Some of Education's Best Ideas from 2014

Last month, The Educator’s Room published an article written by Jeremy Adams in which he lamented the “panacea du jour” approach to education, the way everyone seems to have the solution to our troubled schools: highly trained teachers, accountability, Common Core, longer school days, later school starting times, longer school years, smaller schools, smaller classes, more school choice, more math and science, more emphasis on writing, more foreign language instruction, character education, project-based learning, etc., etc. The sheer variety of ideas for fixing our education system can actually thwart real action and change.

Teacher Jake Miller responded to Jeremy Adams’ article with a wish for the one thing that he believes would truly transform his classroom: more time. Teachers now have to do so many things in the classroom (including preparing for and giving numerous assessments) that they no longer have time for things like writing innovative curriculum, collaborating with colleagues, calling parents, and meeting with students. This focus on time led me to think about the end of the year. As the year winds to an end, it seems like a good time to reflect on the past. Every newspaper and magazine seems to feature a list: what’s in, what’s out; the best movies of 2014; the most interesting people of 2014; the top viral videos of 2014; the most popular songs of 2014; it goes on and on. I decided to make a list of some of the most thought-provoking and innovative ideas in education that I’ve seen this year. Many of them I have written about in this column. These are a few that I didn’t write about, in no particular order:

  • Consensual learning in high schools. Blake Boles, author of Better Than College and The Art of Self-Directed Learning, wrote an interesting piece for Huffington Post recently. What if we changed the structure of high schools so that they were more like colleges? Imagine if students could select the classes that held the most interest for them, if they could choose teachers and courses of study based on their own career goals. Maybe we would have more engaged and motivated students, and maybe we would have more innovative teachers and schools.

  • Epic, a charter school in Oakland, California. The middle school students here are actually heroes on a quest; every aspect of their learning is structured in such a way that accomplishing tasks helps students to achieve their goals. Each trimester has a theme in which the students must work together to solve complex problems. I am looking forward to reading more about how this works in the long run.

  • Curiosity helps us learn. A study published in Neuron found that the brain’s chemistry changes when we are curious, helping us to learn and retain information. While many good teachers already try to tap into their students’ natural curiosity, many school routines seem to squelch it. (When a teacher is already pressed for time, there is an impetus to move forward with the curriculum rather than spending time wandering off on tangents – no matter how interesting those tangents may be to the students!)

  • Smartphones as tools for learning, not just communication. Almost every teenager has one; in fact, they may seem more like extensions of their bodies than electronic devices. Why not use those mini-computers in the classroom, rather than banning them? Apps like Poll Everywhere and TodaysMeet allow teachers to “hear” everyone’s voice, even those who are shy or reticent participants in class. Edutopia provided an overview of some of the ways teachers are embracing cellphone use in the classroom to enhance learning and student participation.

  • Adventure playgrounds. More popular in Europe than in the US, though one in Berkeley, California has been around for 36 years, these offer an opportunity for free, unstructured play in a kid-controlled environment. These playgrounds allow kids to be creative designers of their own environment, providing experiences that build self-confidence and cooperation skills. I understand why these types of playgrounds wouldn’t work in most schoolyards, but I wish we had more natural playgrounds and more time for kids to play outside at every school.

  • Competency-based education, rather than grade levels. There are a handful of charter schools around the country doing this. In Sanborn, New Hampshire, all students now progress through the school district based on their mastery of skills and concepts, rather than on their age or designated grade level. Although this system has had its challenges over the past five years, it now seems to have ironed out the kinks enough to serve as a possible model for other districts.

There are a lot of other good ideas out there, but ideas are just a starting point; they shouldn’t be an end point. I hope that more teachers and schools will try these out, maybe even start pilot programs. Then maybe we’ll begin to see real change in education.

Thanks for reading my column, and if you’ve seen other ideas you’d like to share, please comment below or send them along to me!

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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