Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Forming the Battle Plan for Addressing Teaching Reform in the 21st Century

The notion of education reform is certainly not a new concept, but it certainly seems to accomplish less and less meaningful and appropriate change as the years advance. One of the major reasons various reform movements appear to produce little success is too much focus on specific “pet” methods without critically analyzing their applicability in large-scale environments. Instead of focusing on how to better fire teachers, lauding some trendy non-scalable niche example as the solution and looking to divert money to charter schools that perform no better to worse than their public school competition, reformists should systematically look at the system, identify the flaws and then act to remove those flaws with scale appropriate solutions. So what are important elements to advancing education that reformers tend to get wrong.

An important element that must be addressed in education is facilitating student motivation with career prospects at an early age to ensure appropriate enthusiasm. Unfortunately not all students appreciate and understand the underlying benefits to education, the acquisition of information in general, thus they can reject its importance. If a student does not possess the drive to learn through some form of motivation then any teacher, regardless of overall quality, will struggle to transmit knowledge to that individual. Incorrectly most reformists believe that it is the sole responsibility of teacher to nurture and cultivate any motivation potential in a student. The idea that it is the responsibility of teachers to motivate their students is ridiculous solely, but not limited to, the simple vast diversity in psychological make-up of their students. To focus on numerous different strategies to ensure student motivation is asking for something completely unreasonable and untenable.

Most of the time motivation for learning comes from engaged and caring parents for it is standard psychology that most children want to receive praise from their parents by acting in a manner that will be received positively. Even for those that do not fit this profile, an educationally engaged parent can use his/her position as parent to command the child to “care” somewhat about education via either carrot or stick type motivators. If the parent is not engaged in the value of education the student needs to find motivation elsewhere, either through competition with other students or through their own desires, but not expect such a void to be filled by the teacher. Can it, yes, but it should not be expected. Overall though none of these motivating factors are relevant if not directed towards a meaningful conclusion.

Therefore, the entire process of education must be more cooperative both from the home environment and the school environment in identifying the passions and interests of students and applying those interests to the education process largely through demonstrating how even so-called “mundane” topics like math and various science tie into those passions. With this methodology, education becomes an amplifying positive force for that particular passion rather than a negative detracting and distracting force. In addition not only will this process provide internal motivational fuel for the student (i.e. “I want to be an astronaut”), but it will also provide a road map of sorts to achieving that passion for in the past there have been plenty of educationally motivated students that have fallen short because they were ignorant of the prerequisites and other requirements demanded by their passion.

How this methodology should be achieved will highlight the importance of guidance counselors, which has waned in modern times. Early in a student’s academic career (1st/2nd grade) guidance counselors should be the principal actors in identifying the student’s passions and deduce the best career path for that student to exercise those passions. Every two years there should be some “check-in” period to reassess passion and interests and formulate a new path if needed. This method allows guidance counselors to actually perform their assigned role and no longer burdens teachers with a task outside of their intended role, motivating the student. Now teachers can instead focus on providing an optimized educational environment in which to instruct the students, an actually appropriate expectation, rather than play cheerleader to the individual tastes of their students.

Proper management of student expectations is also important for increasing the effectiveness of education. Course syllabus must be presented early (day 1 or 2) and be transparent in how grades will be produced, what type of class behavior is expected, what students are expected to learn, schedule of events and special projects, etc. Also expectations regarding instruction is essential for despite what some critics would like the public to believe, education cannot be exciting and entertaining all the time, or heck even most of the time. Certainly quality teachers can add certain dynamic elements to lectures to produce a more “inspirational” product, but no one can make teaching something like, a literature review for a research paper to ensure proper background and sourcing, fun. Such a task is one of drudgery that demonstrates the importance of gumption and focus in the educational process.

Tied to the above point, another important element is to psychologically prepare students to embrace the discomfort of learning. Some argue that learning is not fun and education needs to reflect that, but it can be countered that such an environment for a number of students has already been attained; this is a major problem for if students acknowledge learning and education as painful and frustrating then they will be less interested in engaging in the process and will look for shortcuts (i.e. cheating) just as easily as if they think learning should always be fun and exciting.

