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Outdated Practices that Must Go

November 12, 2013

Schools, like all organizations, are dynamic and ever-changing.  Some changes come as a result of procedural necessity, some as the product of a top-down decision, some as the result of a shared consensus or majority.  Still other changes come about as the result of outside influences such as parents, communities or policy-makers.  Some changes lead to positive results, while others produce unintended negative consequences.  Some changes have been made proactively, while others have been reactive.  Despite the fact that so much has changed within the larger social and economic landscape, there are some outdated practices that still persist in schools that we know to be wrong, yet we do them anyway.  The purpose of this week’s blog is to identify  five outdated and ineffective practices that schools must immediately abandon.

1) Teacher-centered instructional models– While teacher-centered instruction is an essential strategy, a teacher-centered instructional model is wholly inappropriate and ineffective.  The difference in the two is that the strategy serves as one instructional practice within a larger context of multiple practices, skills, learning strategies and modalities.  The instructional model, however, serves the belief that the teacher should always be at the center of the learning.  A teacher-centered instructional model enables students to be passive, disengaged spectators to the learning process.  Teacher-centered models result in compliance rather than learning.  In this day and age, teachers must prepare daily lessons that put the students at the center of the instruction, and employ a variety of instructional strategies aimed at engaging students and challenging them to think critically and insightfully about topics of importance.

2) Assessment for the sole purpose of grading–  Effective teachers assess their students on a daily basis, using  a variety of effective strategies such as self-assessment, peer assessment, feedback, eliciting evidence and sharing learning expectations.  These strategies are part of formative assessment, or assessment for learning.  Formative assessment serves to empower teachers and students with information about their progress in regards to the knowledge and skills being studied.  While “formative assessment” is the current buzzword, I like to think of this practice simply as “good teaching”.  Effective teachers have long known that the best way to elicit and gauge their students’ understanding is through questioning.  Essentially, that is what formative assessment aims to do, in a variety of ways.

3) Sacrificing depth for breadth- Students must be given opportunities to think deeply about a wide range of topics.  Teachers are charged with the responsibility of facilitating this process, not restricting it.  Too often, however, teachers are restricted to covering a certain amount of material over a certain amount of time.  This can result in students being merely exposed to material, without ever demonstrating true mastery over any one area.  This varies depending on several factors, including subject area and student readiness level, but taken in a broad context it is a shame when teachers sacrifice opportunities for learning extensions and deep analysis at the expense of coverage and exposure.

4) Top-down decision making– Educational leaders such as myself can fall into the trap of feeling as though they must solve every problem and produce the answer to every question.  I can certainly think of times when I have fallen victim to this approach myself, and I believe this is true of other leaders as well.  Leaders must fight the urge to produce the solution to every problem and instead promote a culture of shared leadership and empowerment where teachers, students and parents have a voice in the decision-making process.  Students should have a forum to voice their opinions and concerns about school.  Teachers should have a say in the professional development they receive, and the programs that the school offers.  When school and district leaders facilitate the decision-making process for the purpose of tapping into the shared knowledge of the entire population, the result is a more vibrant and inclusive learning environment.

5) Compartmentalized learning– The practice of following a set bell schedule of compartmentalized classes, with little to no intentional alignment to each other, is at best outdated and at worst harmful.  Today’s workforce demands flexibility, teamwork, and the ability to multitask.  Modern workers must adjust to an environment that demands they synthesize information and recognize patterns and trends as they relate to a larger mission or problem.  School schedules should actively reflect this reality.  Student schedules must explicitly reflect the need for students to work in cooperative teams, and make clear connections between among the different subjects they learn.  Students must be compelled to show how the various tasks they complete serve a larger purpose, and how they have reflected on their work and become increasingly self-aware, knowledgable and independent.  Furthermore, teacher schedules must include sufficient time for them to converse professionally about their practice and analyze student data.  Teachers must be expected to align their instruction in a way that is not only vertically within their departments, but also horizontally with other subject areas, in order to more closely mirror the experience of their students.

Sometimes the best way to improve is to identify what not to do.  I fully believe that if we can simply eliminate practices that are known to be outdated and ineffective we will see significant improvements.  As we begin a new week, I’ll ask that we all consider the potentially harmful or ineffective practices that we currently use, and that we think about how we can make the necessary changes in order to positively impact ourselves and those around us.  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

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