The Beast From the Last Chapter

By May 24, 2014Education

I love my hometown. By anyone’s definition it was a small town, about 350 people, and it was the perfect place to grow up. A magical place that still embodies the best that small towns offer. I loved my high school. It was the quintessential Texas school with a stellar reputation for winning basketball teams, close knit friendships and caring teachers. My teachers were great and they really worked hard to do their best by us. I wouldn’t trade my days of youth with anybody.

My high school, like all high schools back in the 70s, utilized the same learning system and the industrial organization style that is still used today. We reported for class when the bell told us to, paid attention to a subject for 45 minutes, dutifully packed up and headed to the next class when the bell told us to do so. Together, we worked our way page by page, chapter by chapter through the textbook, trusting that those textbook publishers knew what was best for all of us. This was Americana education and if it was good enough for our parents and grandparents, it was certainly good enough for us.

I remember something interesting, though. One year, in one of my classes, we didn’t actually get to the end of the book by the end of the year. It was a biology class and we just didn’t have time to cover it all. But, that didn’t matter because the rules were that every red blooded child in America deserved the high school credit if they had served their time. So, even though we didn’t get to some of the information covered in biology, I still received my high school credit.

And, the amazing thing? My high school biology credit stands right beside the high school biology credit of any biology professor or researcher in America. Sure, they may conduct complex experiments and solve intellectual riddles that have puzzled man for centuries. They may cure disease and they may discover new frontiers. But if you slap their high school transcript up against mine, I have the same credentials they do in high school biology. Sure, I didn’t cover all of it but that doesn’t matter in Americana education, the final bell rang on the final day and I had done the time. Give me my credit and let me go to the lake.

And, the scary thing? I’ve lived with a deep fear since then that one day I’ll be deer hunting, walking through the woods and I’ll hear a low menacing growl up ahead. Rounding a corner, I’ll see it. A beast I’ve never seen before, never heard of before, never even imagined existed before that day. Some terrible mix of bear, cougar and hog. All rolled into one wild beast that has one intent: destroy me. And, me? I could defend myself in a normal situation….but this? This is no normal situation. Sure, if it had been the usual wild animal, I would have known what to do. But, this isn’t the usual. This is something I’ve never known was even a part of this world. This…….this……..this must have been covered in the last 75 pages of my high school biology book. Oh, if only I had known. If only we had gotten to that chapter. The textbook publishers tried to warn me but we didn’t have time. What good does that credit now do me when I’m alone in the woods with the “Beast From the Last Chapter”?

Recently, I was speaking to a graduating class at their commencement ceremony. This class was graduating from a school dedicated to mastery based learning systems. In their courses, they covered all of it, everything. In each subject, they could not move to next levels in their course until they had successfully mastered the information and content at the current level. So, there was no skipping, no missing pieces and no negotiated “passing”. They had covered it all. Their credit for the course was not determined or controlled by a clock, a teacher or a calendar. They had mastered the course content.

Mastery based learning should, and has to, become the bottom line standard for everything we do when it comes to content learning. It’s important. I know the arguments. It’s just facts and information. But that information should be learned. There has to be a foundation base of content that should be learned and we cripple students when we stick it in an industrial assembly line system that subjects the learner to clocks and calendars.

Some kids have the cognitive capacity to learn this quickly and easily but the clock and calendar keeps them on schedule with everybody else. You can’t get your credit in February. What on earth will you do in March? And, heaven forbid you finish that course in December because the state won’t let you take your state assessment until April.

Some kids need a little more time and opportunities to learn it but they have to stay up with everybody else. The end of the semester is coming and we have to keep up. So, even though they could succeed with the time and opportunity, the clock and calendar keep moving and it doesn’t matter if you didn’t get to go deep enough to really learn. Just get enough of it to pass the test. Sure, you won’t actually remember much of it later but it doesn’t matter. You had the grade on the last day. Get your credit and head to the lake.

The majority of kids? They just learn the system. It’s clocks and calendars.

I loved my high school and I loved my teachers. Wouldn’t trade any of it. But, what I don’t love is the industrial system from 1973, 1954 and 2008 that still acts like we don’t live in a new era. This is a new pioneer world of opportunity and we have to be smart enough to leverage every piece of it to transform our educational system.

There is a way. Hopefully, we’re getting there. But it’s a struggle even suggesting anything outside the established system. And, even when we hear something “revolutionary”, often upon close inspection, it’s just another smoke screen that looks cool but simply supports and slightly enhances the entrenched “teaching” system and doesn’t risk actually stepping into true “learning” systems.

I told the graduates that, as credible as my high school biology credit was, their credit was better. They should be proud and they should know that in their mastery based learning system, they could be sure they had actually covered it all. And, I hope that one day, should I ever round that corner out there and come across that beast, one of those graduates is right there with me. Just to make sure we get out alive.