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Learner from another Planet

Consider a scenario in which a visitor comes on a mission of educational discovery in which she is invited to visit a family of four and trail them at school for a day. What does she observe and how does that impact on her opinion as to how we are educating our children?

In our scenario, the visitor completes her stay and is interviewed about the experience by the local paper.

What was the family’s morning routine like?

The family I stayed with sends their two children to a public school a few miles from where they live. In the morning, the mother of the family entered the children’s bedroom three times urging them to wake up and get ready. The first time, at 6:30am, she simply walked past the room and told them to wake up. Ten minutes later, after putting together a simple breakfast, she went into the room and nudged them to get out of bed. Her efforts were met by grunts of discontent. The third and last time, she stood in the doorway and screamed that they were going to be late and threatened to revoke Internet privileges if they did not get out of bed.

At the breakfast table, after being reminded that she had a tutoring session after her soccer practice that afternoon, the middle schooler said she’d rather just come home and eat dinner. Her mother reminded her of an upcoming test that she would be taking as part of determining which high school she would be attending the following year. The girl whined in response and said she didn’t want to go to a special high school.

The high schooler had her computer at the breakfast table and was finishing a paper that she needed to hand in that morning. When her mother challenged her on this, the girl said she had had no time to finish it the night before because she had to submit an online test by midnight, and a glitch in the program at 11:30pm delayed her submission.

The parents reminded the children that they would be home later that evening because of parent-teacher conferences at the older girl’s school. The mother asked for confirmation of the teachers she most wanted them to see, just in case they ran out of time to see everyone.

Were you able to attend any classes? What was the interaction like in the classroom?

That morning, I visited the girl’s middle school and observed a math class and a language class. In both classes, the student’s sat in assigned seats in rows, with the teacher positioned at the head of the class. In the math class, students reviewed a test they had taken previously, with the teacher going over each problem, occasionally asking for student input, with the same four students, three girls and one girl, raising their hands each time.

In the language class, students spent most of the period finishing a movie they had started watching two days ago, and answered three questions on the board. The teacher corrected pronunciation and had the whole class repeat each time a correction was made.

In the afternoon, I visited the older girl’s high school and visited three classes. I observed a class where the teacher was reviewing a slide show on the roles of the different branches of government. I also saw one digital photography class she is taking as an elective, where I observed the teacher preparing the students for an assignment by sharing examples of work done by previous students. In the language class, the students were practicing taking quizzes on tablet PCs.

What kind of interaction is there with between parents and teachers?

That evening, I went back to the older girl’s school to tag along with the parents for what they call parent-conferences. I waited on line outside with the mother, who had left work early to get a “good spot.” When the father arrived, she delegated three teachers for him to visit. Upon entering the school, I ran after the mother as she signed her name for the four teachers she hoped to see. As we waited for the first visit, she called her husband to make sure he had signatures at his three assigned rooms. She started yelling at him when he reported that the third list was already so long, he did not want to add his name.

At the first room, my host family’s mother asked what areas her daughter needed to focus on in order to improve. After locating the girl’s grades on his tablet PC, the teacher said she was missing one assignment, and that otherwise she was doing fine. Maybe she could speak up more in class. The mother was surprised by the missing paper and said she was sure the girl had handed it in. At that point, the student monitor announced it was time for the next parent to come in.

After leaving the first room, we pushed our way through the wall of parents waiting outside other classrooms, and made for the stairway. The mother called her husband for an update, and he reported having missed his slot with the history teacher because he was checking the list to see where he stood on the science teacher’s room.

By the end of the evening, the parents had seen all but one teacher, had not learned anything new about their daughter, but seemed satisfied that they had made eye contact with those 6 teachers.

Did you spend any down time with the family?

My visit started on Thursday night and lasted until Saturday morning. When we arrived home Friday evening after the conferences, the girls were in the living room halfheartedly watching a movie but more interested in whatever they were doing on their personal devices. Mom kicked off her shoes and sat down to share their experience with the parent-teacher conferences. She started with the teacher and the missing assignment, and after that was fully disputed, provided as much of a summary as could be cobbled together. For the most part, all the teachers had positive things to say and offered advice encouraging more participation in class. After the mother and father finished, the girl looked at them and asked one final question, “But did they seem to like me?”

The rest of the evening included planning for the weekend, which included a tutoring session, a writing workshop to help with college prep for the older girl, a soccer game, and ballet recital.

What are your final observations?

The parents of these two girls seem to be earnest in their wishes to help them “succeed.” To that end, they talk to the girls about their schoolwork, they arrange for additional help to increase test scores, and they keep on top of what is happening in each of their schools. But the girls are exhausted and not passionate about their daily learning experiences. Most of their time in school is spent preparing for a test or listening to a teacher review a test they have just taken. Or, as in the case with the language classes, the students are not actually spending much time in the classroom practicing the language. I wondered why the students could not watch the movie for homework.

The above scenario highlights a few of the challenges in today’s educational landscape. Although not all schools suffer the same roadblocks to learning, curriculum that does not engage the learner in ways other than constant testing cannot open the door to a lifelong love of learning.

For more Designs2Learn thoughts on innovative curriculum design, see these blogs:

If a learner from another planet came to your community, what kind of learning would she observe?

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on meaningful curriculum design for social impact.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

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