Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Power of Choice

The most fundamental purpose of education, last I heard, was to empower us to reach our full (professional and intellectual) potential. However, public schools strictly adhere to an outdated educational design, which was built to suit the needs of the industrial revolution, but which fails to satisfy the needs of many if not most students today, not to mention their future employers. I worry the very infrastructure of education is causing just the opposite effect of what it set out to do. Rather than empower us to reach our full potential, our education is depriving us the very qualities it set out to deliver--confidence in intellect, critical thinking skills, creativity, and the ability to see numerous perspectives on the same material.
However, we need only change one basic element of the infrastructure of education: Everywhere that we deprive students the ability to choose, throughout their education, we must offer them varieties of options from which to pick from, rather than submit them to something they have no say in at all. This will empower students to personalize their education, steering them well away from the assembly-line-style standardized design to which students are currently subjected. For instance:
  • Rather than requiring one all-inclusive one-size-fits-all PE class, schools could mandate a minimum requirement of Physical Fitness credits annually, meaning students choose from numerous available sports and classes as long as the total credits meet the yearly minimum.
  • For summer reading, rather than assigning the same reading to every student in the class, teachers could offer a selection of relevant reading for students to choose from. Follow-up assignments would either be general enough that they apply to all the options, or individual alternative assignments must be offered for questions regarding a specific text. Ultimately, this will benefit the students because they will have to structure their responses and analyses in such a way that they make sense and still have relevance to those who didn’t read the book, and to be brief enough in summarizing context that they don’t lose their interest.
  • Instead of everybody taking plain-old “History” (or the “good students” taking “AS or AP History” and the “bad ones” taking the dreaded “Regular”), students should be able to choose from a vast array of history classes geared toward different types of learning, such as:
    • History through Music,” which would explore the impact of history on dance and music and vice versa, and would appeal especially to musical and kinesthetic learners.
    • “History through Literature,” which would explore written accounts of history from different points of views, and would appeal to linguistic intellect.
    • “Art History,” which would of course attract visual learners and is already offered in some schools.
    • Rewriting History,” which would empower students to realize the individual impact of different leaders and how their actions reflect their values and personal priorities.
    • “Rewinding History,” in which history would be explored in reverse, starting in modern times and going backwards, identifying which historical event resulted in our current legislation, and ultimately opening students’ eyes to the lasting impact people have.
    • ...To name a few. And those are just the ones Sarah and I came up with. The possibilities are limitless, and that’s the beauty of it.

But to achieve this choice-based education I describe, state legislation would have to radically slim down the existing standardized curriculum required of all public schools statewide. Requirements would have to be revised so as to be adaptable enough for schools to diversify and customize their classes to satisfy their students’ vast array of learning needs and particular interests. This would show the students that their individual talents and passions do have value and are worthy to pursue, so much so that there’s a whole class dedicated to their very needs and preferences. No doubt, fewer students will report boredom or lack of motivation in their classes, and although it isn’t given very much priority, I believe it’s critical that students’ have a genuine interest in the things they learn. This is essential for them to fully take in the information and make creative, original use of it.
Schools would need to be open to cross-disciplinary collaboration. For instance, the music teacher may not be the ideal candidate to teach a class on history, unless of course the class in question consists of musically driven students, in which case the music teacher is indeed more capable of reaching them by showing them the relevance of history by means of music, a medium they love and understand, than your standard history teacher.
Each school would construct its own menu for students to choose from, but instead of appetizers, entrĂ©es and desserts, they’ll offer Fitness, History, and other disciplines. And underneath each category will be a list of different courses, and in the place of the price will be the number of credits. I imagine it would somewhat resemble a college course catalog. This change may not be feasible unless schools stop sorting their students by their ages (grade level) and start sorting them instead by interests, because to offer a variety of courses for each subject every year would be impossible, unless we let students select classes regardless of their age or “grade level”--an arbitrary label--and qualify or place them based on their experience instead.

Customize. Don’t Standardize. It’s simple. Give students the power to choose and take control of their education for a change. Empower them to reach their individual potential.

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