Reinventing Teaching, Reinventing School

Olympia High School’s spring orchestra concert. A young woman sits down at a large, beautiful harp. Her sound is transcendent. I’m transported to a sun-filled Thirteenth Century Renaissance faire. I also think about dying and how her music would ease the transition.

Next, the Chamber orchestra takes the stage. They practice together four days a week, before the sun or their classmates rise. They sit in a semi-circle with a wood stool front and center. A double bass player enters, sits on the stool, and adjusts his music stand as his compatriots tune their instruments. He follows suit. Eventually, he turns to the left, looks over his shoulder and makes eye contact with the first violinist. Next, he turns to the right, looks over his other shoulder and makes eye contact with the first cellist. It’s time.

Their excellence moved the audience, but a more subtle aspect of their performance was overlooked, their utter and complete independence. They have an outstanding orchestra teacher, but his work was done in class during January and February; as a result, he sat backstage out of the limelight. The education reformer in me wanted to freeze that image of the teacher backstage listening to his students playing on the stage, stand up, and bellow, “That’s what Decker Walker meant when he wrote, ‘The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them!'”

In schools today, “something is done to students” ninety-five percent of the time. Adults make all the important decisions with little to no student participation. Student governments have next to no impact on meaningful day-to-day school life or climate. Adults out-think and out-talk students to such a degree that interrupting student talk and thought is accepted as normal. So much so that students know they can out wait their teachers, that in short order their teachers will fill any empty spaces with their words and thoughts.

Athletics, or coaching more specifically, could provide a more hopeful, student-centered model for improved teaching and learning, one where students take on ever increasing responsibility for both their school environment and learning, except for the fact that most coaches overcoach, greatly limiting their athletes’ participation in decision-making, calling timeouts the second something goes awry, and yanking players after their first mistakes. There are exceptions, but the fact that they are exceptions illustrates the problem.

Maybe the best model is the music program’s artistic cousin, drama. When the curtain rises on a play, there’s no calling timeouts. The student-actors work especially long hours to prepare because they know they’re going to be on their own. For better or worse. Just like when they graduate and the curtain rises on their adult lives.

Empowering students to help make meaningful school decisions and become more independent learners doesn’t mean teachers will spend their days playing Scrabble on their smartphones. While backstage, the orchestra teacher was listening intently to his students, taking notes, preparing to critique their performance in class in eleven hours.

Conventional wisdom aside, teaching isn’t someone standing at a podium talking endlessly to rows of passive students. That’s “presenting”. Reinventing school requires reinventing teaching, reinventing teaching requires elevating the careful and thoughtful assessment of student work to new heights. Teachers must talk less and observe and listen more as students demonstrate what they know and can do. And then the teacher’s job is to help students figure out how to sound even better, solve even more difficult problems, and write even more lucidly.