Wednesday, March 28, 2007
The Tyee Education 
Three interesting articles related to online learning and education choice in my home province, all from The Tyee, a pretty solid lefty publication online. I suspect that the same things would apply in most provinces and states where distance learning is rising in popularity (probably all of them). The common thread is an issue of control. Who should control learning?

Why I Left the Classroom is a fairly standard account of teacher burnout. It rings true for me, but I was most interested in this ex-teacher's take on individualization in education:
"Teachers now stand before a group of individuals. Each of their learning styles, their needs, their contexts, abilities and disabilities needs identification, respect, modification and thought. In one split class of 29 students, I was faced with 19 different 'labels,' nine of which required completely individualized education plans. After countless meetings and forms, at June's end that particular year, I waved good-bye to a group who seemed not to be significantly hampered by my inability to meet their needs. I, on the other hand, was mute with both exhaustion and a sense of personal failure."
Now, I think the author was generally viewing this shift toward individualized learning as a bad thing, because it makes the job much harder. But isn't it the best possible thing if we can reframe the entire system to support it? Why should only students with learning disabilities get ILPs or IEPs? Why not reconceptualize the teacher's role as a sort of super-librarian, coach and tutor who is available (online and in person) to help individuals (of any age) with whatever they're working on? You don't need a giant concrete building to achieve learning, and you don't need one teacher teaching one thing to 30 kids who are all the same age.

The Quiet Revolution in BC Schooling was written by a teacher taking an ed-tech program. It's almost like he's just tasted the technology koolaid, and sees the potential, but finds it so at odds with the traditions and long-term interests of his field that he can't really rally behind it. The main criticisms of the province moving toward more distributed learning is that the teachers weren't properly consulted, that the courses vary in quality and that they're harder than kids think? What about the benefits? He eventually gets around to those, but even the idea that kids could take courses on their own schedule (and year-round) gets reframed as a threat to the future viability of public schools (he "could actually hear the sledgehammers thudding on the school's outer walls.") The final section finally dips a toe into the amazing potential in using the web for learning -- it's a shame we don't get to hear more about the positives coming out of these changes:
"That said, well-designed online courses can accomplish wonders for students who have been properly prepared to engage in them. These students develop genuine technology skills which are second to none, because the skills, such as creating documents and presentations, and interacting within a web interface, are not tacked on to their educational experience as enrichment, but make up the educational environment itself, much in the way that French immersion teaches language skills."

Click-and-Drag Education is unfortunately pretty poorly done. Anonymous sources, blatant pro-union bias, techno-fear-mongering...I only include it here as an example of how the mainstreaming of distributed learning will become profoundly political. As students and parents realize that they can create their own learning plans, seeking out only the resources (teachers, materials, information, communities, courses, facilities), enrollments in public schools will drop further and faster, if for no other reason than the keen kids will be graduating sooner as they accumulate credits more quickly. Less enrollment will equal less funding, which will affect teachers' employment -- unfortunately for the teachers, I can't see them winning that inevitable battle.

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The quote from Why I Left the Classroom rang true for me also. I am an elementary teacher with almost 30 students in my class, and I can understand how easy it is to burn out as a teacher. I do not think individualization is a bad thing, but it is very difficult to achieve with today's demands on classroom teachers. With the No Child Left Behind legislation, I am pressured by my district and administration to have every one of my students meet the same standards. It doesn't matter what their age is or their ability level - everyone has to meet the standards set by the state. There is only one set of standards for each grade, and they are not individualized for each student.

I think there is a large divide between what individuals believe schools should be and what teachers can achieve with the reality of classroom and administrative demands. If teachers are going to become coaches, tutors, and super-librarians, then the structures of schools need to change. Along with this, the testing process and parent and student attitudes and expectations of schools also need to shift to reflect new methods of teaching.

I enjoyed reading the article...Why I Left the Classroom. I can relate to the frustrations of the author. I often feel as though teachers have so many students who require so many modifications and it can become extremely overwhelming. Individualization is prevalant in my school district as well. I often feel as though I am failing my students because I might not be able to meet all of their many needs. Legislation has impacted the schools in so many ways.

I am in my fifth year of teaching, so I would not say that I am feeling teacher burnout. However, I am exhausted by the demands. I also have nearly 30 students, several with IEPs, several who recieve title assistance, students who choose not to do their work, students who work very hard to receive the grades they do, and a few who everything comes naturally for. How in the world can I differentiate my instruction for such a varied class? There is so much pressure with No Child Left Behind and standardized testing that sometimes I feel like there is no time left at the end of the day to allow my student to be creative.

I know from visiting the teacher's lounge that the author's lament is not new or unusual. Unfortunately with NCLB, there are many states putting pressure on districts who in turn put the pressure on teachers for each and every student to meet or exceed. I think it is unfortunate with what we professionals know about learning styles, best practices, etc. along with the technologies available that we aren't providing more indiviualized instruction. There are so many children that do not qualify for IEPs and can not get the accommodations/adaptations. Do we just let them fall in the cracks? How fair is it to students to just throw up our hands and say, "I'm out. I can't do it."? What example are we setting because it is too much or too difficult?

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