This week, residents of Northeast Ohio were made aware of the fact that the Cleveland schools have slipped back a notch in the Ohio Department of Education’s ratings from Effective to Academic Watch. The supposed good news is that graduation rates have improved slightly over last year’s rank, which was third worst in the nation among large cities in the United States.
What a painful indictment to Cleveland’s alleged creative class; an indictment made more poignant by the fact that the greater Cleveland area boasts one of the richest concentrations of world-class arts and science museums and institutions in the country, if not the world. Each of these institutions – The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Museum of Natural History, and the Great Lakes Science Center, to name only a few – have well developed educational outreach programs. Each hires staff of impressive academic background and expertise in their respective fields. Although they are not formal schools they are by any measure educational institutions that, though underutilized, have the potential to revolutionize the way learning can take place in the “formal” setting of public schools. There is an increasing body of research that confirms the most effective teachers are those who have degrees in the disciplines they teach. Too many teachers, especially those in the natural sciences, do not have the appropriate academic preparation to teach their classes. Across town, however, most of the “non-formal” educational institutions have staff with advanced degrees in the appropriate subject areas. These superbly trained personnel develop sophisticated and up-to-date curriculum that complements the science or art exhibits in their institutions. These educators have made sure that this curriculum also complements the Ohio State Standards and grade-level tests. Despite these tremendous curricular programs, these educators experience deep frustration due to their inability to create sustainable curricular linkages that are fully integrated with the public schools. Despite significant funds from foundations, non-formal educators rely on the one teacher or the one school building that bothers to make the effort to figure out how to make the best use of the resource in the classroom. A better use of technology – much of which is open source and therefore quite affordable – can break this cycle of educational inertia. Educational technology has created a shift from the old “teacher-centric” system to one that must be re focused on learning. Policymakers must embrace this change.
Barbara Ganley, an educator formerly at Middlebury College, writes:
The world has changed: the classroom has not. Our students, as native inhabitants of cyberspace, take for granted what teachers may yet have to learn: the astounding possibilities for creative and collaborative endeavors facilitated by the Web. We even ignore research suggesting that learning is essentially a social activity. […] The traditional classroom paradigm is also being challenged, not so much by the faculty who have by and large optimized their teaching effort and their time commitments to a lecture format, but by students. Member of today’s digital generation of students have spent their early lives immersed in robust, visual, electronic media- home computers, video games, cyberspace networks and virtually reality. They expect-indeed demand-interaction, approaching learning as a ‘plug-and-play’ experience. They are unaccustomed and unwilling to learn sequentially- to read the manual- and instead are plunging in and learning through participation and experimentation. […] In a very real sense, they build their own learning environments that enable interactive, collaborative learning whether we recognize and accommodate this or not.
Despite wonderful efforts in Cleveland (such as academies and magnet schools), the data after one year points to more fundamental flaws in the system. Surely technology will not solve all of Cleveland’s educational problems, but we as a community are not giving ourselves the time and energy to assess the resources available to us right now and harness them in recalibrating the way we approach LEARNING in our schools. OneCommunity in downtown Cleveland is an ambitious project offering high speed internet access to schools across NE Ohio. OneCommunity’s alliance with the Cleveland Clinic’s Real World Connect has rolled out a program incorporating interactive technologies to enhance science learning in schools across NE Ohio. Similarly, the Idea Center, with its unique access to a variety of media, also serves as a center for untapped potential on creative use of web tools. Much of this material costs money, but new platforms are currently available to make current texts and related science material available to teachers for free. Making better use of web-based technology known as social software and blending it with the arts and science curriculum in a variety of rich, non-formal educational institutions is a challenge Governor Strickland should consider seriously as he thinks of innovative ways to usher quality education into Ohio schools. Blogs and wikis are creating robust communities of learners among teachers and students. Virtual reality gaming such as SecondLife™, Eve™ and World of Warcraft™ are being used by colleges throughout the country to teach a variety of subjects, from botany to art appreciation. A famously innovative adaptation of SecondLife™ has enabled students at the Harvard Law School to co-learn with students at the Extension School – linking a divergent student body in a cooperative learning process. At Boston College, the MediaGrid has launched an exciting virutal world of what is now called “Immersive Learning.”
Most adults and, especially policy makers, do not understand that these games actually challenge youngsters in rather sophisticated critical thinking and negotiation skills. Tapped correctly, virtual learning environments can incorporate appropriate learning cues that textbooks were written (on paper) to convey. The problem that schools need to overcome is the apparent separation of the technology from the curriculum. Too many schools and teachers defer the technology to the back office, usually headed by “the tech guys.” Not understanding the tools, teachers, parents and policymakers view the tools as frightening and potentially damaging to young minds. Rather than try to understand its applications, their impulse is to shut it down. An emerging group of educators have dubbed the phenomenon Fear 2.0.
The symptoms of Fear 2.0 are easy to spot. Teachers and especially administrators panic because the new technologies introduce a system of learning that makes the old model of “testing” and “assessment” untenable. The new and emerging learning technologies are an enormous threat to a bureaucracy that has developed one “standard” of assessment which contradicts brain research and new understandings of how young people learn.
The Idea Center’s SMART Consortium have addressed this problem by introducing teacher training programs for an assessment model that focuses away from Assessment of Learning to Assessment for Learning. In short, Assessment for Learning helps teachers to actively engage students in their own academic progress, developing student attitudes toward learning and an internalized, self-guided approach to evaluation that will serve them throughout their lives and careers in a rapidly changing future. The kids are using these technologies already. The adults need to stop fearing these tools, but make aggressive moves to better understand their use in teaching and learning. New ways for assessment can be developed.
Making these desperately needed changes is unlikely to take place within the ossified structure of the way public schooling is delivered to the community. Philanthropy can provide a unique role in pushing this agenda forward. The reasons are many, but the dissonance is rooted in an appalling lack of understanding of the power of these web-based tools and their ability to enhance writing and critical thinking skills. Too many teachers and administrators use the computer as the ‘thing’ on which you get e-mail and look at websites. The emphasis on standardized testing has done more harm to critical thinking among students than any legislated mandate in the history of education. Standards are fine, but the methods to assess learning are outdated, and ignore the powerful developments in social software that can truly enhance learning.
This region needs a community-wide discussion to help parents; teachers and administrators really understand these tools and their potential for truly transforming education in Cleveland and its surrounding area. I believe the non-formal science and arts sector, in collaboration with OneCommunity and the Idea Center can be catalysts in working with the school superintendents and the Governor to push this agenda forward. We can and must make better use of easy-to-use technologies that will make it possible to bring our best trained scientists and artists (physically located at University Circle) “into” schools to link up with teachers and students to form new types of learning communities. Moving beyond fear requires a commitment of time and money. We need to understand the potential that arts, science and cultural entities can truly have on improving learning among our young people. Doing so will take enormous courage to take on a system that will resist this change. It will take financial support from the philanthropic and government sectors. Most important, it will take leadership from academics in both K-12 and higher ed to work together and explore how these tools will create a seamless web for learning that goes from preschool through higher ed. The time is now.