly different in their preferences.  As the students get older they would need to move to new teachers that meet their current needs.  Teachers of older students may wish to remain specialists in certain fields, hosting different class-groups for lessons at scheduled times.  These specialists would need to be in addition to their main mentor, whose primary purpose would no longer be direct instruction in the traditional academic disciplines so much as an academic advisor who helps coordinate and schedule lessons with specialists as well as continue to help students refine their research and presentation abilities, guide student inquiries, edit anything written for publication (online or otherwise), and help students map and actualize their own educational path towards their career/life goals.  Also, these specialists need not be full time teachers, but could also be professionals in any field who agreed to teach a small group short lessons on a regular basis.  For specialists who are full time teachers, they may in turn take the most advanced and serious students of their subject as full time apprentices of their own in time.

My last thought for tonight is this:  I know the idea seems like it would be extremely chaotic.  In a way, I suppose it would be.  It would be very unlikely that any two people would be learning exactly the same thing at the same time in their life in the same way.  It would take away most of our standardized measuring sticks for learning norms.  In general, it takes our current idea of a cohesive school system and throws it out the window.  There are several logistical holes in the idea still.  Not the least of which is how to work the funding and pay scales.  Also, exactly how many administrators and in what capacities would be needed to efficiently oversee so many very independently functioning teachers?  There are many many more questions that need answering before this would become anything resembling a plan.  But the main goal of the idea is very simple - make the system flexible enough to acknowledge (and make best advantage of) each student and teacher's unique nature.  I intend to keep toying with the idea, until I have a better one.  I haven't discussed all of my own questions and possible answers yet, but I've rambled enough for tonight.  In the meantime, I certainly welcome any comments, questions, or ideas you may have for me - the more food for thought, the better!  Besides, someone else is bound to come up with questions and ideas that I have not discovered yet!  Goodnight all!


  1. You asked for comments, so here you go.:-) First of all, I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of smaller class sizes. This is hardly a new proposition at all, yet it remains compelling due to the obvious benefits it would create for teachers and students alike.

    Taking the small class concept to the extreme by combining it with an apprenticeship model is a slightly different twist. Now to be clear, you are talking about using this model throughout a child's entire school career, correct? I ask because the model has not been traditionally used that way, primarily because it's designed to focus on mastering one specific skill or trade rather than providing a full, well-rounded education. (That's not to say that it can't be. I am just clarifying your vision to be sure we're on the same page.) The apprenticeship situations I am familiar with generally came about after the student had acquired his/her basic education and had moved on to focus on a trade or profession, as in the case of my father's architectural apprenticeship or those for college level music students you referred to. Alternately, apprenticeships were the primary form of learning when the majority of people didn't get a general education, so there was little to no responsibility on the master's part to provide teaching on a wide variety of topics. I bring this up because I believe it belies one of the areas in which you may feel your plan is incomplete, as I too see a challenge to adapting this model to a general education. Specifically, the apprenticeship model assumes one teacher (or a successive series of teachers) and one or a few students. In other words, it assumes that one master at a time can impart all the necessary knowledge. That may work for the earliest grades, but I see this being particularly challenging with older students. Is it realistic to think we can have teachers who can adeptly instruct in advanced English, chemistry, American history, algebra, music, geometry, government, geology, biologuy, and all the other subjects a high school age student needs to be considered sufficiently educated? Probably not. In which case, students will have to have multiple teachers, one for each subject in all likelihood. When you consider the added challenges of coordinating with multiple teachers, it makes it more likely that students will just end up meeting at school and moving form room to room as they currently do. But now we are creating a situation where students meet at school and divide their time amongst these different teachers, which undermines that close bond and unique learning opportunities you described as resulting from the apprentice-master relationship. Not that they wouldn't get more out of each teacher if they were in a class of only six other students, but if you look at how this would play out from a practical perspective, we are basically just back to the standard small classroom plan. Again, this is not to say that it is impossible to successfully integrate the apprentice model into modern public education, I just agree that there are some kinks to be worked out, especially if it is to be used for providing general, early education. Perhaps a way to introduce it into the system effectively would be to make it an optional path for upper-class high school students, much like Germany does. We could adjust the curriculum so students have all their basic classes by the time they are sophomores (or younger, depending on how you adjust curriculum) and then the could select an apprenticeship track that would prepare them for their college major or get them started on a career in a skilled trade. Just a thought.