Instead one must focus on the discomfort of learning in the context that it is frustrating when one does not know something one wants to know, but proper instruction and hard/smart work makes that frustration ephemeral. Basically learning is only “not fun” when no progress is being made. If progress is made (i.e. some knowledge being acquired piece by piece) then learning produces a noticeable sense of accomplishment and pain/frustration is limited and short-term. Therefore, one of the chief strategies in the educational process is to focus on why someone is not making progress and rectify it. This is not to say that education and learning is always effortless, but there is always a purpose to the effort.

One of the more hotly debated elements of education is the structure of how information is transmitted from the teacher to the students. Many modern “educational reformists” lament and criticize the large continuation of traditional education involving a teacher lecturing students on a given topic. These individuals frequently cite the advantages of engaging in teamwork-based activities and focusing on the Socratic Method (SM) of teacher-student engagement in lieu of basic lecturing.

The most significant advantage of the SM is that the interaction between the teacher and the individual through direct question and answer session increases the probability of understanding due to active learning rather than passive learning. During “traditional” lectures students must focus on self-motivation to ensure dynamic learning rather than hoping for learning through osmosis (in a sense). The SM takes some of the motivation burden off of the student through the direct discussion of the topic with the teacher.

Unfortunately most “educational reformist” lack classroom experience and seemingly fail to realize that most public schools have large class sizes (25+ students, usually more) that make the administration of the SM rather difficult without utilization of a scattershot strategy (randomly engaging certain individuals not everyone). A meaningful concern with the SM in large groups is that direct one-one engagement can cause other students to lapse in their attention limiting the effectiveness of the current learning experience. One thing that lectures are not given credit for is that they do provide a meaningful focal point for all students that direct one-one discussion can lack. Also too much interaction can lead to time crunches when it comes to instructing on all of the requisite information.

This misinterpretation of the “universal applicability” of the SM in public institutions largely exists because “reformists” largely focus on viewing the practices of schools with small overall enrollment and class size, typically highly privately funded charter schools, as the bases for determining “what works in the classroom” and what should be applied in public education. This mindset does nothing but continue to make real and appropriate reform more difficult. Overall as noted above the appropriate way to instruct in the modern “educational environment” appears to be the combination of the SM and lecture by periodically and consistently engaging random students in a brief 1-2 question session that captures the individual’s attention, but does not expend enough time to significantly threaten the loss of attention from the rest of the class.

The matter of teamwork is a little more interesting because the advantages of teaching to teams are significant. For example working in a team can provide a less stressful environment for certain individuals, which can eliminate the detriments of working alone, which could negatively impact the educational process. It can help interpersonal relationship development by giving individuals experience with working through problems with others in low stress/stakes environments. Also it provides growth and intellectual development by exposing individuals to additional and different viewpoints and interpretations of the lessons from other team members that may help augment understanding of the information.

However, there are some disadvantages to working in a team. The most pressing issue, that most do not either want to talk about or are not aware of, is that most of these above advantages are born from motivated students that want to learn and want to actively interact with their fellow classmates. Without this motivation, weaker and/or less enthusiastic students can hide behind stronger students letting those individuals do the work for the team and not focus on learning the material themselves. This strategy of “let the smarter kids who care about their grades do the work because they don’t want to fail” has always been a problem in teamwork related elements in primary and secondary education, especially for big large-time period projects.

This behavior is manageable in the scope of small assignments for while homework and in-class work could be performed in groups, quizzes and tests would still be individualized forcing students to limit the practice of the strategy for a vast majority of the grade is still based on their own accumulation and practice of course knowledge. However, for large projects this behavior can be significantly detrimental to the team as well as individuals because it is difficult for the teacher to dissect how important each student’s contribution was to the success or failure of the project.

One means of addressing this problem has been to have students evaluate the performance of their teammates at the conclusion of any big projects, but such a method always draws concern of bias between teammates. An alternative option for big projects may be weekly evaluations of performance on a 1-10 scale over 3-4 different categories with explanation areas for why the numeric score was given. The teacher can keep these evaluations and then use them as a metric to how the dynamic of the team may have changed and a more accurate assessment of how the students felt the workload was divided instead of relying on a single evaluation at the end of the project when emotion and tensions can influence the product as well as spotty memory interfere with accuracy.

