Dr. Jason B. Huett is the Associate Dean of Online Development and USG eCore and a tenured Associate Professor of Instructional Technology and Design at the University of West Georgia (UWG). He is also the 2012 President-elect of the Distance Learning Division of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). He speaks and presents internationally on topics concerning online learning, school reform, and the future of education. He has also served as a virtual learning consultant for several schools, universities, and corporations. He can be reached at email@example.com. See his blog below.
My seven-year-old son Jack doesn’t really like school. He tests through the roof so intelligence isn’t the issue, and to my knowledge, he has no learning disabilities. For him (like so many others), school is not engaging; it’s not relevant; it’s a boring chore. The last two years have brought almost weekly notes about Jack’s lack of focus, his “squirmy” nature, his talking out-of-turn, and other bad behaviors. In short, Jack was not obedient (to our educational system, it really does not matter why) and that cannot be tolerated in an educational organization that, if we are candid, places its greatest value on discipline and order.
As an educational-insider, I was constantly struggling with an uncomfortable dynamic where I felt forced to confront Jack about his “bad” behavior, chastise him even though I knew it was not all his fault, and spend time trying to get to the bottom of his obedience issues—all the while knowing full well that Jack’s issues were really just a symptom of a much larger problem. Rummler and Brache (1995) in their book “Improving Performance” once famously said, “If you put a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.” Jack was railing against a bad system and losing.
That said, this year has been different.
Last week, I remarked to my wife, “Did you notice that since school started Jack has not complained once about going, and we haven’t seen a single note about bad behavior?” “Yeah” she said. “He really likes his teacher.”
Could that really be it? Could the answer to the past two years of behavior and educational issues really be boiled down to Jack just liking his teacher? Could a key to fixing our broken system be found largely in the interpersonal relationship between teacher and student? The answer, I think, is a resounding “yes.”
To understand why, we need to peel back the onion and really take a look at how our current educational system operates. We have to be brutally honest. Learning has become cold, clinical, detached—something that can only be measured by big data. K-12 Education is concerned primarily with products and not the process. In truth, our students are treated like “widgets” on a conveyor belt, and our teachers like factory workers. Administrators have become the foremen who direct the assembly line, fixating on efficiency, order, and numbers; then testing the widgets at routine intervals; punishing the teachers when the products are not up to par; and sending the “faulty” widgets back through the same assembly line process that failed them on the first go-round. If you know anything about human psychology or performance, this system seems more than a little crazy.
I try to avoid getting caught up in the hype-machine that is educational reform: new technologies, new tests, vouchers, charter schools, online academies and the list goes on and on. Each innovation making dubious cause and effect claims and promising to revolutionize the way we conduct education and then, inevitably, falling short of its lofty promises.
The situation with my son Jack serves as a reminder that we cannot lose sight of the fact that the real crux of educational reform is in the interaction between teacher and student. Jack likes his teacher. She gets him; he gets her; behavioral issues evaporate and learning ensues.
You want to fix education? Let’s start with helping teachers do a better job bonding with their students by keeping class sizes down. Let’s give teachers the time, the training, the space, and the respect as professionals (who, let’s again be honest, often spend more time with our kids than we do) to develop the kind of relationships with kids that we know make a difference. Let’s throw a wrench into the assembly line, shred the conveyor belt, and reassess our priorities when it comes to how we want our teachers to interact with our kids. Let’s spend less time fixating on the newest factory technology or standardized widget test and more time on creating a system that puts the interaction between students and teachers at the heart of educational reform—where it belongs.