Going Old School: Why we need to return to Classical education and why I don’t care if it’s an iPad or a Chromebook in the hands of my students.
By Christopher Frye
Everyone in Illinois seems to be talking about the future of education and all the shiny new next generation reforms and tools we’re going to implement to improve student outcomes.
While I applaud the passion and effort, I can’t help but wonder if instead of looking forward to some “new” solution, we should look backward instead. I think if we play our cards right, education of the future can look like it did two millennia ago. Here’s why that’s a good thing:
When I think about the best education — the most hands on, personalized instruction possible — I think about Guilds and Master Crafters throughout history who paired talented and experienced professionals with students one on one for the sole purpose of perfecting their craft. I also think of the small classes of students asking questions of Classic Greek philosophers driven by a pure curiosity and pursuit of Truth.
The problem with these models, of course, is that they were only available to the select few, and even then, only to men. To borrow from these models, however, provides us with a unique opportunity to contemporize our obsolete public education system.
Our current model of education began in the industrial age, placing a large group of students with a single teacher and hoping that everyone progresses at the same pace and meets the same standards. This model did wonders to increase access to education, but personalized attention and one on one tutoring was a casualty of this transformation.
So how do we return to a more personalized, mastery based environment? By leveraging tools the same way as the Master Crafters did: innovate and design the education model based on individual needs. That’s where contemporary technology becomes our most powerful resource.
At my school, we use software that allows us to customize each individual student’s learning experience. For example, if we are working on written expression of research, the students are no longer hindered by the reading level of the information provided to them. I can tailor specifics to the needs of the students and even adjust the pacing for students who need additional time. This type of self-paced learning is typically not possible if you have more than eight students in a class, but with technology we are able to tailor each and every student’s learning path.
We also use software that allows students to ask questions and address problems after our one-hour class is over. Instead of spending time on an individual student’s question, while 30 others are sitting and waiting, I can address these needs outside of normal class hours. This has fostered a deeper curiosity from students because while they may not want to speak up in a class full of peers, they can pose questions to me any time, much like pupils would do under the Greek philosophers and Master Crafters of the past.
Students should not be treated as widgets in an industrial complex, but rather individuals with specific skill sets who each need different mastery sets and goals. Technology can help us treat all students as unique individuals with different passions, strengths, and ambitions.
This isn’t to say classroom technology is the silver bullet to all school reform problems. In fact, when people ask what cool new technology tool I envision for the future, I have to admit to them that I don’t really care about what device or projector or holographic virtual reality box they have in mind. When done properly, technology in the classroom is like special effects in a movie — it disappears into the background, acts to heighten the impact, and keeps the attention on the primary objective. In the end, that’s all tech is; it’s a tool that enables a teacher in a classroom of thirty to shrink instruction down to an individualized experience.
If we really want to give students the best education possible, and prepare them for college, career, and life, we should set aside the hype and grand policy ideas that paint 21st Century education as something from a Jetson’s episode. Instead, let’s champion the methods that have already existed for thousands of years and find the right tools to help every single student meet their full potential.
Christopher Frye is an English teacher and Classroom Technology Facilitator at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park. He also contributes to the Smarter Schools Project, a national forum on the use of technology in the classroom.