Another concern with teaching teams is that weaker voiced/low confidence individuals can have their opinions overshadowed by stronger voiced individuals, which can lead to a reduction in their already wavering confidence. Handling this problem can be tricky because dominating personalities are not necessarily malicious and teachers cannot proctor each group to ensure all opinions are being heard and given a fair evaluation. There are two direct ways to lessening problems stemming from this type of personality clash. First, the teacher can periodically poll the group when asking for an answer inquiring how each student views the problem. Fortunately such a strategy does not appear too time consuming because once per class should be enough for more shy students to have their voices heard. Second, allow the students to form their own teams.

This issue of the origins of team formation creates a third smaller problem. Clearly allowing students to form their own groups can eliminate a large amount of potential interpersonal conflict within the team; however, allowing students to only associate with what is already familiar mitigates a lot of the advantages born from teams through the ability to work with the unfamiliar and understand different types of thought. Overall a middle solution appears most appropriate; before selecting the teams the teacher asks each student to indicate on a piece of paper the 3 classmates he/she would not like to be associated with in a team and then seeks to accommodate as many of these wishes as possible. This strategy limits the amount of interpersonal conflict in a team by eliminating individuals that might have outside conflicts while retaining enough differentiation to ensure value from working in the team. Note it is not the responsibility of the teacher to resolve these conflicts, thus they are best avoided in the classroom.

Overall with regards to teaching to teams: when possible teams should be used basic lectures, including those with a level of interactivity, but tests should be individually based to ensure a strong motivating “carrot” for individual learning. Team interactivity and creation should follow the above suggestions to maximize learning potential and effectiveness.

Another element that is widely touted as the “wave of the future” with regards to education is not only in-class teamwork, but also large team projects where the team engages in a multi-week, even multi-month, task. Clearly the motivation behind this idea is that learning by doing is one of the best way to acquire knowledge, especially to practice critical thinking and creativity; in addition such projects can provide a venue to evaluate the depth of that acquired knowledge by applying theoretical concepts in empirical practice.

Unfortunately while the sentiment is understandable a number of supporters of this methodology fail to acknowledge that such projects are very time consuming and expensive from the school’s perspective, thus such an instructional strategy is an almost guaranteed non-starter for most inner city and rural schools. Also initial project design is important to ensure students stay on task and have organized benchmarks to document progress, thus making the introduction of such a program difficult as well because to test the theory one must put it into practice which takes time and resources and redundant projects may not be valuable depending on the subject matter.

Proponents will conclude that such projects have succeeded before citing various group projects involving building robots, devising responses to various natural disasters or culturing different types of cells to determine how they interact with various types of bacteria. While there are certainly a number of success stories regarding this method, the failures are less known because they are not made public, so it is difficult to deduce the effectiveness of such programs. Overall it is reasonable for a high school to explore a single elective class that focuses on the completion of large-scale project and introduce smaller two-three week long projects for some other classes, but any expectation that such a methodology will become the norm is foolhardy until the public school system is funded at a much larger level than current.

The structure of grading is also an interesting issue with regards to the future of education. One of the more prominent discussions over the years has been the amount of homework that should be assigned to students. Before discussing the level or amount of homework it is important to establish the purpose of homework. For the course of this discussion the role of homework will be defined as: a tool to produce a means for a student to genuinely increase the probability of understanding particular concepts in a low stress environment versus proctored on-site examinations. Also for homework to be relevant it must be designed in a way that maximizes its practicality and usefulness. Rarely will reality simply give a person a single equation or thought process that will solve the problem. For example while a common math problem may read: “21 divided by 4 = ???”; this is clearly not how problems are encountered in reality, with 90%+ of the work already done. Instead such a problem should be presented to the students as:

John and Suzie want to bake some apple pies for their school’s bake sale. John has collected 10 apples from the trees around his house and Suzie has collected 11 apples from the trees around her house. If it takes 4 apples to bake 1 pie how many pies can John and Suzie bake and how many apples will they have left over after all the baking is done?

