Monday, December 10, 2012
The world of education could learn a thing or two from the gymnastics community. While the system we use to progress our athletes in the sport may not be perfect, its structure is one that would be well suited for our education system. I recently returned to graduate school for the second time, this time in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. The stories I’m hearing from teachers in the master’s program are puzzling and somewhat troubling. But, they make me thankful for the evolution of our industry to what it’s become today.
We all know that gymnastics is taught in a progressive manner. That every skill has prerequisite skills and once a gymnast has learned a skill, there is always a more advanced skill to accomplish. Progressions are at the core of what we do as gymnastics coaches. Our national system is wisely set up based on progressions with few restrictions due to age. It is a mastery teaching system. Perform a skill with reasonable proficiency and move on to the next skill. It’s such a simple and right concept.
Contrast this to a typical student in the education system. This student is most often moved up a grade level in every subject, every year with minimal concern given to whether they are over-prepared or under-prepared for the next grade. Teachers face classrooms full of students with huge variance in knowledge and skills. Many people in education are trying to fix the system with innovative curriculum, national standards, mandated teaching methods, scripted curriculum and the like. There is a lot of great information available to help teachers teach our kids and there are many terrible ideas out there as well.
Is it futuristic dreaming to think that a system can be developed with subject paths that contain multiple levels of mastery appropriate for the subject, like we do in gymnastics? For example, could there be forty eight levels of national norms for math? If the schools offered five, nine week sessions a year, giving students the option of enrolling in 4 or 5 of those sessions, each student would have between 52 and 65 sessions in a thirteen year education career to complete forty eight levels of math and however many levels are deemed necessary in other subjects. For example; 48 levels of math and science, 32 levels of social studies and English, 16 levels of composition, etc. Progress through the levels would be based on mastery allowing faster progress in a student’s strong subjects and slower progress when needed. Students would have the opportunity to pass a level in each session. If mastery isn’t reached, the student would enroll in the same level for the next session. Is there anything wrong with a student’s morning class schedule looking like this?
First period: Level 7 math
Second period: Level 10 composition
Third period: Level 9 Social Studies
Or, even this?
First period: Level 5 math
Second period: Level 5 math
Third period: Level 10 Composition
How great would it be for a student who is weak in a subject to be able to take the same class two periods in a row? What an advantage that would be over the current system where a student who falls behind quite often never catches up. How great would it be for teachers to have every student in a class at or near the same ability level? How great would it be for students to have the option of accelerating their education by attending five sessions a year instead of four? When the required curriculum is mastered in each subject, the student would receive a high school diploma. For some that may happen at the age of fourteen. For others it may happen at the age of twenty. But, whatever the age of completion, all diplomas would represent a mastery of the skills required, giving high school diplomas consistency and meaning that they don’t currently have. How great would that be?
While I listened to a teacher explaining how her math curriculum was scripted by a curriculum design company and that every teacher in town was expected to read the same script, ask the same questions and engage in the same activities as every other teacher in that grade level, I became very thankful that our industry is guided by a national curriculum, but allows coaches to coach, individualize our instruction, be creative and do what’s best for the individual child. Progress is based on mastery and assessments are ongoing and meaningful as opposed to a single letter grade every 9 weeks. These comparisons could go on and on, but I really just wanted to make two points. First, we in the gymnastics world are getting it right (not perfect, but right). And second, if mastery learning and progressive education is such a simple concept, why is our education system still clinging to an antiquated and ineffective structure?