Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Some musings on the summer readings

In the Upper School History Department we have devoted a lot of time over the last decade to the themes brought up in these two readings as we transitioned from what was a very Western-centered curriculum to one that is much more global in focus. I personally am a big believer in the idea that we need to train our students to be prepared for a much more inter-connected world than most of us grew up in. And, like Lizanne, I also appreciated the authors' efforts to show that "global competence" isn't achieved simply through learning a new language and learning the history of other countries. Global understanding is best achieved when it becomes a shared theme across disciplines, and it is about the kinds values we instill in our students as much as the actual material we teach them.

That said, two bullet points from the preface of the Asia Society reading on Global Competence really resonated with me:

 "Despite scattered calls for 21st-century skills and knowledge, there is no deep desire for such innovative education on the part of most families, or most citizens. We have nearly all been to school, we think we know what it should be like, and school approaches appearing markedly different from the "known" rarely find a favorable response in the community. At most, innovations are tolerated as long as they lead to adequate performance on traditional measures."

 "Even when there is both the desire and the policy for a 21st-century education, our assessments are almost all geared for classical subject matter knowledge and almost never offer the means to assess the flexible, cooperative thinking that is the hallmark of interdisciplinary thought."

I have found those two obstacles to curriculum change to be particularly frustrating. For every exciting new development in our classes or programs, there is often the accompanying need to reassure students and their parents that the students will still be successful on all of the various standardized tests necessary for the college process. And those tests have remained pretty traditional in their focus (ie lots of multiple choice questions). In other words, I feel there is community support for change in our curriculum – as long as the kids still get good test scores and their college applications won't be compromised. I imagine teachers in public schools often feel the same pressures from the MCAS as well.

On a more positive note, the US History AP exam is undergoing a major shift away from the relentless pursuit of endless facts and towards more critical analysis of documents and other primary sources (as I understand it – others in my department know more!). I would love to see more shifts like this in the world of standardized testing and college admissions, as I think right now we as teachers still face a tricky balancing act between the "flexible, cooperative thinking" advocated in these readings and the realities of the kinds of tests are kids are being asked to take outside of our curriculum. Obviously we never want to feel we are teaching to any particular test or the perceived needs of a certain college, but it's also tough to ignore those pressures entirely.


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