From this structure, which is much more akin to reality, a student should create the equation 21 divided by 4 = ???. So step 1 with regards to the homework aspect of knowledge evaluation is make sure homework problems properly represent real life experience.

Step 2 is to ask how homework should play into the evaluation process. One could inquire about the fairness of homework being a significant portion or even any portion of the grade if its central role is that of a low stress practice tool for understanding the general overarching concepts. What if the student does not need to do the homework to understand the material, the lecture period is enough to achieve understanding? Should that student be, in essence, forced to do the homework when he/she could use that time for other activities, either family-oriented or pleasure based? For example some students may not have a sufficient amount of time to do unnecessary, due to already achieving understanding, homework because of an imperfect family life where brothers/sisters have to take care of younger siblings, go to night work to earn extra money to help support the family, etc.

One point of argument for a high evaluation metric for homework is that it provides another avenue for students who struggle with communicating acquired knowledge in a testing environment. It cannot be argued that a test in a classroom environment inherently provides more pressure than homework assignments in an environment of the student’s choosing. Some students do not have the ability to effectively manage this increased pressure, thus their ability to demonstrate their knowledge suffers accordingly. The principle characteristic of the grade for a course is to conveniently measure how well a student acquired knowledge in a course, not how well a student can manage a high-pressure situation. Therefore, a high evaluation metric allows the grades for a student that “does not test well” to more accurately reflect the knowledge acquired within the course.

Some opponents could argue back that while addressing students that “do not test well” is a positive element for a high evaluation metric, it is more probable that highly evaluated homework conceals poor performance. Students can use homework to bolster overall grades that are detrimentally marred by poor examination results; poor results not due to mishandling stress, but simply due to lack of knowledge. Thus, this evaluation structure misrepresents a student’s knowledge in a particular topic portraying that student as more competent than they otherwise are, a disservice to colleges, future employers and the students themselves. However, this analysis only seems valid if the assigned homework is of substandard quality and/or design. If the homework is properly designed to reflect acquired concepts of the class then using homework grades as a counter measure to examination grades is reasonable.

It must be remembered that the bounds of time do not only impact students. Teachers, especially those with more dynamic topics like history, find themselves having to impart more and more information over the same fixed time period. Unfortunately the total amount of information that needs to be discussed limits the available amount of instruction time for each specific topic. Therefore, without the ability to rigorously cover a particular topic to the point where students have been exposed enough to reasonably understand the topic the probability that the students understand the topic decreases. Homework substitutes for this lack of class time to increase learning and retention probabilities. This supplementary aspect of homework hurts those who argue for no/little homework.

It can be argued that there is a typical perceived knowledge vs. actual knowledge gap for most students. There are a number of instances in school and, life in general, where an individual may think he/she has sufficient knowledge in a given subject, but when actually tested on that topic this individual quickly realizes that he/she does not have as much knowledge as previously thought. Homework provides a means to address this perception/reality gap before it becomes exposed on a test to a greater academic detriment of the student. Overall, is there a strategy that can provide a motivational aspect to do homework while not burdening those who do not need to take advantage of the practice characteristics of homework? The strategy below seems to be one way to address this issue.

• Homework is given out on a weekly basis; Every Monday an assignment is given out which will cover all of the scheduled material that will be discussed in class over that same week; the assignment will be expected to be turned in at the beginning of class on the next Monday (for example homework assigned on Oct. 13 would be turned in on Oct. 20 at the beginning of class); answers for the homework would then be posted or handed-out for the last week’s homework at the end of class on Monday.

• Homework will count for 0% of the grade. The reason is that homework, as previously discussed, is designed to give the student multiple opportunities to practice learning the given material. Taking a grade from material that is supposed to be practice is not very fair. Therefore, because homework does not count for any percentage of the grade the students do not have to do it or turn it in if they do not want to.

• Grades will be determined by 4 tests; 3 section tests worth 25% of the grade and 1 cumulative final worth 25% of the grade. As a partial motivator to do homework, students may retake one of the section tests if they turned in at least 75% of the assigned homework within the corresponding section and demonstrated a legitimate effort to learn from the homework.

