Monday, February 15, 2016

Are there no mirrors in schools?

Education reform makes a cameo appearance in Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs. It left me wishing Isaacson learned more and/or shared more about each man's view of education; yet, that was not the book he was writing. Understanding that these two passages are not comprehensive in their representation of either Gates' or Jobs' thoughts on education reform, I want to focus on one word that makes an appearance in each man's ideal: feedback.

Isaacson writes on page 544 about a meeting between President Obama and Steve Jobs:
Jobs also attacked America's education system, saying that it was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers' unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said not as industrial assembly-line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were. Schools should be staying open until 6pm and be in session eleven months of the year. It was absurd, he added, that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using textbooks. All books, learning materials, and assessment should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.

On page 553, Isaacson recounts Bill Gates' visit to see Steve Jobs as Jobs' health faltered:
Jobs asked some questions about education, and Gates sketched out his vision of what schools in the future would be like, with students watching lectures and video lessons on their own while using the classroom time for discussions and problem solving...computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.
In each passage, the call for better feedback is real. Each example aligns improved feedback with the dexterity of digital tools as well as improved feedback generated by a changed model of a teacher's role in the classroom.

Neither wish is unreasonable, yet it can appear our current model.

The blurb by Gates presumes a model where administrators and teachers are more than competent in several areas:

  • using digital tools personally (which may not be happening)
  • designing lessons with digital tools (which may not be happening)
  • mentoring a student-led model of learning (which may not be happening)

Jobs' notes to President Obama point out few items that also raise a few eyebrows:

  • the teachers' unions cover up fractures in its foundation (it blocks growth)
  • teachers are not treated as professionals (and I feel the suggestion that we share the blame)
  • quality control is a missing component (Jobs often spoke of A players, B players, C players)
  • the current arc of teachers are not growing, improving...and, reading between the lines, relevant

I don't necessarily think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have all of the answers for education, but I do value their ability to assess. I at least want to listen because these innovators have proven that they can look at systems and deliver what it needs as well as intuit its core problems.

So what everything suggested by Gates and Jobs is true? What if deep inside my bones I am fearful that there is truth in their perceptions? It embarrasses me. It gives me pause. 

What the Gates and Jobs quotes don't address is that feedback relies on someone engaged. Feedback is a conversation, not a score. But what I do admire from Gates is that he had the humanity to include the modifier "motivational."

How can we give motivational feedback if we are not competent in using digital tools; not designing lessons with digital tools; allowing students to discuss and problem solve, covering up fractures in our foundation; not acting acting as professionals; too comfortable; not growing or improving?

Are there no mirrors in schools?

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