Thursday, January 21, 2010

Education manifestos... part 2, Theodore Sizer

Ted Sizer, author of Horace's Compromise and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools made these remarks in a speech in Washington D.C. in 2002. Notice how he uses the claim that the mainstream educational voices have labeled him and the Coalition as "radical" is similar to the claim made by E.D. Hirsch, who also describes himself and his followers as distinctly out of step with accepted educational doctrine. It's hardly surprising if you think about it....after all who needs a manifesto if everything is as it should be?
Neither you nor I should be surprised that some of our shared ideas and the practices that flow from them mesh poorly with some current educational policies and political opinions. So be it. We cannot pretend and should not pretend otherwise, even as some dismiss us as unwisely "radical" in our beliefs, "radical" in the pejorative, the opposite is the truth.

It is a radical idea that all children grow at the same rate and in the same way and thus can thereby be accurately classified and "graded" in narrow, standardized ways.

It is a radical idea that the power of a child's mind can be plumbed by a single test and reduced to a small clutch of numbers.

It is a radical idea that people of any age can learn well in crowded, noisy, and ill-equipped places.

It is a radical idea that serious learning can best emerge from a student's exposure to short blasts of "delivered" content, each of less than an hour in length, and unified by no coherent set of common ideas.

It is a radical idea that a child can learn what is needed to live well in a complex society with schooling that encompasses barely half the days of a calendar year; and that ignores the opportunities —or lack of opportunities— available to each child.
In the following remarks Sizer made in a speech he gave in Providence in 2000 he articulates the fundamental premise of his movement.
Let me just mention three of the most familiar examples. "I cannot teach a child well, whom I do not know well. How can I teach that child well, if I do not know her enthusiasms or why she makes mistakes or what seems to be out of sorts for her at a given moment, or what is behind her at home. And no two of our children are alike. And so the question for all of us is: how many children can I get to know well enough to know them and their families and their situations well at once? And you and I struggle in high schools to get that number to no more than 80, knowing full well that in many schools it is routinely 120 to 150. And, by in large, the lower the income of the students, the larger the load you and I are asked to cover. I think most of us, if we were rewriting those principles again, at the high school level, would say 50 to 1. 50 kids and 50 for the whole year, not 50 who are rescheduled in the middle of the year. 50, you can really get to know 50 well. And in an elementary school, 20 on the outside, but it really should be 12-15.
He goes on to describe the hallmark instructional assessment tool of the CES - the student exhibition.
And finally we say that students should be able both to display their knowledge, and also to use it, ideally use it in an unfamiliar situation. The real test for a student is when she is presented with something which is unfamiliar and asked to use what she has learned and the habits of hard thinking to make sense of it. That is, to make the unfamiliar, familiar. And if we hold this as the standard-the ability to display the habit of using one's knowledge and one's mind to make sense of the unfamiliar, to give meaning to what may initially appear to be meaningless-you have to show it to us. And we have to ask you about it, and you have to show us again, and we have to see you do it. And that's serious learning, very serious learning. It's very easy, indeed criminally cheap, to reduce learning to any kind of one shot performance. Whether it's a standardized test or an essay, or one 10 minute prepared speech. Our function is ultimately about our students' habits. What we really care about, the ultimate assessment of your and my work, is what those young people do when we're not looking. And how you build that objective in a practical sense into the life of a school, with all its chaos and noisiness and peanut butter sandwiches, which drop in the middle of a hall and somebody steps on it, all of that. How you build that in, is very much a function of who you are and where you are. You can't mass-produce the ways and means of encouraging our young people to use their minds powerfully over ideas and things and artifacts and arts, which are worth spending time on.

The emphasis in bold is mine. I confess that reading Sizer always stirs me up and I particularly like his emphasis on using novel circumstances and problems to ascertain just what habits a student has in place. As we all know, however, good habits are hard to acquire and bad ones are even harder to lose.


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