ED. Magazine

What’s the Big Idea?

By Ed. Magazine

When it comes to “improving” schools, students, and teachers, there’s no shortage of opinions out there on what won’t work. We wanted to know, what could work? For several months, we asked people to tell us one tangible education idea they had that was worth spreading. Some writers are connected to the Ed School, others aren’t. Yes, there’s even an idea from a Muppet. As you’ll see, a few ideas are slight twists on thoughts we’ve heard before; others are quirky and curious. All, we hope, will get you thinking.

IllustrationEmbrace Failure
“Fail early, fail often” is a mantra of many software engineers. This phrase makes explicit the necessity of being iterative and incremental in design work. It is a view of creativity that acknowledges its messiness, complexity, and process-orientation. And although learning, like software design, is messy, complex, and process-oriented, most formal educational experiences do not encourage being iterative and incremental. Failure is often a dirty word in schools when it should be something we embrace, something we aspire to — an essential part of every learning experience. Let’s create a culture of learning in which we trust students to explore wildly ambitious ideas and activities, and support them to confront and analyze their failures when the need to refine and repeat does (and should) happen. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

is an assistant professor at the Ed School who received her doctorate from the MIT Media Lab.

Abandon the Clock
The current system of education is time-based. Students attend 12 grades of school for 180 days a year, taking classes for lengths of time established by the Carnegie Foundation in 1906. College is comparable. The focus is on how long students are exposed to teaching, and it assumes all students can learn the same amount in the same period of time. So let’s abandon the clock and switch the focus from teaching to learning. This would be a time-variable system of education rooted in the outcomes or competencies students are expected to achieve. Students would advance according to mastery and the curriculum would be individualized to meet the learning needs of each student. High-stakes testing would give way to just-in-time assessments built into each instructional unit much like a GPS. The teacher would have four roles: diagnostician of student learning needs, prescriptor of the best instructional approaches for each student to meet those needs, instructor, and assessor of student progress. The principal beneficiaries of the change will be our children.

is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College at Columbia University.

IllustrationBye Bye Homework
I think we shouldn’t have homework. I think that we shouldn’t have homework because it wastes our free time. My mom thinks we should not have homework, too, because she doesn’t believe in it, and she says that because she thinks it wastes our time, too. Besides, kids want free time to watch television and play games like soccer and Chutes and Ladders ’cause that’s fun, unlike homework. We also work hard at school all day. If I could change one thing, I would definitely stop homework.

is a second-grader in northern Virginia and granddaughter of Paula Evans, M.A.T.’67.

Make Teachers Pass a Board Exam
Lawyers have the bar, doctors have boards, and teachers have … Praxis exams? As we move into an era in which we are aiming for all students to leave school “college and career ready,” we need to similarly upgrade the expectations for entering teachers. Teachers need their own version of boards — a rigorous set of requirements that would include exams of content and pedagogical knowledge, observations of teaching, and examinations of students’ work — which would certify teachers as having successfully completed their training and earned their membership into a demanding and highly skilled profession.

This is not a new idea, but it is one whose time has come. In the past year, both major teachers’ unions as well as the organization that represents state educational leaders have championed it. If such an exam were sufficiently rigorous, it could be a game-changer. Demanding new requirements could shape who is drawn to teaching, guide the work of teacher preparation institutions, develop more consistent skill across the teaching force, improve student outcomes, and greatly increase public regard for teachers and teaching.

is an associate professor at the Ed School, coauthor of The Futures of School Reform, and author of The Allure of Order.

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  • Bonita Hunter

    Very interesting set of ideas that are creative as well as imaginative. Great collection

  • alfred devaprasad

    Good collection of ideas. Will inspire many to pick up and implement. A brilliant idea in action, I recently observed,was a ‘ school on wheels’- a mobile classroom for children of migrant laborers in India

  • Joshua Jenkins

    Really enjoy the section about teacher talk reducing stress: so true! The Responsive Classroom model has lots to say about the power of teacher language.

  • Matt Renwick

    Great ideas – enjoyed reading all of them. I will humbly add one more suggestion: Teach handwriting. If not for penmanship, then for the meditative quality of this practice. Giving kids time to create words and sentences through pencil and paper can help them disconnect from our increasingly connected world. When I walk into my classrooms while kids are practicing this “ancient art”, you can hear a pin drop. I think they appreciate this time to clear their heads and focus on this present-evoking practice.

  • Lory Hough

    Matt, such a great idea! I’m happy to say that my son’s third grade class is learning handwriting and the kids think it’s fun. It’s too bad, though, that not all schools/districts include this in elementary school!

  • Lory Hough

    Matt, such a great idea! I’m happy to say that my son’s third grade class is learning handwriting and the kids think it’s fun. It’s too bad, though, that not all schools/districts include this in elementary school!

  • Anonymous

    That is really true and useful as it was. There are many people who really need to apply those things in order for them to have a successful output which kids will surely use for their future someday.

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