To Impart and Absorb, with Urgency

The NY Times published an interesting article yesterday titled 'Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools is Mixed'. The whole article is interesting in its assessment of the charter school strategy in the US, which the author suggests if producing a small number of excellent case studies, and a lot of very mediocre schools.

What is more interesting is the way that the whole discourse occurs within the context of high-stakes testing as the way of assessing excellence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the schools excelling at this type of tests are often the KIPP-style environments that sound more like a military academy than a high school.

The underlying philosophy of learning was laid bare about halfway through the article while criticising the classroom climate of one of the schools that failed to excel. The author found that "there was little sense of the urgency to impart and absorb knowledge that lends an electricity to classrooms at [one of the more successful schools]".

In our course we talk lots about richer, more complex pedagogies; two-way processes; collaborative learning and inquiry. I think it's sometimes important to step back and listen to the conversation within and around the industry. It reminds us that there are still an awful lot of people talking about 'imparting knowledge' for those spongy students to absorb as urgently as possible!

One thought on “To Impart and Absorb, with Urgency

  1. Ben Rolfe

    Interesting. Hadn’t heard of KIPP before. I’m particularly interested in that atmosphere of urgency that existed in the “ideal” school. It’s the kind of high pressure environment where successes and failures are intensified. Frankly, it sounds terrifying, and I dread to think what happened after class to the kid who dragged the class average below 40.
    I’m not saying it’s all bad. For most of the 40% of students who don’t drop out (http://www.sri.com/news/releases/091608.html), it’s probably fantastic (I’d be fascinated to know what academic effect, if any, the experience has on those who do drop out)
    This intensification of success and failure highlights something about games (of course). Games are often touted as being particularly effective for underachievers. One reason for this is that games guarantee success by allowing failure. In the class (and particularly in KIPP, by the sound of it) you get one chance to answer the question – if you fail, then you are a failure. In games, you have many lives – you can try, secure in the knowledge that if you fail, you can try again.
    All of this raises an interesting question: Does a new school need to target over-achievers or under-achievers, the middle-ground or everyone? My guess is that it is both under and over achievers who are more likely to try something different.
    A trickier question: What is the change that you would like to evoke? From what you have said, traditional schools are trying to create more skilled and knowledgeable students (and taking a very direct-minded approach to doing so). Do you want to evoke the same change, or something different? How will you know if you have succeeded?

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