Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Most Likely to Succeed

This afternoon, in lieu of a staff meeting, our faculty, board, and some parents screened the movie Most Likely to Succeed. The movie has been making the rounds at schools and was featured at Sundance last year (I think). The premise is that our education system was designed in the 1880s to create a docile but capable workforce for the assembly lines of the time. And it hasn't been updated since. The movie goes on to examine one school that is taking school assumptions (such as discreet subjects, tests, and scheduled blocks) and turning them on their head. Instead of teaching subject matters broadly, teachers focus on their passions, their interests, and teach deeply. There are no tests, only a public exhibition at the end of the year where the students present their learning. Teachers collaborate across specialties- physics and history, for instance. It was a glimpse, for me, of what I want school to be like. Mostly.
Parents and their many concerns were given a chance to respond to the school's methods, and voiced some valid points. The teachers talked a lot about the trade-offs they were making in terms of content (deep but not broad) and soft skills, such as team work, cooperation, perseverance, self reflection, etc.
I feel like the movie really validated a lot of the choices I've made as a language teacher the past year or so. The idea that we have to change how we teach resonates with me because it isn't working for most of the kids. Language teaching especially seems stuck in the dark ages, no matter how many computer programs you use to call it a 21st century skill.
Of course, the school in the movie uses primarily project based learning (PBL). While I am a huge fan of PBL when done well, I don't think that it has a place in the novice learner's classroom. But- and this is something that one of my colleagues shared after visiting the school- project based does not mean project only. Perhaps PBL is not appropriate for my students at their level. But maybe it will be further down the line for them, as their skills and mine improve. The other case to be made for PBL, and a strong one at that, is that it puts the student first. Now, someone who doesn't speak Spanish may not have the skills yet to be first, but let's face it: schools are demeaning, boring, and often just an endurance test. Instead of learning, instead of curiosity, students are taught that memorization and test scores are what's important. PBL is the opposite.
I was really struck by one moment in the movie where a teacher, after radically changing the way he taught math, was getting a lot of pushback from his high-achieving students. They were explaining that they just wanted to be able to pass the tests and get to college to get on with their lives. I felt a connection with this teacher, because like him I changed my approach, and like him, I got a lot of pushback from high achieving students. Instead of just studying for the test, they suddenly needed to really be able to use the language. Tests were unannounced. They had no study guide to memorize. And it was hard for them!
Which brings me back to my main point: TPRS is interesting, humanizing, and student centered. Sure, the teacher might talk a great deal, but when done well, the stories center around the students' lives and interests. The class feels different and asks students to pay attention in a different way. They have to monitor their own comprehension, follow along, and respond. Tests, instead of huge ordeals that destroy both moral and class time, are quick and easy check ins, and are usually no big deal.
And of course: no desks!

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