  2. Interesting stuff to be sure. Now, what I think would be interesting and useful to discuss is how to make such a wonderful sounding system achievable and attainable to all children. After all, the success of a public education system must be judged by what it provides to the least fortunate of the population, as those who are wealthier have the means to choose alternatives, like private or montessori schools, or to home school. If we want our population to be educated, productive citizens, the public school system must work similarly for all students. That means that addressing disparities, as well as basic practicalities, really has to be the starting point for any productive conversation. Unfortunately, the reality is that many Americans don't have the means to make this system work effectively as it was described. While this system is empowering in that it allows parents to choose their children's teachers, that responsibility may prove to be too great of a burden to some and may actually be unattainable to those who lack the means to make this system work for them. Many American households do not have internet access or even reliable transportation. Without these valuable resources, a decentralized, tailored education system that doesn't rely on bussing kids to a nearby school building is far more challenging to achieve. And that's assuming parents were able to get their kids set up with a teacher to begin with. I'm sure I can't actually imagine how daunting this could be to a single, low-income parent of multiple children who lacks internet access and reliable transportation, as so many Americans do, to suddenly be faced with researching a list of teachers and then having to contact them individually to get each child placed with a suitable teacher who can accommodate schedules, transportation needs, etc. in addition to the developmental and educational needs of the children. That's not only a challenge due to lack of resources and time, the sad truth is that some parents lack the basic wherewithal or motivation to go to that increased effort to ensure their kids get a good education. From what I have heard, the lack of parent support and engagement in their kids' education is a huge problem that teachers already face in a system that requires far less work on the part of parents than we are currently discussing. I don't say these things to be negative or to poo poo any ideas, but to evoke a discussion about what can be done to overcome these obstacles. Perhaps the school can do more to facilitate the matching of students and teachers by providing opportunities for parents and teachers to meet and talk at school sponsored functions. (Of course, these would have to be held multiple times and at varying hours so working parents could attend. And that's just one idea off the top of my head.) I'm assuming the school administration would institute some sort of oversight to ensure children whose parents aren't engaged in the system don't get left without teachers, that the quality of teachers and opportunities are the same for low income students as high income ones, and that kids with special needs or children with histories of being "difficult" don't end up blacklisted and unable to find a good teacher. Rural or particularly low-income communities would have to create strategies to address their own specific needs. But that is not unique to the education situation. Overcoming disparities is a major concern and one in which most non-profits and other organizations designed to address the needs of the broad public (as opposed to just attracting a customer base from those who can afford a service) continually seek better ways to address. In my line of work it tends to always be on the forefront of my mind, so please forgive me for making it my highest priority as I mull over your idea.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions saraphim! You bring up several topics, some of which I have thought about already but not written on yet, and some of which I hadn't thought of yet at all!

    You have a very valid point about how when the students reach the high school/early collegiate level of coursework, it is not likely that a single teacher can sufficiently cover the depth of information necessary in each subject to be considered comprehensive...and that it would be likely that the system as I described it in my post would probably devolve back into something resembling our current high schools. My responding thought is this: is there a compelling reason why we couldn't treat high school courses more like college courses? Of course, that isn't a new idea either - both the AP and IB programs, namely, strive to accomplish this very thing. I guess I'm wondering if there is a way to alter the high school experience to make it feel more like college? Particularly in the sense of empowering student responsibility for their work, attendance, actions, etc. I guess I'm searching for a word that embodies the sense of reality and the possibility of real failure that comes with collegiate classes...but also captures the sense of independence and the spirit of having real choices. Somehow, the sense of owning one's own education needs to embed itself into the public school educational system. Now THERE'S a question I wish I had an answer for!! That would involve a great deal less change to the current infrastructure. But for the elementary and middle school grades, I do think that most teachers have enough base knowledge to sufficiently mentor the younger students. A great many middle school teachers, in addition to elementary school teachers, hold what is called a Generalist certification that makes them eligible to teach any of the core subjects for the grade levels specified on their certificate.

    Jumping around a bit - yes, apprenticeship has generally been used to teach very trade specific skills. The only exception I can think of would be the case of very upper class tutors from when public schools didn't exist yet. In a sense, what I'm proposing is not necessarily out of line with the idea of teaching a trade/profession, except that the primary skill sets a generalist teacher would be expected to impart would be training on how to learn and how to to be a professional class learner. Of course, there are a number of things necessary to make that order to be a professional class learner one must know how to read, basic math is a must, etc.