Overall while the above suggestion is merely that, a suggestion, it appears that the above discussion has focused on two important principle issues in the ‘homework’ discussion. First, is the issue between homework motivation vs. maintaining the practice characteristic of homework designed to enhance learning. Second, is the issue of opportunity cost in doing homework vs. undertaking other activities. The chief element of this issue boils down to immediacy of the opportunity cost. The time crunch created by homework, which is frequently associated with increased stress, is typically developed through two methods. First, most students, especially as they advance in grade, have to deal with multiple subjects demanding multiple solution methodologies. Second, homework frequently functions through daily turnover. While the individual assignments may not account for much having to sacrifice enough of them due to more important tasks (like the job to help your family) can add up quickly damaging the overall grade when using a high evaluation metric (commonly suggested for motivational purposes).

Unfortunately there does not appear to be a single magic bullet to deal with both issues, but expanding the homework turnover scope could certainly help. As suggested above assigning homework at one particular time to account for the entire week gives the students more flexibility to address the homework. If their time is demanded by a particular activity on a given night, time can be budgeted later in the week to complete homework that would have been missed due to that activity. Another potential advantage to assigning homework in a greater than day-by-day quantity is that it may be easier for students to make connections between building block concepts when doing ‘three days work’ of homework in one sitting instead of doing the work over a three day period with multiple interruptions. Such a system could also encourage more ambitious students to ‘read ahead’ in an attempt to do the homework before the class lesson address the material.

One question that comes to mind for such a system is how does it change the grading burden on teachers? Under a more expanded turnover system with a firm homework hand-in date teachers may have more homework to grade, but by providing a universal answer key after turning it in, the teacher has more flexibility in allotted time to grade the homework and return it to the student. This increased time flexibility is important for grading homework is one of the most daunting and potentially frustrating tasks for a teacher, one that is commonly overlooked by most education reformers when considering teacher workload. Also teachers have lives outside of the educational environment, just like students, and may want to devote certain periods of that time to other tasks.

Another useful change to improve the educational experience would be more cooperation among teachers within a given field of instruction. For example synchronizing the free/prep period for all teachers of the same general subject matter, i.e. all English teachers, would provide opportunities for teachers to converse regarding the instruction of certain subjects within the field. In fact it would be appropriate for teachers to have a weekly meeting during one of these prep periods to maximize problem solving and instruction capacity.

Obviously one of the most critical elements to improve the educational system is to create an environment where the profession of teaching is respected once again. One aspect of this change would require teachers having more power in the classroom to control improper behavior. One means to accomplish this change is to allow teachers to negatively influence a student’s grade when that student provides a disruptive influence to the learning environment. A good pilot program would be that the teacher would have the authority to deduce up to a maximum of 10% from the grade of an individual for misbehavior at certain predetermined intervals.

Some might immediately object to such a system using the argument that behavior should have nothing to do with determining the class grade because the grade should be exclusively contingent on demonstration of acquired knowledge through prescribed evaluation metrics like homework, quizzes and tests. While on its face this objection may seem appropriate and fair, the problem is that it views the behavior in a vacuum. Basically it suggests the premise that negative behavior only produces a detriment towards the practicing individual and if the individual can perform at a certain level on the evaluation metrics without showing respect or paying attention in class then there should be no punishment. However, such logic is clearly incorrect because in the classroom environment a vast majority of negative behavior provides a detrimental element to the overall environment, disrupting the ability of all parties to learn the information. The behavior commonly produces a detriment towards multiple parties even if it is undesired or unwarranted by those parties.

For those who attempt to retain the purist assumption from above, Even despite this reality, it is important to acknowledge that tolerance for such negative behavior is typically not allowed in the professional workplace and if one of the chief elements of education is to prepare an individual for a career on some level, then such behavior should not be allowed in the classroom without consequence either. For example if an individual performs his/her job well, but facilitates such a negative environment that it negatively affects the performance of others to the point where the company as a whole suffers, that individual will typically be either told to change their behavior or he/she will be fired. Legal barriers prevent students from “being fired” both from the classroom and the education system in general, thus the best secondary option is affect grades.

