Imagine you’ve been made responsible for making dramatic improvements in our public schools…but with the stipulation that you must choose one point of attack and focus almost all of your energy and resources on that.
What would you choose? Pre-school? Teacher training? Professional development? A longer school day and year? More technology? More sophisticated assessments? Greater parental involvement?
The list of possibilities is intriguing and daunting. On one level, this is a parlor game, but it’s also a serious question because policy-makers make choices like this all the time.
Recently five Chicago principals-in-training, a college professor, the President of Catalyst and I were relaxing after an evening celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Catalyst . Wanting to take advantage of all that brainpower, I posed the question, but with a twist: once someone had chosen an option, that one was off the table, and the next person had to select–and argue persuasively for–a different way to improve schools.
I should have taken notes on what ensued because it was fascinating. I was surprised that no one focused on technology or a longer school day and year. In fact, the primary emphasis was on teachers, perhaps not surprising because just about everyone at the table had been a public school teacher (including me, years and years ago). The participants argued for more professional working conditions for teachers, for improved teacher preparation and for relevant professional development (lots of scorn for what is now offered in PD). Preschool and early childhood programs were also eloquently supported, and one principal-in-training argued for fewer but better assessments of student learning.
When my turn (8th and last) came, seven ‘good’ and ‘obvious’ choices were off the table. No matter, because it gave me the chance to speak in favor of a change that would, I believe, transform the way we run schools. It would be inexpensive to boot, although most teachers would need training (and some would need a full makeover).
I proposed that, to bring about major improvements, at least half of the school year should be devoted to project-based learning. Not ‘some’ but at least 50%, and in every subject.
Doing that would mean a complete makeover; it would mean that teachers in different subjects would have to collaborate, as you see them doing in my colleague John Tulenko’s superb report about Portland, Maine, a few years ago. The best projects begin with a question that the teachers do not know the answer to, so they become genuine searches for knowledge. Many projects will be strengthened by the use of today’s remarkable technologies, and virtually all of them will require teamwork, data analysis, careful writing and a public presentation–all skills that young people will need as adults. This change would put schools in the ‘deeper learning’ camp, which is where they belong, in my view.
Yes, better training, more preschool, and greater parental engagement are fine ideas, but they do not get at the heart of schooling’s problems. Today’s schools are out-of-date, horribly antiquated. Because young people swim in a sea of information, 24/7, they need to learn how to figure out what information to trust and what to reject. They need the exact opposite of the ‘regurgitation education’ that most schools now offer. Genuine exploration through a project-based curriculum is the best way I know to provide what kids need.
Now it’s your turn. Where would you put your money and effort?