Redefining Power Relationships In Schools

Sunday, 2008-June-15 at 10:49

This is one of an occasional series on improving our schools and the OLPC and Sugar projects.

It wasn’t too long ago that I got to see up close the struggles in schools that our current top-down teaching model causes. In our family, fortunately, this process resulted in graduation, but in many others, it doesn’t. Australian teacher Bill Kerr writes about his efforts in trying to reach his students with fractions and about trying to apply educational theory in the real world of the classroom.

What is refreshing about Bill Kerr: redefining power relationships in the classroom is that he is even starting to break out of the top-down, lecture-style teaching pattern. He isn’t doing this as some sort of social protest, but as a limited part of trying to find a place that motivates students to make the effort required to grasp the subject matter.

My quest for meta-dialogue in teaching fractions has merged with the broader issue of redefining power relationships between myself as teacher and my students. This is as it must be in the modern world, where the “cool” thing to say is “school sux” and “maths is boring”. Not only students say this, School (and teachers) have many critics.

Yes, schools have critics, but not enough of them. Every parent should be concerned enough to closely examine the methods and practices of the local school system, so they will encourage, support, and when necessary, challenge and confront the local educrats (the non-elected bureaucrats that choke our school systems, draining of their funds and preventing many teacher-inspired and parent-inspired ideas from being implemented). In my not-so-humble opinion, most of the problems we have in our schools are not teacher problems–from what I have seen, most teachers are hardworking and dedicated–so criticizing teachers is not going to help.

In my state, California, we knew our schools were in trouble in the 1970s, when I was there. Three decades later, they are still in trouble, and top-down prescriptions from federal and state educational agencies are doing little to help. Our schools’ problems are local and they must be solved locally. Our teachers and parents need to have the autonomy to improvise, as Mr. Kerr apparently has in his country. Since the person with the gold makes the rules, we need to make local funding and local control the hallmark of our schools, even if this means breaking up massive districts like the Los Angeles Unified, into smaller, locally-controlled, locally-funded entities.

I should point out that during the accreditation process, one of the things they look for is for the elected board of education to back off and let the professionals have free reign. I would support a bill that requires more parental and community control of our school systems. Either the accreditors would have to deal with it or lose the largest state’s business. (This is similar to the pressure that the University of California placed on the group behind the SAT–adapt or die.)

I agree with Mr. Kerr that computers, if used in a primarily explorative manner, are a tool that can help with learning. A lot of current software is cleverly disguised quizzes (e.g., those “Blaster” games), which only work for a while.

I do think we also have to address “mission creep”. Schools are supposed to ensure a basic level of skill in particular areas. When schools became college training grounds and vocational training centers, that was an acceptable extension of responsibility, but now schools offer day care (for students and for children of students), breakfast and after-school meals, food distribution, clothing distribution, and medical care. As important as all those things are, no single organization or institution can be good at that many things at once. Parents, neighbors, and community organizations have to step up and take over some of these areas, so that the schools can get back to doing their own jobs.

Most importantly, businesses need to face the fact that anyone you hire will need training. Build it into the process and stop trying to beat on the schools to save corporations a little money. If the CEO has to use last year’s yacht again this year, maybe he/she will work harder in the next year.

Entry filed under: Education.

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