Another possible argument against this strategy is that the individuals who have the highest probabilities for misbehavior are those who care the least about grades and school in general. Therefore, how will this punishment system act as a meaningful deterrent? Well, if the suggestions from above relating to linking various aspects of education to successful advancement of one’s passion then a vast majority of individuals should care about their grades to the point where behavior can be reasonably managed through such a punishment. Even for those who do not accept the link between their passions and education, to simply produce no consequence to disruptive behavior is irrational. For example it is widely acknowledged that various people will exceed legal speed limits over the course of their driving career, so with this reality in mind should there be no punishment for violating these laws? Certainly not for it makes no sense to eliminate a valid and appropriate punishment for the violation of a valid social norm or law. Understand that grade reduction would only be one tool in the toolbox for teachers to address bad behavior.

Another important issue addressing the improvement of education in modern society is managing the integration of technology into the classroom environment. This point is certainly not unique, however, most individuals who sing the praises of technology as a “revolutionary” force in education are not teachers; instead they are business people, entrepreneurs, educational commentators, etc. and only see the positive elements of technology in education, frequently commenting with annoyance that technology is not more widespread.

Interestingly enough if these commentators did have teaching experience they would quickly realize that technology has already penetrated almost all classrooms in the form of smartphones. Unfortunately these elements are not positive, but a net negative producing significant distractions and emboldening those who which to cheat on quizzes and tests. It is true that technology can provide a significant boon to education, but it can also provide a significant detriment and it is important that all parties acknowledge this reality. So what can be done to neutralize the detrimental aspects that technology can bring to education?

The main aspect of this issue is how to manage technological distractions? The best solution is to put instruction into place where there is no legitimate cause to need to utilize the technology and then ban its use for the duration of class time. Now it stands to reason that technophiles would cry foul to this type of strategy once again citing the importance of technology in the classroom, especially in sparking student interest due to the length of time technology is incorporated into student life outside of the classroom. This objection highlights a problem in the presented arguments from those who support technology in the classroom, the general drive to force the influence of technology into all aspects of the classroom. The simple fact is that most classroom activities do not benefit from the incorporation of individualistic technological action. Yes, teachers can typically instruct more effectively using programs like PowerPoint versus transparent slides or a chalkboard, but students are not significantly benefited by following along with the lecture on their smartphones or laptops.

In essence there needs to be a dividing point when students can use technology and when they cannot and the cannot would occur during the lecture portion of the class. Clearly there are very small and specific exceptions to this principal; for example when lecturing about computer programming it would make sense for students, if applicable, to be at computers applying the elements of the lecture to increase familiarity with the operation of the concepts. However, despite the erroneous beliefs of technophiles, most topics do not lend themselves to this type of interaction, thus the utilization of technology by students during the lecture will result in a reduced probability of comprehension not an increased probability.

What would possible penalties be for student driven technological distractions? This question leads to two schools of thought relative to the expectation of respect for the instructor. Clearly one can argue that a student that does not pay attention in class, after accounting for outside psychological factors, is not showing proper respect to the instructor. However, if this lack of attention does not create a distracting environment for others (for example the student is doodling in a notebook, but not making enough noise to draw attention to this fact), should such behavior matter?

The answer to this question boils down to two issues? What is the obligation of the student to demonstrate respect for the teacher and what is the obligation of the teacher to ensure the student pays attention to the instructed material? The simplest philosophy in this issue is that the student is chastised for the lack of attention and told to correct the behavior and the lecture will not continue until the student complies. The general goal of this practice is to reestablish the authority of the teacher in the classroom setting and ensure the student receives some benefit from the lecture.

A more interesting strategy is if the student is not demonstrating behavior that will actively disrupt class and his/her behavior is on a limited scale (only 1-2 individuals in a class of 30 is not paying attention) then the teacher should not care about the behavior leaving the student to understand the instructed material his/herself. If the individual cannot understand the material then he/she should score poorly on the evaluation metric(s) that cover the particular material, which would be the fault of the student. Again it is not part of the teacher’s job to ensure that all students pay attention. If the individual can understand the material without the assistance of the lecture, why should the student be forced to pay attention to the lecture instead of engaging in a non-class distracting alternative activity?

