Wednesday, February 15, 2012

School Reform Part I

Well here's my answer to school reform that allows us to use the current infrastructure, employees, and materials. This plan could be  launched immediately or implemented gradually. Let's bring back the Little Red School House to every classroom.

First you take 2-3 kids from every current grade level (1st - 12th) and put them together in one classroom. Then you abolish those grade levels, grades, and homework. From that point on, children will not be assigned labels based on age or test scores. The teacher's job will now be to assist the students at the highest level of instruction and to maintain order. Learning will be largely self-directed so children cannot join this classroom until they can read.

Children will no longer sit through lectures or lessons. They will be presented with a syllabus for each subject and all coursework and instructional materials in written or digital form. Young children will be presented their expected tasks everyday; older children by week or month, and teens and pre-teens will receive more and more autonomy until they are in complete control of their schedule. Core subjects, or the 3 R's, will be the focus of the first part of the day (and the rest of this post).

Let's use one subject, math, to demonstrate how this concept will work. Depending on how a child best learns, a basic curriculum will be chosen by the parent and teacher. For example, my son uses a computer based program called IXL with much success. I know another child who is working independently through the Kumon books. Other homeschoolers swear by Saxon.

With all methods, the child starts with basic skills and moves on only once they are mastered. Occasionally my oldest child, Nathan, struggles with a problem or new concept in IXL. He does not hesitate to ask me for assistance. But I have noticed my younger child, Brandon, always asks his older brother for help first. Nathan is only 6, but 4 year old Brandon looks up to him as the source of all knowledge. Not only does that make Nathan feel smart, it makes him feel needed and useful. So in the Ultra Retro Reformed Classroom (URRC), a child needing help will first ask his peers. If they are unable to assist, then the child will then ask a student who has mastered that level.

Students will be carefully instructed that teaching is just as much a part of their day as learning. Children new to this style of learning will need to be coached on how to intereact this way, but veteran homeschoolers with large families can tell you that this happens naturally if the children know no other way.

The power in this program lies in the idea that no child moves forward until they have mastered their current level. Since they are not assigned grade levels, they will have no reason to feel bad if they are "held back." They will not waste time repeating a grade because they failed only certain subjects. It would actually be impossible to fail a subject because a child will not move forward until they have achieved an "A" level understanding at the task at hand.

Back to math, specifically IXL, each subject is be broken into a number of skills. Each skill is presented through a series of problems. A child must achieve 100 points to complete the skill. If a question is missed, they lose points. They must correctly answer a similar question eventually to get to 100 points. Several skills can be completed in one sitting if a child is proficient in that subject, or one skill can be worked on each day if the child needs to work at a slower place.

Using Kumon or Saxon, a child will complete a lesson and set of problems each day. Each problem gets progressively harder, so if a child is able to finish, they have demonstrated mastery. no test is needed. They cannot skip problems and they can and should ask for help when they are struggling, so they can never be left behind.

My 4 year is happily working his way through the Pre-K IXL lessons one each day. I don't require him to do this work since he is only 4, but he wants to because he sees his older brother doing it. My first grade aged son is about half way through second grade level math. If he were in public school, he would not be able to work at his own pace as he does now. Why in the world do we separate kids from each other by age and expect it to be a useful indicator as to what level of work they should be completing! 

Each child is unique. A "gifted" reader may struggle to master long division. Let him fly through his reading lessons and take his time working out his math! Free him from bells and jostling down hallways, bouncing from one subject to another. Let him work in peace until he has mastered his lesson!

If you think it is somehow unfair to make children teach each other, or that it will take away from the time they need to learn themselves, then please take a look at some large homeschooling families with an open mind. Or talk to a teacher. Ask her how much she learned about geography in her college courses? Or if she just remembered it from high school? Ask her when she learned her subject? I'll bet you it was on the job. She learned it by teaching it. I got A's in Algebra in school, but mastered the subject once I began to tutor others. My son has no problem pausing his own lesson to look over and answer his brother's questions. I watch a 6 year old and a 4 year old do this happily every day. Just imagine for a second what it would feel like to go to school and be part of something. Imagine feeling needed. Imagine what it would do for a child's self-esteem to be able to impart their knowledge to another? And we aren't just turning one or two kids into teacher's pets. Every child can offer something to someone if they are not always behind. That would be a gift we are giving our children, not an imposition.

This method will easily work just as well for reading and writing as math. We don't need to invent a whole new curriculum. The workbooks and textbooks in use now are probably fine. Again, the key is to disregard the child's age or grade and empower her to work through the material at her own pace.

If the experience of about a million homeschoolers is any indication, most children will progress much faster than they are currently working in school. Tests indicate that homeschooled children are one grade level above their peers in elementary school, and by the end of 8th grade are four years ahead of public-schooled kids. It's because we are free. Free to let them grow. Let's give that freedom to all kids.

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