Five Ways to Make Classrooms Centers of Reform
Editor's Note: In today's education reform landscape, there is an emphasis on making change through systems-level policies. However, as David Andrew Tow, an English and social-science teacher at Terra Linda High School and the Marin School of Environmental Leadership in California, explains, smaller reforms at the classroom level can be impactful as well.
By Guest Blogger David Andrew Tow
In my 10-plus years of classroom teaching, I have gotten a chance to collaborate with ambitious and innovative policymakers and change agents from all levels of education across the globe. I have walked the streets of Jerusalem's Arab Quarter and discussed multicultural education with activists building Jewish-Muslim elementary schools. I met Turkish community leaders in Stuttgart who were candid about the need to retain their cultural identity while also participating in broader German society. More importantly, I have met hundreds of teachers with wonderful, inspiring, and useful experiences that carry their own vital takeaways. Unfortunately, partially because of the difficulty of implementing education policy and partially because of the competing demands of school staff, those innovations rarely, if ever, make it to the classroom.
In the current political climate, where high-level policy solutions are either stymied or slow in coming, perhaps teachers, researchers, and those in the broader education community globally ought to look smaller and focus more closely on the site of instruction. I argue that if we focus on the classroom as the location for reform, not only will the changes be more immediate and widespread, but also the students—the true and only constituency in education that matters—would benefit.
Here are five strategies for classroom-level reform:
1. Scale Down the Takeaways
The appeal of system-level reform is significant, and most education programs I am familiar with around the world aim at governmental solutions, such as legislative action, district-level policy shifts, or developing the perspectives of education department workers. However, the most useful strategies are ones that have far less ambitious desired outcomes. All of us in the education community can easily rattle off a handful of changes we would make tomorrow; however, we must resist the temptation to aim for these big changes. There is something to be said for incrementalism, and if we can enact change at the classroom level, then the students will have a richer learning experience. In education, practicality and utility trump magnitude on most days. I have written before about my frustration upon my return from Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher at the lack of acceptance of international best practices in the United States. But now, three years later, I have implemented many, if not most, of the classroom-level changes I hoped would be possible. Rather than deploying them all simultaneously, I unrolled them one by one, communicated what I was doing differently and why to students and their parents, and explained my process to colleagues who expressed interest.
2. Make It Clear and Free of Jargon
Too often, education reforms are couched in the same kind of academic jargon that defines any other specialized field. While this language is vital for scholarship and useful for conversation, because education exists as a space shared by theorists, practitioners, and constituents, it might be more advantageous to discuss reform, especially reform at the classroom level, in plain English and in terms of specific changes rather than philosophical shifts. This is especially challenging for teachers like me who enjoy participating in abstract conversations about theory and policy, but it does little to make our broader mission easier and often serves as a barrier for those outside academic settings who could be allies. For students especially, sophisticated language makes them think the conversation is not for them. At my school, where we have a large population of first-generation students and an even larger population of parents with limited English proficiency, our ability to communicate to them in a way that seems inclusive and positive directly correlates to how involved they remain in the school community and how important they view their students' success here. Conversations about PISA scores, German-style vocational training, or polyglot multiculturalism are intimidating for everyone except the people who coined those terms. From my vantage, educators would be well served by sacrificing sophistication for accessibility.
3. Import the Teacher-Researcher
American teachers largely do not participate in active research. Perhaps it has to do with workload, the hierarchy within education, or the isolation of the profession. It is no secret that, for the most part, our classrooms, subjects, and grade levels operate as independent principalities many days. However, given the right set of strategies, systems, and a way to assess their effectiveness, even the most isolated teacher can produce a significant and meaningful body of reflective research. Therefore, I propose that we rehabilitate and restore the role of the teacher-researcher, where teachers use their classrooms as laboratories to experiment with and incorporate best practices from other countries and then share the results of this research with others. Too often, good ideas stay in the classroom and do not make it back to the wider educational community. Good ideas, regardless of nation or context of origin, deserve to be shared widely, experimented with, and modified freely and frequently. That, to me, is the heart of the international education reform community and what I love most about it.
I am currently blessed with teaching four sections of the same class and tend to vary my delivery and lesson structure each time using a different method I have seen in my research, gained from a contact, or learned about online. I will often, for example, alter either the content, objectives, or instructional strategies between my classes. This kind of adaptation is common. However, from there, I will discuss and examine the results of these various approaches with my students‐often in the next class—and identify both successes and failures, as well as things to remember for next time. More frequently, I will try and situate these effective approaches within a broader conversation with my students about reform. I want them to recognize that school reform is not a distant task but one that occurs in our classroom.
4. Students Are Researchers, Too
As a corollary, teachers and other educators must remember that students can be active participants in the research process as well. Of course, students are limited by their age, experiences, and perspective, but the same can be said for many adults. Involving students explicitly in design, execution, and reflection is largely inspired by Paulo Freire's critical pedagogy but also works without the political overtones. It means being clear and direct with the students about the how and why of a particular strategy as it is being deployed. At its best, using this approach, students are driving and guiding the curriculum. Teachers, I have found, are very good at being responsive to student needs, whether it is in terms of content or structure. For the implementation of broader or different goals, use student behavior and performance to evaluate how well a particular method works. At its best, this approach allows students to become policymakers, organic intellectuals capable of offering nuanced solutions to complex, real-world problems. For example, after a recent meeting with the new Finnish minister of education about how to meaningfully address the growing cultural difference within Finnish schools, I brought the scenarios back to my classrooms to brainstorm solutions with students. Combined, my students have decades of experience living, learning, and thriving in wildly diverse environments and have more in the way of practical wisdom than I. I did not use every one of their suggestions in my proposal, but they helped shape my thinking and gave me greater insight into how my own class works.
5. Ask the Experts and Look at Outcomes
Lastly, it is important that teachers, regardless of location, level, or subject, look beyond the lesson plan and learning day. For those of us participating in the international education community, we have a worldwide network of experts—fellow teachers, administrators, researchers, policymakers, and professionals—who can help verify and modify our work. It is one thing to walk down the hall and see if German-style oral-language practice is being properly implemented; it is another thing to call or email a colleague in Germany to check. The goal is not to be borrowing and incorporating these practices with fidelity. Instead, it is the outcomes that matter. Verification from colleagues near or far can lend perspective on practices and confirm what works and why. At the end of the day—or school year—that is the most important thing.
This kind of cross-border collaboration is fun. Not only does it make our students ready for the world outside the school doors, a world where globalization and legislation have made distances feel smaller, but it also teaches them to be reflective, flexible, and critically engaged in their own learning—at least if we do it right. It is my hope that the best strategies gleaned from abroad are the ones that make it to the classroom and that we can help our students realize this, too—and, as a result, they and we become adults who are even more invested in the lifelong project of global cooperation.
Image created on Pablo.