A more interesting question is what does the teacher do when a number of individuals demonstrate a lack of attention, which could be viewed as a lack of respect to the authority of the teacher? As from above the teacher has two options: 1) stop lecturing until the class ceases their lack of attention; 2) continue to lecture placing the individuals who are not paying attention at a possible disadvantage for later evaluation metrics. A traditional and even modern viewpoint of teaching would instantly dismiss the latter option and criticize the teacher for not being able to keep the attention of the students. Of course almost all with this opinion have never taught a day in their life in an educational environment, thus the significance of their opinion is heavily marginalized. The problem with the first option is that rarely is the lack of attention from a student acute, but typically is habitual, thus correcting the behavior is more difficult than simply telling the student to pay attention. This reality is what makes the second option interesting when combined with the career affinity option discussed earlier.

One could argue that most habitual and “disrespectful” lack of attention behavior can be addressed by applying the above strategy of tying the passions of individuals to the subject matter taught in various classes. Thus once again after accounting for outside factors the chief motivation behind a student not paying attention in class would be the internal perception of redundant knowledge. Basically the student already believes that he/she has grasp of the knowledge presented in the lecture and elects to do something else.

This perception is not a significant problem because either the student is correct and should be spending time in the classroom doing something else while not distracting others, which only arrogant teachers would find fault with (all students should pay attention to me, etc.) or the student is incorrect and this perception and resultant behavior will be corrected after a poor performance on the next evaluation metric.

The above discussion demonstrates that the important concern is not an individual distracting him/herself, but an individual distracting others. It is this point where individually utilized technology becomes the problem. All rational people will agree that there is a significant difference in noise generation between an individual doodling in a notebook or working on math homework for next period versus an individual incessantly tapping on keys/screen or periodically making a sound like a laugh in response to a piece of video. Basically the utilization of technology as the element of distraction dramatically increases the probability that the distraction distracts others who do not want to be distracted from the content of the lecture. Therefore, individual technology must be appropriately managed though similar penalties as discussed above for behavior infractions.

Overall the administration of technology in the classroom is the prerogative of the teacher despite complaints from non-teachers. A problem technophiles have with this strategy is the incorrect belief that only technology can make a modern lecture innovative, dynamic and impactful. A quality teacher can give these characteristics to a lecture with just a piece of chalk and a chalkboard and if these non-teacher commentators had any real experience in education they would have a better understanding of this reality.

One of the improvements that must be made to establish better teachers is changing the means at which training experience is acquired. Overall there is too much single-experience watching/observing versus actual multi-experience hands-on training. For example a number of training programs involve a prospective teacher sitting in and observing the behavior, style and actions of a veteran teacher. However, rarely do these prospective teachers teach in the class while receiving feedback from the veteran teacher, they do little prep-work/grading/discussion and do not interact with other veteran teachers either.

Instead of this old method, new prospective teachers during their “observation” period should act as teaching assistants doing a significant amount of the grading and preparation work for the veteran instructor and teaching for a set period of time (maybe once per week). Then the prospective teacher should move to another teacher in the same subject to experience a potential different viewpoint in how to manage a class and/or teach the subject matter. Of course the logistics associated with such a new design would require work.

Another important change to positively advance teaching is to hold charter schools to actual academic standards or disallow public funding. Some love to make the utopian argument that money does not really matter with regards to improving public education, but such arguments are incorrect and self-serving. It makes no sense that charter schools can receive public funds, but have no accountability to those who provide those funds. Therefore, charter schools must either be removed from public funding or be held accountable to the same standards as public schools.

Similarly the return of respect to the teaching profession can never be achieved as long as organizations like Teach for America are allowed to continue to undermine the profession by introducing unprepared individuals into the profession. Teach for America and similar organizations produce negative propaganda regarding teaching under the motto “its so easy anyone can do it”, but refuse to accept responsibility for the reality that over half of their “qualified” candidates exit the profession after only two years.

Similar to the general propaganda spread by Teach for America and other similar organizations, one must abandon the idea that teaching is an occupation undeserving of respect due to the perceived hours of operation. A common refrain in public discourse is that teaching is not difficult because “teachers get the summers off”. What these false criticisms fail to acknowledge is the total hours worked versus days worked. Good teachers that care about ensuring a proper learning environment work more hours than average over the course of the week and also work over the summer. Overall quality teachers, those who the public claims to want in schools, do not fit this “not real work” profile and are negatively impacted by its continued propagation.

