Venn Librarian

Reflections about the intersection of schools, libraries and technology.

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Student Choice

Posted by lpearle on 15 September 2014

In independent schools we talk about students and education, about how our mission (overall, not just the specific school mission) is all student-centered.  We also talk about being college preparatory, trying to ensure our students will succeed (not just succeed, but excel) in their next academic experience.

So when I see schools issue technology mandates (iPad, laptop, whatever) I wonder about how student-centered that is.  For some students – heck, for me! – reading on a device is not the best choice.  I do my best, deepest reading in print, not to mention being able to find my notes easier, get back to an interesting passage quicker and flip between charts/maps/lists and text with more fluidity.  When taking notes, it’s always better for me to scrawl paper/pen and then to type them up – the meaning really sinks in that way (and let’s not forget my Cornell notes obsession). Why should either be different for students?

But this isn’t just about a mandate, it’s about choice. When we tell students that a school is going 1:1 (laptops or tablets) are we allowing them to choose the technology tool that works best for them, or are we saying “we expect you to bring [vendor/specifications]”?  And in our role as a college preparatory institution, have we surveyed the places our students will go next to see what they will be expected to use there?  My hope is that we would do that before making any decisions, using College X’s entry-level curriculum, research expectations and technology tools as a baseline goal for all of our graduates.  My fear is that few schools do that.

And then there’s the curriculum itself.  Over the years I’ve spoken with many, many students about their current classes, their current class choices and their goals for the future.  All too frequently I see art students told to take fewer art electives and to take an AP math or science course instead (colleges apparently love – LOVE! – those AP credits).  The push for STEM credits and students is denuding schools of humanities and arts electives, forcing students who would truly excel as a historian or creative writer into AP Biology or something.

Back in the dark ages (aka late 1970s) when I was in high school, the curriculum was, to put it politely, eclectic.  The requirements were 1 year of science, 3 years of math and foreign language, and something like 2 arts credits. History and English were combined into one department, Humanities, and I forget what the credit requirements there were.  No AP classes, although students who wanted to take the exams could. As a result, I haven’t taken a lab science since 9th grade, and only grudgingly took calculus in college (NOTE: if you have to take a placement test and test into calculus without having taken pre-calc, do not accept that placement!). Instead of Chemistry, I took Philosophy.  Instead of Biology, I took Acting.  Etc..  When I got to college I was more than prepared not only for the rigors of the college experience (mixing living away from home with studying and hanging out with friends) but also for the freedom of choice allowed in choosing my courses.

Does telling students that they have to take AP this and that, fewer electives (limiting them to perhaps a senior year) and pursue a relatively rigid path help?  I would argue not (as would the constructivist school). Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we need a good underlying understanding of things and serious basic skills in math, science, grammar, etc..  But once we’re in high school, why force a school of round pegs into square holes?  Another friend of mine, currently Head of Modern Languages at a school, in charge not only of running the department but also approving and researching foreign travel (student trips to China, Spain and France) and managing the departmental budget, stopped his math and science courses earlier than I did.  Neither of us has suffered appreciably.

So here’s what I’m pondering: if our schools truly believe in being student-centered environments preparing those in our care for their next academic experience, why are we so afraid of student choice?

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