Worksheet Nation

I’ve had a tab in my browser open for a week or so now that I’ve just now gotten around to investigating. It is an emerging project built around the TED Talks series of online videos. Many of us have spent time watching TED Talks and I know we pass them around via delicious and Twitter, but they are worthy to revisit within the context of teaching. This morning I went over and watched the Sir Ken Robinson, Do Schools Kill Creativity video once again (for about the 50th time) and noticed that people are starting to build out greater depth. Each page now is an active wiki space that continues to grow. For example, on the Robinson page there are questions for discussion from the talk, links to activities, and several other videos (not from TED) embedded on the page. An excellent example of community driven content development.

While Ken’s video is outstanding, there is one particular video that struck me as being so right on when I watched this morning. It is a relatively short video featuring Alvin Toffler’s perspective on education. Clearly a man of great thought and rich contextual experiences; I was amazed how much I learned in the six and a half minutes he was speaking. I encourage you to watch it.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. From, Rethinking the Future

I’ve come to think that we really do need to rethink our emphasis on the focus on the “industrial discipline” in our schools that Mr. Toffler discusses in the above video. That while learning how to sit and be may have been important during the turn of the century to create a society willing to participate in the industrial explosion happening within the US, times have changed. We talk of the rise of the creative culture on a global basis and that phenomenon has fundamentally changed the needs of the workplace. What I want in my schools is what I strive for in my work place — freedom to think, explore, and invent. I don’t particularly care about the rules and I certainly don’t want my children to be taught how to line up, stay in that line, and don’t march any way but the way you’re told. Just as I am not interested in a static and uncreative work environment, I hope for a new emphasis on these ideals for all ages.

I titled this post Worksheet Nation becasue I am seeing something happening across various levels of learning and participation that I mentioned this the other day … I want to revisit it once again in a slightly different light so bear with me and please feel free to chime in.

Let me start by saying the color is gone from our refrigerator at home. What that means is that instead of my first grader coming home with original artifacts she’s created, she instead brings home black and white worksheets from a state/district purchased curriculum book. Everything is photocopied and handed out to be completed in pencil. Very little of it is built around the notion of being creative in the learning process. That’s the first grade.

In higher education we spend a great deal of time asking students to read from textbooks that they purchase from a publishing company — no too unlike the curriculum books my daughter sees in grade school. Increasingly I see students then being sent online to take tests electronically as evidence of learning. That looks a hell of a lot like worksheets to me. This, like the example above is a generalization and I fully hope you realize that I do see a tremendous amount of interesting and creative things happening, but the above scenario is far more common.

At work, many of us are asked to document our progress by tracking time, filling out project summaries, or any other number of reporting tools. At 36 I feel like I am still filling out worksheets. Even in a progressive age working in what should be one of the most creative industries on the planet, education, I am filling out worksheets. That string from K-20 to the workplace is troubling.

We are educating people out of their creative capacities … we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Sir Ken Robinson.

What to do? I think one thing to consider is that much of what is getting me down is centered on the need for formal assessment. I don’t disagree with assessment in general, but I think it is time to rethink how and when we do it. I’m not sure filling out worksheets every day is preparing any of us for the fact that time moves in only one direction — forward. The fact of the matter is that the World is changing at a rate that is terribly exciting and our teaching and learning environments seem to want to ignore this fact. I am left wondering how the change happens … at least I am now starting to see that there are some very smart people searching for answers. Can we break through?

7 thoughts on “Worksheet Nation

  1. cole, thanks for sharing both the video and your thoughts and frustrations.

    it seems creativity is being smothered at a faster rate than when my kids were in grade school a decade ago (i still have boxes of creativity as evidence). even then, i searched for a more creative educational approach, enrolling them in montessori for a few years, and a charter school for a year (ya, that mixing of 3rd graders with 8th graders makes for some interesting sex ed discussions happening on the playground). i feel fortunate that my kids managed to learn to think for themselves in spite of the system.

    honestly, today i have a much greater appreciation for families who choose to home school than i used to.

  2. @lisa lacombe I talked with Ken Monday about home schooling and I love the concept, but doubt we’d ever go down that path. I think what I am discovering through exploring all of this is that the system itself may not be repairable … that it may be time ignore the existing structures and start building a new approach. Not sure, but that’s what my head is telling me at the moment.

  3. great video, btw. finally got a chance to watch it… and this model of intensifying school rather than changing it works until the society is no longer industrial. which is where we are right now.

    clinging to the industrial models and hoping to regain manufacturing and intensify standards and assessment — well, it’s all the past. it might feel like the right thing to do, but it is not. our future will be one of problem solving … lest we forget that there are calculators for multiplication and robots for manufacturing.

  4. @Kristin I heard a quote last night that says something to the effect of we are over testing our students and under assessing them. We teach tests just to give the tests … students may memorize the material for the test and never push beyond. What concerns me is that we’ve lost the notion on the importance of metacognition. I want to drive to a level of thinking and thinking, not worrying so much on the perfect answer. Time to move on …

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  6. Cole, The history of home schooling puts the content providers in a space that is very very very conservative. A good part of the movement is fueled by fear of the government. Sure you can take advantage of the schooling concept and do it yourself. A class size of one can be very productive.

    Nobody in education has lost understanding the value of metacognitive skills. State testing regimens stressed bringing the lowest quartile upward in 2000. Since then, they realized that the rest of the curriculum had suffered. (When you acquire an additional 30% of specialized reading staff and don’t increase the budget, classes like Marine Biology, German, Music, Art, Programming, and many others.) Next go around, a scoring system will implement points for having students in AP classes.

    There is a sort of grand experiment going on. Home schooling, charter schools, NCLB, improvement plans, anything goes as long as it is “common sense” and not validated by good research.

    Under Bush, the NSF education directorate funding was curtailed because they required standard-for-NSF research rules. Funding was moved to the DOEd since they have a much lower bar for evidence. The result is a higher teen birth rate due to abstinence-only education and of course, the massive rule structure that creates the Test-or-die mentality.

    The originator of the “Destroy the System” meme among conservatives was Reagan’s guy Bennett. Last time I looked, he was fronting online curriculum for Michael Milken. Thank goodness they decided that selling to businesses was a better source of income than k12.

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