Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Past, Present, and Future

Once a history teacher, always a history teacher. But our past does not have to be our future.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were only 500 public high schools in 1870. At that time, state taxes were only levied to support elementary education, but our great state of Michigan played an important role in the expansion of public high schools. In 1874, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in the Kalamazoo Case that taxes could also be levied to support public high schools. Soon other states followed Michigan's lead and began establishing public-funded high schools.

Twenty years later, the Committee of Ten published its recommendations of academic core subjects
that it considered necessary for those few would go on to college as well as any other student enrolled. Thus, secondary education was designed from the beginning to be content-based. Historically, academic departments were formed because high school was viewed as "the people's college" (Tyack, 1974, p. 74).

To this very day, most 7-12 teachers are typically content specialists in one or two areas, and hired for their expertise and depth in content.  In that structure, secondary teachers spend their day teaching independently in a content area, and spend collaborative time within the content department (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). There is little to no intentional collaboration between teachers of different content areas, and I offer the idea that we do a disservice to both our adult and student learners if we let this continue.

When we organize teachers into such tight compartments, we are reinforcing the old message of the isolated and independent approach to teaching (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). We also impact opportunities for professional learning, collaboration, and instructional practices. (Corcoran & Silander, 2009). We know that the real world is not organized into neat categories. Our students will be learning and working in "messy" environments that will require boundary-crossing competencies in teamwork, communication, perspective, networks, critical thinking, global understanding, and project management, just to name a few.

Even within fairly rigid graduation requirements in Michigan, the content standards are beginning to encourage an interdisciplinary working relationship. For example, no longer is literacy the sole sphere of ELA teachers; social studies, math, and science teachers now have literacy expectations to support reading and writing across content areas. In addition, the rising number of STEM programs also incorporate interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Finally, when we see the new standards in social studies and science later this year, we know that critical thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving skills will be emphasized.

While educational reformers disagree in many areas, one area of general agreement is the need for new structures that allow for collaboration and distributed leadership (Siskin, 1991). Right now, the organizational structure of our secondary schools is inherently intertwined with content areas. This flies in the face of the learning sciences, which are inherently interdisciplinary (Bransford, et al., 2006). Today, as I spend time in an elementary school, I see a dramatic contrast. Our elementary colleagues are already living an interdisciplinary model. They have more flexible blocks of teaching and learning across and between content. There are no hourly bells that signal the start and stop of learning. Walk into any of our elementary classrooms and you will see kids joyfully focused on learning, not grades. You will also see a real love of learning. I used to ask why and when does this change for our kids; now I ask why do we let this change?

So, the question becomes, how do we create a system or structure at the secondary level that encourages and supports all of our learners -- educators and students alike -- to collaborate, learn, and grow? I recognize there are physiological and psychological changes that happen in adolescence that we cannot control, and that there are certain state legal requirements that may require some creativity on our part. But I refuse to accept that we cannot change our current approach to 7-12 teaching and learning to a model that is more beneficial for all. We already have some "small bets" in place across our district, but what else is possible?

Join the conversation...
If you could change just one thing in grades 7-12, what would it be and why? If you are an adult reading this, I also encourage you to ask a student that question, and post their response, too.


  1. I think you are spot on! Elementary can inform secondary. At the elementary level the focus is on teaching the whole child and meeting each child where he/she is and moving him/her forward along a continuum. At the elementary level teachers focus on what students can do not what they cannot do and they build on that. At the elementary level teachers implement a workshop model - for reading, writing, for math. This allows for differentiation, for collaborations among students rather than competition, and for teachers to conference with students individually to nudge them to the next level. Focus on the whole student, seeing the student's abilities rather than disabilities, and nudging students along a continuum of growth in a workshop model is also great for secondary. Sometimes it takes a mind shift and faith in the student and oneself.

    1. Thank you! We saw the math workshop model at Ada last week, and it spurred a discussion with a high school administrator about what it might look like in Algebra I.