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The Voice of Ted Sizer Lives On

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman, the former writer of the Coalition for Essential Schools' journal Horace and the co-founder of What Kids Can Do. Her most recent book is The Motivation Equation

Can you remember when "personalized" learning arrived on the scene? When you first thought of teachers as coaches and students as active producers of knowledge? When we started to reshape curriculum around important cross-disciplinary questions and collaborative projects? When the call first went out for young learners to present and defend their work to a juried panel rather than just fill in the bubbles?

Beneath the rising call for "deeper learning" -- on the part of students and teachers alike -- many of us hear, like a basso continuo, the voice of Theodore R. Sizer, who died just five years ago, on October 21, 2009.

The Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) that he founded in 1984 began a creative groundswell of educators who saw profound inequities and a destructive passivity in the structures and practices of "factory-model" schools. The organization remains active today through regional centers and an annual Fall Forum that draws many hundreds of educators nationally.

Ted Sizer did not offer a "model," but rather a set of common principles that could guide schools in widely diverse local contexts. His rejection of "seat-time" in favor of learning in authentic contexts and exhibitions of mastery buttressed our era's embrace of "anytime, anywhere" learning. His insistence on knowing students well and developing their "habits of mind" foreshadowed today's emphasis on social and emotional learning. "Less is more," he declared of a curriculum so broad that it lacked meaning. It was his equivalent of "Go deep."

Over three decades, the movement that Sizer called a "conversation among friends" gave rise to many schools and networks that bore witness to his vision. Under the banner of "deeper learning" they carry on his legacy. And--just as he hoped--they continue to articulate and refine the many paths to powerful teaching and learning. "No two students are exactly alike," Sizer would say, in his frequent visits to schools. "It's terribly inconvenient, but there it is." Of course, the same applies to schools. Yet in the variety of "deeper learning" networks, we can see the "essentials" shining through.

  • Expeditionary Learning schools emphasize high-level student work for outside audiences in authentic settings.
  • The High Tech High network makes an art form of interdisciplinary projects and has launched a vibrant school-based graduate school of education.
  • Big Picture schools support "one student at a time" in a highly individualized process with workplace mentorships at its center.
  • In the Internationals network, immigrant youth collaborate on rich curriculum as they are learning English.
  • ConnectEd links technical skills and workplace experiences with high-level academic demands.
  • Envision Education uses three small urban schools as evidence that "going deep" matters for low-income students nationally.
  • EdVisions has students direct their own learning in a small and supportive environment.
  • The learning management system developed by the New Tech network enables a rich and comprehensive picture of student needs and progress.
  • Asia Society's International Studies Schools curriculum and assessment presses students to act as global citizens.

As Sizer consistently advised, these are not top-down models for schools to "apply." Rather, as each district or school tailors its approach to the uniqueness of its community, networks like these offer a wealth of practical designs, structures, and supports. To turn the tide toward widespread, systemic, sustainable deeper learning in U.S. schools, they are Essential. In honor of Ted Sizer's enduring contribution to that effort, let's keep that a capital E.

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