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Learning at its Best

Students Don’t Need More Choices . . .

. . . they need more power.

I’m sitting in my hotel room at a conference.  It doesn’t matter how fancy they make things, the art is bland and anticeptic.  I suppose people don’t go to a hotel room to listen to a statement or to feel something deeply or to question social norms.

I flip through the cable channels.  Half the shows are voyeuristic “reality” shows helping me to see the melodramatic lives of teen moms or mafia wives.  The other shows are reruns of sitcoms from decades past (as if cable tv has become the world’s largest fridge to house yesterday’s hit shows) or shouting matches on a twenty-four-seven news cycle.

The hotel art and cable tv both illustrate a flaw in differentiation.  More choices do not lead to higher quality (The Paradox of Choice examines this well).  The overall quality decreases as executives try to tailor to each person’s tastes while also remaining a broadcast medium.

I experience this when I read most newspapers or check out my latest issue of Time.  It’s as if each media outlet is scrambling to deal with the splintering of media while still reaching the largest audience possible.

The beautiful thing is that I have internet access here, which means I can access alternative and social media.  I can find blogs that challenge my thinking and then post comments or write my own blog.  I can listen to podcasts with a perspective that I won’t find anywhere else and then tweet about it to my PLN.  I can listen to artists that I’ll never hear on the radio, not because of a lower quality, but because the artists are unique in their approach.

It’s not that I have more choices.  Instead, I have more freedom.  I feel empowered to engage in the media with a critical eye.  No more bread and circus.  I get customize my media experience to fit my needs for relevance, meaning, creativity and ideas that challenge my thinking.  This is admittedly dangerous.  I can get narcissistic and narrow-minded.  Then again, I can get lazy and dull with cable tv.  Every medium has its costs.

So, back to the classroom.  I want schools that look less like cable tv and more like alternative and social media.   Like cable television, students are often bored in a standardized classroom.  Delivery is often bland, resorting to old ideas repackaged in a new framework.  The end result is an incessant mental channel surfing, where students are looking for meaning, relevance and a chance to participate.

However, to do this, we need to make some paradigm shifts.  I can think of a few.  I’d love for you to add some more:

  1. We need to shift from differentiating instruction to customizing instruction.
  2. We need to shift from teacher-centered delivery to a dialogue between students and teachers in the learning process.
  3. We need to shift from common resources to a learning commons.  In other words, we need to let students bring their own devices, access quality literature, visit their world, serve in their community all within a larger context of democratic knowledge.
  4. We need to shift from rigid work to fluid learning.  I am not suggesting that students simply play all day (though there is a place for play).  However, I want students to create individual and whole-class projects.  It’s why I love having students write personal blogs and then paint collective murals.  It’s why group assignments often allow from cross-group collaboration.  If students own their own learning, then the issue of who did what takes a back seat to who learned what.
  5. We need to shift from standardized to authentic assessment.  We need to take on the mindset that assessment is ongoing and helps spur better thinking.  It doesn’t have to fit within the narrow lens of behaviorism.
  6. We need to shift from static to fluid learning spaces.  Visit a Starbucks and you’ll see a chance to stand, sit at a couch and sit at tables.  Unlike McDonalds, a decent coffee shop will not bolt down hard plastic furniture in a method of differentiation (booth or table) but will invite customers to redesign the space when necessary.
  7. We need to change from behavior management to ethical thinking.  Empower students to think about their actions through dialogue rather than time-out chairs.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


11 thoughts on “Students Don’t Need More Choices . . .

  1. Great post, John. Glad the ugly hotel brought it out !

    Posted by Brad Patterson | June 21, 2011, 11:01 am
  2. Excellent post, John. As a K teacher I appreciate what you say with regard to “fluid learning spaces”. I’m so thankful that I have a space that allows for that (sitting, standing, leaning against, and even lying down). I often think about how all of that movement becomes restricted over time. Less cable TV sounds good to me!

    Posted by Mr. Fines | June 21, 2011, 11:12 am
  3. What a great analogy. I have a similar discussion witj my husband frequently but you have applied this concept well to the classroom. At the end of the year I frequently redesign my teaching and this was a great lift for me. I especially the shift from static learning spaces to fluid. With the fallout of pAds in my classroom I want students to be comfortable. I am thinking bean bags and learning books. You have inspired me. Thank you.

    Posted by Michelle Sumner | June 21, 2011, 11:21 am
  4. So John, I see the Cooperative as on of these types of spaces…. but I wonder… what if put together a sort of more concrete framework for such a school. I have spent the last two years creating a framework for a future school and believe if we could together work to play (playing all day is the same as learning) with our ideas we could come up with something that could replace the cable tv education and instead create a open source trans-media network….

    either way I am game…. meet me in the block corner!


    Posted by dloitz | June 21, 2011, 11:52 am
  5. So how do we get teachers in mass to start making these shifts? Huge jumps for the majority of teachers and students. These things are not natural in schools except maybe younger grades before it is beaten out of them. So we now need to both teach teachers how to teach and students how to learn.

    How do we motivate both teachers and administrators to want to make these shifts?

    Posted by Mike Kaechele | June 21, 2011, 8:53 pm
  6. You’ve just said what I was thinking. I love ‘differentiate to customize’.

    Posted by Royan Lee | June 21, 2011, 9:18 pm
  7. Hi John,
    Excellent ideas and paradigm shifts! Sounds like some interesting seeds for educational reform. Information is knowledge and knowledge is POWER.

    One area of importance that does require a paradigm shift, and giving more POWER to students, is the thinking around a four-year degree. Not every student needs or wants what our society and many parents/educators promote via the push for a four-year degree. BA’s, Ma’s and even post doc’s are necessary for some occupational objectives, yet a majority of job openings in the next decade will require less than a four year degree, jobs that do pay well and offer much career laddering, including more education over time for some. Most parents/educators either do not know this or refuse to share this information with students seeking direction for their post-high school plans. Why is this so and what can be done to give more POWER to students?

    Please join a NEW Tweet Chat at #schools2life every 2nd and 4th Thursday at 8-9pmEDT and our support platform on LinkedIn at to have a national discussion on this entire situation of students’ transition from school to life. Thank you for your excellent ideas/blog posts. EdC

    Posted by Edward Colozzi | June 22, 2011, 6:44 pm
  8. John,

    I have been thinking about this article very deeply. I have been fighting for choice in order to create the learning environment and freedom you discuss. But you are right, we do not need more choice if public education will embrace and engage these ideas. I have been reading posts from Cooperative Catalyst for the last 4 months at my local school board meeting and I don’t get much response. Please ignite teachers across the country to consider this doctrine. In my state, they are seriously considering making the state test part of the student’s overall grade in order to hold students more accountable. A gigantic step in the worng direction

    Posted by timmcclung | June 23, 2011, 10:36 am
  9. Hey John, Because we don’t have TV at home, I also only watch it when I’m on the road in hotel rooms. After about half an hour I’m so depressed. I feel intrigued, and dirty at the same time. Do you think kids ever feel like school is a set of channels they can’t get out of?

    What does more power for kids look like in your classroom?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | June 26, 2011, 8:10 am

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