Over the past 40 years, I’ve visited an awful lot of schools. Usually, I’m visiting high-poverty elementary or secondary schools that are doing well. I love visiting schools, I love the kids, the teachers, and the administrators, who are all doing their best to create a culture of success and caring that is often a haven in a depressed neighborhood.
Whenever I visit schools, I try to spend most of my time in classrooms, of course. I often pick out three kids at random, one near the front, one in the middle, and one at the back of the class. I pretend they are my own kids (I happen to have three). Are “my” three kids getting a good education?
In traditionally-organized classes, what I often see is both comforting and disturbing at the same time. On the surface, most classes are run pretty well. There are occasional exceptions, especially in inner-city high schools, but “urban jungle” scenarios are rare.
On the other hand, looking at “my” kids gives me a different perspective. In a really good class, in which it appears that the entire class is participating in a lesson, at least one of “my” kids is quiet and unengaged all period. In other, less exciting classes, it may be all three. We once did an experiment in which we took central administrators into their own schools to watch teaching in this way. Invariably, they were shocked. The reality is that traditional teaching, even when done very well, still leaves a lot of kids quiet and unengaged.
There are strategies, especially various forms of cooperative learning, that are designed to engage every child every period of every day. Although forms of cooperative learning are known and occasionally used by many teachers, the proven strategies are far from common practice. Perhaps if school administrators and researchers routinely visited schools and picked out three kids to watch in each class, they’d see why even a well-behaved class is not necessarily reaching all children, and then begin looking for more effective alternatives.
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