Friday, May 09, 2008

It's about the students, stupid

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I've been following the development and progress of this schools via its principal, Chris Lehmann's blog. I'm not a K-12 educator, but I like to frequently remind myself and others, that the students currently going through K-12 will eventually be our students and their expectations of higher education will be shaped by their K-12 experience. What I saw and heard in SLA is very different from what I've seen in my own kids' suburban schools and even here at this small liberal arts college. The classrooms are active. The students all have laptops and are working in groups on projects--everything from writing up abstracts for science fair projects to creating documentaries for a history class. Even in classes where there was a teacher at the front of the room, the students were participating, being asked to participate, to ask questions, to answer questions, to think in different ways.

One of the teachers I met, Zac Chase, discussed several projects he'd done with his students that got them to engage with both reading material and with the real world, to make those connections between school and life that keep students seeing the point of this whole education thing. He had students read Their Eyes Were Watching God and, focusing on the theme of sacrifice, asked them to interview someone who had made sacrifices and create a "This American Life" like production. Many of them blew him and his students away (hopefully they'll be public soon). Another project he did was the "Change the World Project," where the kids picked a real-world problem to solve. Through this project, the kids learn research methods, writing skills, and more. And that more part says a lot, because often, the teachers and kids both are surprised by what they learn.

Afterwards, Chris and I talked a little about education, the changes that need to happen, and whether or not the model that SLA espouses will spread and whether there will be pressure on higher ed as a result. What Chris said was a bit depressing, but rang true to me. He said that the higher up the food chain, you go, the less it's about the students. So, for example, he said that if you ask an elementary school teacher what they do, they say they teach 5th grade or whatever, the kids are very present. By the time you get to high school, teachers often say they teach physics, when really, they should say, I teach kids physics. The kids are the object, not the content. When you get to college, content becomes king. At R1's, it's really not about the kids. Teaching is foisted onto lower class labor. And that's a real shame. And, further, Chris added, he saw little incentive for higher ed to change. And, deep in my heart, I knew it was true. Sure, there are lots of individuals trying to effect change, really focusing on the students, making teaching their primary focus, but it's not enough to turn the aircraft carrier that is higher ed. Each institution is an equally large boat. So, really, it might be more like getting a huge formation of battleships to make a 90 degree turn. Not easy.

But still, I have to say I'm inspired by our students and I was inspired by the SLA students. There's such potential there for change--for changing the world. As Chris said himself in a blog post, the kids are alright; it's the grownups who are getting in the way.