Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Making Learning "Cool" is Easier Said Than Done

In this month's Wired magazine, Daniel Roth wrote an article entitled "Making Geeks Cool Could Reform Education", in which BetterLesson founder Alex Grodd takes center stage.

A venture capital firm in New York recently hosted an education conference (why is not explained) that started out with discussion of tech innovations, but took on a different tone when Grodd explained why most of their ideas wouldn't work:
"The driving force in the life of a child, starting much earlier than it used to be, is to be cool, to fit in," Grodd told the group. "And pretty universally, it's cool to rebel."
... "The best schools," Grodd told me later, "are able to make learning cool, so the cool kids are the ones who get As. That's an art."
The author goes on to give examples of this idea at work in successful charter schools across the country. Of course, therein lies the problem: nowhere is it discussed how we would even approach such a fundamental change in a traditional public school setting.

It's not that this is an inherently bad ideal to work towards, but the realization of what Grodd and the author proposes is nearly impossible for two reasons: the system isn't set up to accommodate it, and charter schools are not like traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools are too busy trying to meet minimum standards to encourage the level of creativity, academic focus and recognition that would be required. Those of us that have taught honors, gifted & talented, Pre-AP or AP classes know that those students are pretty much left to their own devices; schools assume they'll pass all their standardized testing. We give lip service to challenging them and raising standards, but are content to raise the lowest students to the middle while letting the best drift downward to about the same place.

Thus shifting school culture would first require the complete realignment of our country's educational standards and goals from the White House down to every schoolhouse. That's no easy task, obviously, but even if we were to free our schools from this "race to the bottom," it would still be incredibly difficult to pull off what the charter schools mentioned in the article have accomplished.

Everything they're able to do stems from the freedom to build charter schools have by nature. If they have the culture, curriculum and staff to make this focus work, it's because it's written into their charter, and every incoming student has to buy in or find a different school. I'm not begrudging what charter schools can do; I hope they continue to do it. I'm just pointing out what should be obvious: traditional public schools can't do what charters do.

There is, however, one possible way to make this work: on the micro level, in individual classrooms. Making learning cool is entirely possible in a classroom where a great teacher has built a positive culture. The aura of coolness will likely fade away quickly when your students leave class and head back into the soul-crushing reality of growing up. It sounds hopeless, but the academic focus and recognition they receive from you can make all the difference in their lives in the long term.