by Lawrence J. Fedewa, Ph.D.
I was recently quizzed by L. A. Batchelor, radio host of the popular “Batchelor Pad” (WCOM 103.5 FM Carrboro, NC) on the topic of “student-centered education”. I am not posing as an expert in US educational reform, but I did have some experience in founding an experimental college many moons ago. However, the emphasis of this conversation was K-12 schools. I decided that my spontaneous description of my model school could use a more organized presentation. Thus, this column.
I believe there is more than one good answer to this challenge, and that these answers will be found only through competition. This means that government monopoly of education must be curtailed, and that the voucher programs being advocated by local pioneers, and now with the encouragement of the federal government, collectively will find the best answers to our contemporary challenges. My own suggestions for a new model of schooling are outlined below.
My thinking about schooling starts with the realization that humans are
always learning. Everything we see, hear, and experience is new knowledge in some degree or nuance.
My motto is: “Every NOW is NEW!“
Even the most familiar and routine events yield something new, if only a recognition of their place in our life. Learning is part of the human condition. Place a baby on the floor and the first thing the baby does is start to explore. We never stop exploring. So, the question is not “Do we learn?” The question is, “WHAT do we learn?
The answer is that we learn and remember best whatever we are interested in. The secret to successfully educating people is to find out what interests them. A person’s interests usually have some relation to his or her life – its problems, challenges, ambitions, or moments of joy. In this sense, our interests are very personal. For example, Johnny may be very fascinated with cars. Why cars? Perhaps because of the sense of exhilaration he gets when a car goes fast. Or, because his Dad is fascinated by cars and Johnny sees the shared interest as a bridge to his father’s affection. Or, perhaps he likes to watch NASCAR on television. The point is that his interest motivates his learning and his learning fulfills some personal need or desire.
The key to “student-centered learning”, therefore, is the discovery by the educators of each child’s interests. Johnny’s interest in cars can quickly lead to his need to know how to read, how to write, how to compute numbers — eventually, perhaps to industrial design, engineering, or science. And, his interests will change as he learns more and more. To keep him motivated, his interests must be tracked and exploited even as they change.
How can the interests of millions of students be tracked and accommodated? Is that possible? Without today’s technologies, it was not possible. Our current educational system of schooling is built on the 19th century assembly line paradigm, which made possible mass production. The child begins on the educational assembly line and accumulates pieces of knowledge and skills as he/she moves from one station (grade) to the next, until that student emerges after 13 or 17 or more years a finished product as defined by the assembly line.
This why is “mass education” is similar to “mass production”. It is all wrong for today’s students. The outcome of mass production is a physical product – a car, a wheelchair, an airplane. This product is the exact replica of every other product which comes off that line. But the outcome of education is primarily the graduate’s capability to earn a living by his/her unique contributions to society. In this, our current educational system is woefully lacking.
Not so long ago, the goal of education could not be summarized as stated here. The goal of education was the development of the whole person, not a bread winner. But “the times they are achangin'”, as Bob Dylan said.
3. Student-centered education must be individualized.
The most promising approach to this task so far is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law which requires each school district in the United States to enter into a legal agreement with the parents of all children with disabilities to provide an individualized education program (IEP) for that child.
The fundamental premise of my approach to child-centered education stipulates that an IEP be developed for every single child in the United States.
4. Grades K-3
In my system, a temporary IEP would be developed during the kindergarten year, but in any event prior to the start of Grade 1. The focus of this first IEP would be the development of the foundational skills of literacy: reading, writing, arithmetic, and fundamental manners and ethics required by a civilized society.
These four years provide both these skills and an observation and testing period prior to the development of the first version of the Master IEP to be reviewed and adjusted annually for the rest of the child’s school years. Decisions to be made by the IEP team (parents, teachers, administrator and – if practical – the child) are based on the child’s interests, test results, and observed behavior. A strategy is then developed to build a sequence of knowledges and skills related to the perceived data as well as the favored places, instructors, and socialization environments for the student’s progress.
5. The physical environment
Homerooms as now used may be obsolete. Various groups of students would be formed around large interest categories, such as, electronics, physical sciences, government, mathematics, and history. Each of the themes would have certain general requirements, such as its history, bibliographies, public speaking, research and (where relevant) experimentation. The “classes”, therefore, would be defined by interest and capability rather than age. Each student would engage in a different sequence of activities, based on an individual IEP. Instead of a “homeroom”. each child would be given a carrel (like graduate students), that is, an individual booth-like space, equipped with a desk. internet accessible computer, book shelves, locker, etc.
Instruction would have two modalities: tutoring and classes. The student’s specific interests (e.g. cars) would be furthered by tutoring individually or in small groups (after the Oxford University modal). Classes would be groups, scheduled by interest and capability levels and controlled by computer-managed instructional systems, available to the student on his/her computer. One benefit of this system would be to capitalize on peer teaching and learning – always proven to be the most effective combination for certain types of learning. It also would expand the socialization opportunities for all ages. For older students, there would also be elective lectures on various general topics, such as politics, space, economics, religion, etc.
Teachers would be divided into two basic categories: subject experts and academic counselors. The counselors would be the “customer service” agents responsible for individual interaction with the student. The subject matter experts’ responsibilities would be to see that the students are given proper guidance, information, and training through classes and tutoring. The model for this role would be the graduate student’s major professor, or the Oxford tutor system. This reorganization of education thus would require major changes in teacher education.
Academic goals would cluster around the ability to research. In an information age, information is a critical commodity, and the ability to find, analyze and act on information is fundamental to success in the information economy – not to mention success in personal decisions and relationships. Thus, the emphasis on the carrel and the independent access to the unlimited resources provided by the internet. Never before in history have individuals had access to the entire Library of Congress (and more) at their fingertips. Today’s children must learn how to use this priceless treasure.
This outline merely scratches the surface of the possibilities for re-structuring America’s educational system utilizing contemporary technology. It is presented with the hope that it will stimulate creative thinking and actions to upgrade our society’s contributions to human history and to our own happiness.
Copyright, 2018 Richfield Press, Ltd.