What Works

Applying professional practice successes that are stronger than education tradition.

GUEST COLUMN | by Richard Welles

CREDIT OpenSchool ePortfolioOur classrooms are still buried in paper and pencil, textbooks, and narrow bubble-in call and response methods and materials. Despite exciting learning communities here and there, especially for the wealthy, too much of the educational landscape is a wasteland of test and test-prep. It’s a deadening environment for both children and adults. It’s not that there are no alternatives available, well-developed and documented.  Hundreds of schools offer a student and learning-centered culture awash in arts, individuality, whole person development, teacher creativity and immense parent

There are thriving examples of schools built around children and teachers passionately pursuing interests, applying problem-based projects, and documenting and growing from their learning in innovative ways such as electronic portfolios.

satisfaction. We call many of them private schools; and all of them are characterized by independence of decision about curriculum, instruction, organization and assessment at the school site.

During the several decades of my professional life, the prevailing paradigm for learning and teaching has been the training regimens derived from Skinnerian and militaristic applications of stimulus/response. Mostly, educators and educational leaders have ignored the discoveries of developmental psychology and epistemology despite the thousands of practitioners who have applied them to stunning effect.

We persist in a national vision of children as small and incomplete adults — requiring only well-crafted training protocols which can inflate them properly – like balloons,  as if the original illustrations in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ were reality. Our educational mainstream persists by pasting shiny new labels on this stale orthodoxy, only some whose practices are helpful, and many actually harmful.

By contrast, in stronger professions, such as medicine, there has evolved considerable attention to extensive basic and applied science; high selectivity in determining who can enter the field, plus extensive clinical training; strong quality control processes at the site of delivery–but relatively little with respect to back-end accountability (there is malpractice, but there is no “No Patient Left Behind”).

No Child Left Behind, in contrast, is “strong on back-end accountability but weaker on the first three, an imbalance which partially explains why it has not been able to achieve its ends.”  (‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ to ‘Thick’ and ‘Thin’ Jal Mehta, EdWeek, November 13, 2013)

As I said, there are thriving examples of schools built around children and teachers passionately pursuing interests, applying problem-based projects, and documenting and growing from their learning in innovative ways such as electronic portfolios. We need to apply the successes of professional practice that are stronger than education tradition. Along the way, we’d do well to follow John Dewey’s advice given nearly one hundred years ago: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Dr. Richard Welles is co-founder and President, The Open School Project. Find out more at www.open-schools.org  and www.openschooleportfolio.com

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