It is appropriate to briefly touch on a couple of indirect methods that could improve the educational experience. First, it makes sense to follow scientific research regarding the way lighting and room color influence performance and behavior. For example it has been reported that “warm” yellowish white light supports a more relaxing environment that promotes play and probably material engagement, standard school lighting (neutral white) supports quiet contemplative activities like reading and “cool” bluish white light supports performance during intellectually intensive events like tests.1 Thus equipping classrooms with LED lights that could be changed between these different types of lighting tiers should provide useful advantages to both teachers and students.

Second, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that early start times in high schools and some middle schools (7:30 and earlier) have negative educational influence on students.2-4 While this issue has received attention in the past and is still receiving some attention here and there, unfortunately it is not as cut-and-dry as simply starting school 30 minutes later for there are significant logistical hurdles to the successful administration of a “later school day” policy.

One of the major problems is how to manage bus transit for a single fleet of buses tends to service one school district or region. The tiered start times for different schools (high school, middle school/junior high, elementary school) is typically necessary for transit efficiency allowing this single fleet to manage all schools. Change the start time for high school and the efficiency of bus service collapses unless start times for middle schools and elementary schools are also changed.

However, changing start times for these schools is not beneficial to younger age students because they are already starting at times later than 8:00 am, and starting even later may even be detrimental because of the much later release times (4:00 pm or later). Not surprisingly the solution of “get more buses” is a non-starter for most school districts are already rather cash strapped to begin with due to tax funding dependencies and charter schools taking money from that pie as well. This transit problem and the resultant potential detriment for younger students is exactly what Montgomery Country in Maryland experienced when they changed school hours in 2015.

Another meaningful logistic hurdle involves the administration of after-school extra-curricular activities and how they could disrupt home life due to students arriving home at 5:30 or 6:00 pm, especially during the late fall and winter months when daylight becomes limited. Also there may be increased costs for the school for heating and cooling, especially cooling for those districts in high temperature regions for starting later in the day means hotter average school hour temperatures. This issue is tough because the costs could be prohibitive for some districts and meaningless for others. Of course one significant problem is that studies involving the incorporation of later school hours only seem to focus on health and/or possible changes in academic achievement and do not address obstacles to applying later school hours, which is rather ridiculous.

In the end one of the most pressing problems in education is misrepresentation of the overall goal of education. Some reformers seem to think that the most important role for education is to foster a level of knowledge that allows an individual to gain employment in some particular field. While such a role is important, it is not so important that it should displace other important elements to education like:

1) Produce citizens that can make rational decisions, which will allow them to make positive contributions to society.
2) Produce citizens that can effectively form solutions to both qualitative and quantitative problems.
3) Produce citizens that can use both spoken and written word to effectively communicate their ideas and feelings to other individuals as well as understand and analyze the validity of the ideas and feelings of others.
4) Produce citizens that do not tolerate individuals that attempt to manipulate or deceive society for their own ends or do not tolerate those that practice and/or preach ignorance or idiocy for the sole purpose of satisfying their own personal beliefs and ends.

Overall blind devotion to test scores and technology will not help achieve these goals and without the ability to produce these types of individuals society becomes vulnerable to manipulators and opportunists that would produce net harms. It is the responsibility of education to produce a society that is not only productive, but also able to protect it from these unscrupulous individuals, thus it is the responsibility of society to ensure an educational environment that accomplishes these goals. Current reformers are not offering solutions that will produce such accomplishment, thus something must change.

Citation –

1. Suk, H, and Choi, K. “Dynamic lighting system for the learning environment: performance of elementary students.” Optics Express. 2016. 24(10):A907-A916.

2. Eaton, D, et Al. “Prevalence of insufficient, borderline, and optimal hours of sleep among high school students–United States, 2007.” Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010. 46(4):399-401.

3. Wahlstrom, K, et Al. “Examining the impact of later high school start times on the health and academic performance of high school students: A multi-site study.” 2014.

4. Au, R, et Al. “School start times for adolescents.” Pediatrics. 2014. 134(3):642-649.