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Your Students Are Not Widgets

On Individualized Instruction and Cultivating Individuals

The results of a new study in Australia highlight a perennial concern in education: significant education gaps in the classroom. The Australia study suggests gaps of 5-8 years in a single classroom, or, to put it in American terms, where students expected to do 7th grade math have not mastered 1st grade concepts. One of the study’s authors writes:

“The typical year 8 maths teacher must target his teaching in a way that meets the needs of students at eight different levels of conceptual mathematical understanding, while still addressing curriculum requirements. This is no easy task.”

This problem is nothing new in the US, and neither are the proposed solutions: individualized teaching, more parental involvement, more systematic collection of learning evidence, more accurate grading. But one of the schools cited in the article has changed its practices significantly:

Three years ago, Camberwell South Primary School decided to gather student data to build a curriculum around the spectrum of student ability.

As part of the so-called “targeted teaching” approach, the school appointed five full-time coaches, who observe teachers’ classrooms and offer mentoring in weekly hour-long sessions.

Principal Coralee Pratt said the classroom has changed radically in recent years, with students doubling their rate of progress in spelling and science.

“You don’t see ‘good work’ or ‘nice work’ anymore in teachers’ feedback. It’s very focused, very targeted at what was the intent of that task, and how the student has achieved it, and how they can get better at doing what they’re doing,” she said.

All these things–the suggestions as well as Camberwell South’s practical changes–are worthwhile. One crucial factor that cannot be overlooked is time. We can add school days to the current 180; we can add hours to the day; but in the end, time is finite. If American schools cannot narrow their focus somewhat, to hone in on essentials, then something will have to give. And we’ll continue to have an environment that subtly encourages a kind of social promotion, ignores vital learning skills in favor of politically determined directives, and that ultimately treats students as widgets produced by an educational factory.

The problem, though, is actually bigger. Schools (broadly speaking) have abdicated their role in producing good citizens, individuals. After all, individualized teaching does not make individuals, and it does not necessarily help students develop into mature citizens, capable of wise and virtuous action for the sake of the common good. But wise and virtuous people are exactly what our civilization desperately needs, not mere technological practitioners, business innovators, captains of industry, or entertainers.

And we all have a role to play in that process. Here are some thoughts in that direction.

  • Reformers and school leaders must pursue educational models that treat both teachers and students with dignity, as human beings and not widgets.
  • Business and thought leaders must take care to emphasize that education is about more than getting a job and increasing the GDP; it’s about being human in the most fundamental way.
  • Colleges and universities must rethink their programs of education as well as their admissions standards. We need viable, reasonably priced tracks for students of varying ability.
  • We must dignify hard work again, and apply it to more than athletics.
  • As parents, we must be able to take the long view and recognize that education doesn’t begin with schooling, and it doesn’t end there, either.

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