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The Essence of the Pilots

Some years ago a freshly elected slate of school board trustees met for a daylong brainstorming session to hammer out their priorities for the next four years. The director of the school board was also present.

During the day, a re-elected trustee said: “If you want to see the kids we fail, just take a ride in a police cruiser on a Friday night.”

To this the director defensively responded, “Oh yes, but if you want to see the kids we save, come visit one of our alternate programs.”

The director’s words sound like a good response, but they aren’t. The fact is if we know how to save students at risk, then we know how to prevent them from needing to be saved, and that is the essence of the proposed pilot programs. They seek to apply to mainstream education the practices found to be successful with the alternate programs. These alternate programs are sometimes called retention or recovery programs. The practices that make them successful are summarized in what has been described as the Principles of Adult Learning.

There are, however, two important differences between the proposed pilot programs and the alternate programs. Alternate programs tend to be about students getting credits in order to graduate from high school. They work on credit recovery or independent learning courses and tend to come and go during the day. Their activities are focused on their own personal agenda. The proposed pilots are more about cultivating a community of learners that emphasizes relationships and the skills needed for life-long learning. The students therefore spend their entire days in the program with an emphasis on group needs as well as individual needs. Two examples help to paint the picture.

Traditional schools are criticized for fostering conformity and uniformity while the proposed pilots work to overcome this by celebrating diversity. A teacher working in a pilot program might say, “Isn’t it great that we are all so different. It means we have so much to learn from each other.” To reinforce this attitude with students in the CHIP program, the program upon which the pilot model is based, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was used.

Early in the program the students and teachers participated in a full-day, parent-funded workshop conducted by two Myers-Briggs professionals. It began with everyone completing the MBTI to determine the personality types of each of the participants, there being 16 different types. This was followed by explanations of the characteristic of each type. The second half of the day was spent considering how the different types could work most effectively together.

The workshop was fun. It was a celebration of diversity and helped to set a positive tone, but community is not built in a day, and it doesn’t need a workshop like that described. It is obtained through the accumulation of daily acts of friendship that build rich relationships.

The second example pertains to learning skills. Students in the CHIP program were required to learn math, but it was not the facilitators’ role to teach it to them. The role of the facilitator was to help students to develop good learning skills. It is a role that matches the saying: “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or teach him how to fish and feed him for life.” Instead of giving students math lessons, the facilitators focused on helping students acquire the skills they needed to teach themselves math.

Math textbooks explain the concepts students are required to learn, but students rarely read them. In the traditional math class, the teacher stands at the blackboard trying to spoon feeds the concepts to students. The textbooks are then used as a source of endless exercises to keep students busy for the rest of class, and busy in the evening too if they don’t make good use of their class time.

The approach in the proposed pilots is entirely different. Students are expected to use the math textbook to teach themselves the concepts. If at some point a student needs help, the facilitator might say, “Bring me your textbook and let’s figure out where you are running into trouble.” They then work through the explanation sentence by sentence to determine where and why the understanding broke down. The real content of the lesson is to develop the student’s analytical reading skills, the mental agility to be able to see things from different angles as you work through instruction manuals. The point is that if you are a good analytical reader you can teach yourself just about anything. This approach helps to develop critical thinking skills while the “sage on the stage” approach reduces the need for students to do critical thinking.

Other learning skills that are easily exercised with math involve knowing when you know something, and knowing how to reinforce a concept to make it stick. A math concept that is thoroughly understood will probably need no or very little reinforcement. Students in the pilot programs would only have to do enough math exercises to confirm their grasp of a concept. They would be spared the tedious busy work of class assigned math exercises that work to turn students off math, and this pilot program approach to learning could save school boards the expense of having to fabricate and run critical thinking courses.

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