I’ve been thinking lately about the DIFFERENT educational policies we need at state and federal levels to encourage a focus on ENGAGEMENT, creativity, fun and authentic learning in schools. (Add to that list “21st century literacy/workforce skills” too.) Building on those thoughts, I posted the following as a comment on the Tech Chicks Tips post, “Assessment vs. Engagement”:

So in political terms, what types of educational policies could the federal and state governments enact which would allow teachers to have the TIME they need, and also place emphasis on engagement rather than summative assessment? This is a million dollar question, I think, and I don’t know the answer. My instinct is that we need to have educational de-regulation, but just removing the current assessment requirements of NCLB wouldn’t necessarily cause schools to focus on engaging students. Traditional models of instruction persist in large part because of historical momentum. I wonder if schools should be assessed by “happiness and engagement” surveys of both parents and students? Do students and their parents report they are happy with school? Do they report they are engaged in meaningful work, which they are intrinsically motivated to complete? Do kids love school and want to go to school? These may sound like fluff measures to some, but I wonder if assessments like that could have the desired effects you’re identifying here?

Educational deregulation (as I advocated for back in July 2005) may not, by itself, promote the educational reforms needed to bring our schools into the 21st century. Surveys of parental happiness may not either, however. It is sad, but I have observed many parents appear “happy” with the education their elementary students receive as long as they come home with spelling words to memorize each week and lots of seatwork/worksheets as proof their children have been “doing school” just like they did decades ago. 🙁

One of the key characteristics of educational reform policies needs to be differentiation and customization. We know that every student does not learn the same, so why should we promote the political myth that a single policy is “right” for all students, in all schools, in all states? I remember hearing how ineffective centralized planning was in the Soviet Union when I was in high school social studies, but to a degree centralized planning and management seems to be a general tendency of any governmental bureaucracy. Another troubling tendency of bureaucracies is that they seem to predictably generate MORE regulations each year, which make life (or in this case, the educational process) far more complex rather than simpler. Philip Howard’s book “Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America” is filled with examples (including educational ones) that support this view.

test in a bottle

We do need some educational deregulation, but we also need proactive policies which encourage flow experiences and the cultivation/pursuit of individual curiosities in schools. There are amazingly smart people thinking about these issues right now all over the United States and in other parts of the world. I’m positive innovative approaches (already in use) could be applied in more contexts. The key is we should never assume that “one size is going to fit all,” or that a policy by itself will make a difference. Good leadership matters. Good teachers matter too, and you can’t legislate passion and caring. We also need to remember that expecting change while persisting in identical patterns of behavior is insanity defined. We must do some things DIFFERENTLY if we want different outcomes than we’re seeing in classrooms today that are focused on high-stakes accountability.

We certainly could have legislative policies, however, which encourage teachers to ENGAGE students rather than test them to death, and provide more TIME for teachers to craft the sorts of differentiated and creative lessons that students are likely to find fun as well as educational. Perhaps we could assess schools based on a happiness and engagement index? It’s a revolutionary idea, but it just might work.

While we’re at it, let’s stop paying schools based on ADA / seat time. As long as we pay schools based on seat time, I think it’s natural for the focus to be less on learning and engagement and more on controlling behavior in heavy-handed ways that neither teachers or students particularly enjoy.

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