MD469 / Fall 2009 blog

September 24, 2009

Reflection: Brave New Schools, Chapter 5

Filed under: Uncategorized — hmcnally @ 8:45 am

As many other educational theorists have done, authors Cummins and Sayers have classified modern forms of pedagogy into three different categories: traditional, progressive, and transformative.  Guess which one is best, in their estimation, for breaking down the barriers–the “intellectual debris”–of the classroom?  The terminology begs the question, but the point is still well made.

It’s hard to argue against creating an open classroom, at least one where students are encouraged to explore new ideas, and the teacher acts as a sherpa of sorts, guiding students in their path of discovery.  It’s exciting to see this concept discussed professionally among educators, though this debate is hardly new.  This book pre-dates the mandates of “No Child Left Behind” and the points the authors make just seem to have been amplified in recent years by thoughtful educators.


I’ve been giving thought to the concept we discussed in our last class, that, at least in the science/tech world, the idea of making a “global” community of learners is very much a reality, especially among adults–culture clash and xenophobia take a back seat to the advancement and sharing of knowledge, and interactive tech is used to promote that end.  It’s not a bad model, personality conflicts and egomania among tech-oriented people notwithstanding.  (Yes, that was meant to generate a chuckle.)

I was in this frame of mind when, during a channel-surfing session, I stumbled upon a rebroadcast of the movie Stand and Deliver on Channel 13 this weekend, the “based on a true story” dramatization of Jaime Escalante’s efforts to teach AP Calculus to students in East Los Angeles at Garfield High School.  Hardly the first time I’d seen it, I did some research on what Mr. Escalante was actually did to obtain the success.  Yes, Escalante turns out to be a charismatic teacher, but he also set up a support structure to get students ready to take an AP Calc course, as well as having the support of administrators in his school.

What Escalante did obviously worked, though I’m not sure where his pedagogy methods would fall under any (maybe all) of traditional / progressive / transformative models.  The sad part, though, is that his program no longer exists at the school depicted by Hollywood: personality conflicts kicked in, Escalante left Garfield High (and eventually retired, moving back to Bolivia), and the program has withered.  In the face of this, my big question and ultimate reflection this week is: if an experimental educational program is proven to succeed (in abundance, at a Hollywood movie level!), yet is allowed to fall apart because of red tape and bureaucratic squabbling, what does that say for the prospects of implementing a transformative classroom in 2009?

A story of the ultimate demise of Jaime Escalante’s AP Calculus program can be read at  I haven’t gone on a fact-checking expedition of this yet; still, a quote from the closing of this piece is insightful, especially considering the challenge of transforming today’s classroom:

One-size-fits-all standardized tests are driving curricula, and top-down reforms are mandating lockstep procedures for classroom instructors. These steps might help make dismal teachers into mediocre ones, but what will they do to brilliant mavericks like Escalante?


Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant blog has been citing the recently released book Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education in its last few postings.  A quote from that book reinforced what I was thinking with Jaime Escalante, and updates it in terms of using tech in a transformational manner:

If anything is stone-cold certain about the current structure of power, it is that technological change is destined to be resisted by the teachers unions and their allies. This is “their” system, and they are compelled by their own interests to preserve and protect it. They will go to the ramparts to see that technology does not have real transformative effects.

The authors of Liberating Learning participated in a worthwhile online conference hosted by the Future of Education ning (see also this link to the specific event which contains more links should the online conference not function for you).

Maybe it’s my bias having worked at Apple Retail for a few years recently, but I’m thinking that educational reformers would do well with a brief “feature and benefit” table of progressive techniques: academia often misses out on the lessons learned by marketing and salesmanship.  I’m wondering if the problems in today’s classroom are not about what to do, but how to do it–a problem of implementation rather than concept.  Maybe the product (being a “transformative” teacher) is good, but the sales pitch (communicating the effectiveness of the ideas to colleagues, administrators, parents, even students) isn’t.


My closing thought here is a replay of a specific program I learned about this summer in the “Curiosity in the Classroom” course: Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” program, where kids (in this case at first, children in rural India) are presented with nothing but a computer with an Internet hookup and basically teach themselves by their own curiosity:

[link to the specific TED conference page]

The presentation speaks for itself, yet brings up the scary question: do teachers get in the way of curiosity?  Cummins and Sayers state that intercultural learning must “start with the teachers themselves”–is that the main problem?  Can the problems of a xenophobic, technophobic teaching establishment be overcome through retraining?  Through “professional development” sessions? Or, as Dr. Mitra suggests, through elimination of the teacher?


Sites of note (as referred to above)

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