    While I do think that Germany's system of getting all the basics out of the way earlier and then specializing earlier has great merit, that's not the tack I think I want to take with this idea. The area of child development where I see an apprenticeship model being the most efficient and beneficial would be for younger students. If students are adept learners with developed note taking skills and a large toolbox of learning & problem solving strategies, plus a decent beginning on "soft skills" socially, then they are going to have a good chance at being successful in any area they choose to pursue at a more advanced level...including any high school and college coursework. So I'm thinking in terms of building learners from the ground up, so that they are hopefully less overwhelmed when faced with the more advanced learning challenges of high school and college.

  4. In response to your second comment - this is an area I think about a LOT - the accessibility for all students, particularly those from challenging family situations. More than anything, working with those students on a day to day basis has been the inspiration for this idea.

    As for making sure that students whose families are not actively involved in their children's education (for whatever reason) have equal opportunities in the system...this is where one of the main functions of administrators would come in. In this system I see the role of the administrator as the person who shepherds a group of teachers and all the students placed with those teachers, and the person who helps students get placed with a teacher who is a good match. Administrators would also be responsible for regularly scheduled classroom interview visits, to get a pulse on what the class is up to, how deeply are they learning, and how well they are functioning as individuals and as a group. No "gotcha" for "are you following the script?" but instead a regularly scheduled wellness checkup for each classroom. No Dog & Pony Shows (a somewhat derogatory but sometimes accurate description of the formal 45 minute appraisal observations teachers are subject to currently), but instead allowing the class to show and tell its recent learning achievements. Anyway, to address the needs of the needy, and parents who have difficulty getting involved, part of that responsibility for placement would really have to come down to some dedicated administrators. Most administrators I know (even the ones I'm less than fond of from a former teaching existence) - if given a chance to deal less with discipline and more with advocating for the best placement for a potentially difficult child, would choose the second option for their time, and do so with glee and fervor.

    I do think that regularly scheduled community events would be critical to provide community access to the teachers (and teacher access to their community). Certainly "schools" of students and teachers and parents should come together for Open Houses, Registration Fairs, Accomplishment Fairs of many sorts, Festivals, Competitions, etc. Those sorts of events in and of themselves present a large number of learning opportunities and projects to stimulate students and provide students with outlets for presentations and performances in addition to socializing and sharing ideas with many other people. Also, having certain "public library" hours at the local elementary school library would solve the internet access problem for most poverty stricken families. Not all, as unless there is 24/7 open access to the web, someone is going to have a work schedule that is incompatible. You can't win them all, all of the time. But that would eliminate the internet access problems born of not having home web access and transportation issues.

    The primary area of concern I have with my idea comes down to how to structure the funding. For the moment, I am stumped. I haven't thought of a way to make the funding work that isn't riddled with more holes than Swiss cheese. How the funding is structured would impact which teachers choose to teach in which areas (would it be necessary to offer incentives for teachers to go out of their own neighborhoods and teach in poverty stricken areas? Probably, if only to compensate for the extra gas money the teacher would spend to get there), the condition of the public school facilities available, the levels of technology available, and a large number of other factors. The money problem is a huge one, and I'm not sure I can even fully address it until I have a clearer notion of the instructional/organizational details.

    Transportation for rural communities is another major concern. Admittedly, this would be far easier to implement in the major metropolitan area where I now live than in the more rural area where I grew up.

  5. I am not as concerned about special needs kids being "blacklisted" for one reason - there are loads of teachers that have a soft spot for exactly those students, who really want nothing more than to help those demographics. I honestly don't think there would be a shortage of volunteers to take on those children, as long as they weren't being asked to take on more than 20 at once, like we do now. The percentage of teachers who would actually ASK for a few of those "difficult" or "challenging" students is perhaps surprisingly high. For one thing, there are few things as satisfying as witnessing a challenging student overcome their personal difficulties and wildly succeed.

    There are some teachers who would try to only get the "easy" students, the ones who are easy to get along with, who naturally work well with others, who are intellectually gifted with speedy learning processes...lazy people exist in every profession I know of, though it pains me to say that. But the difficult students deserve to have the benefit of being placed with the teachers who really WANT them. They are out there, and there are more than most people would believe.