If Education Is to Succeed . . .

Meeting the Needs by John Adsit

The person who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it on.

I got that saying off of a coffee mug years ago, but I think it more accurately sums up the most prominent thinking of American educators than any other statement I know. Sure, we know of the well-documented problems with the results of our educational system, but no matter who we are, we can identify someone else, often several someone else’s, who is really at fault. We ourselves would be doing a topnotch job if not for . . .

And a lot of that is true. There is plenty of blame to be spread around the system. The problem is that since we are surrounded by such wonderful scapegoats, it is easy to feel comfortable in our own processes, even when the people and forces we are blaming are in turn pointing their fingers at us. Even worse, a corollary to the statement from the mug might be that if we know ahead of time that we have someone to blame, we really don’t have to make any effort to succeed.

mug with inscription: The person who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it on

Perhaps the most thoroughly blamed individuals are the students themselves. Oh, what wonderful educators we could be if only the students would come to the classroom properly prepared and motivated! Once again, much of that is true. Teachers in inner city schools struggle with horrific challenges, and it would be easy to develop a “What’s the use?” attitude, give up, and just go through the motions. Ironically, the opposite is also true. Many teachers in affluent communities can essentially phone in their lessons with the knowledge that the students will still somehow succeed without us, at least by our conventional standards of measure.

But studies over the last two decades have shown that individual teachers are succeeding far beyond their peers in the same troubled schools with the same students, year after year after year. Studies over the past two decades have shown that in many affluent high schools with impressive achievement results, the students actually lost ground when compared to their level of achievement when they entered the schools.

Educational leaders today call in unison for teachers to adapt their teaching to meet the educational needs of the students, but that call is not well heard in a typical classroom, especially at the secondary and post secondary levels. There the dominant mode of instruction is still generic delivery of information with the hope that the student will somehow master most of it. Before we can truly begin to meet the needs of our students, we must have the will to do so and the belief that it matters. Once we have that, we can begin to talk about the instructional strategies that can make it happen.

If online education is to realize its potential, it cannot have a goal of creating pale imitations of failed classroom practices.

Technology, especially the technology related to online education, is often touted as the great hope for meeting the needs of a diverse student population. It does indeed have that potential, but before it can do that it must understand those needs and find new and innovative ways to meet them.

One of the first commercially developed online education programs created videotapes of college professors lecturing in huge lecture halls, with their presentation slides taking up much of the screen and their talking heads streamed in the upper corner. It was a predictable failure–predictable, at least, to people who understand the needs of students.

If online education is to realize its potential, it cannot have a goal of creating pale imitations of failed classroom practices. It must instead use its resources to create a totally new approach, one that accentuates the positive of its approaches and eliminates the negative to the greatest degree possible. In this column I hope, in effect, to create a generic RFP for the kind of educational services we need in the future of online education. I may not have all the answers, but I do hope I can ask some of the right questions.

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