08 July 2014

Beware of Individualized Instruction

Imagine a six year old child sitting in a cubicle for seven hours a day completing workbooks each day all year. When I see some people celebrate computer programs and students working at their own computers, I worry that some children will end up much like I did as a child. Now, I had many irregularities in my k-12 schooling, including the fact that kindergarten through high school graduation, I moved 22 different times in those 13 years and attended 10 schools, including 3 different schools my fifth grade year.  When I started school, I attended a public kindergarten with a teacher who dressed up like a pumpkin for Halloween. By the end of the school year, my parents decided it wasn't best for me to attend a public school where I could be influenced by secular thoughts. So, they enrolled me in a religious school that used ACE curriculum. Let me tell you what that looked like for the next five critical years of my life.  I sat (as did all the other children) in a cubicle for seven hours a day and completed workbooks (called PACES). We were not allowed to talk or turn around in our seats or we would receive demerits that would require us to miss out on our precious 10 minute breaks from the cubicle that were permitted one time in the morning and one time in the afternoon.  The rules were so strict that my young body had difficulty adjusting biologically and I even experienced a humiliating incident.

Each year we had to work through twelve workbooks (called PACES) for each basic subject.  We read passages, answered questions, and memorized passages or scriptures we had to recite orally to the adult monitors. At the end of each workbook we took a test that determined if we had memorized enough information from the workbook and could move on to the next workbook.  This, for the formidable years of my life, was my primary education.  Then, in the middle of fifth grade my family moved a few times.  The first time I again went to a religious school, but the second time, I went to a public school again for the first time since kindergarten.  Not only was I shocked by the non religious surroundings, I didn't know how to interact in a classroom setting either. My world was officially rocked--big time. I was behind academically because all that memorization of facts did nothing to ensure my understanding of fractions, evolution, or A Wrinkle in Time (all new topics I encountered in 5th grade). For the next five years I attended multiple public schools in several different states.  Then in my tenth grade year, I again attended one of those ACE schools and spent all of my tenth grade year in a cubicle memorizing meaningless facts. Fortunately, by then, I had become more well adjusted socially and I made great friends (one with whom I stay in contact to this day). By eleventh grade we were in another new state, and I was back in public school again where I thrived in career tech/business classes and was an active member of the FBLA.  Academically, however, I wasn't at the top of my game.  Sure, my grades were fine, but I took all basic classes and the easiest math and science courses I could to graduate.  My counselor told me I was a hopeless cause and would never go to college. (Boy, did that make me want to prove him wrong--and, of course, I did). Certainly, all the moves contributed to my mediocre academic performance, but I still believe the so-called individualized instruction I received in my early years put me on a pathway to struggle academically. The individualized workbook approach did not work for me at all.

Flash forward twenty years when I observed at a public school and heard the faculty proclaim with great joy how proud they were of the individualized instruction at their school. I walked in to see students sitting at computers completing online modules for their coursework.  I have to admit I shuddered inside because it took me back to those cubicles of my childhood where I had no learning interaction with classmates or a teacher. The only difference I could see was that they were doing their work using technology instead of paper and pencil. 

Earlier this week, when I read this blog post by Chris Crouch about the direction of learning, it reminded me of my childhood and my recent visit to the school where the faculty proclaimed innovative practice with technology. I became a teacher sixteen years ago so I could contribute to better learning systems than what I experienced, and I persist in the education field now because I want more children to have meaningful learning experiences.  Yes, we need innovation, but we also need authentic learning.