Alone and Misunderstood

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin's recent article in The Atlantic titled "Alone in the Classroom" initially struck a chord with me, particularly when they said, "A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. The majority of American teachers plan, teach, and examine their practice alone." But then Mirel and Goldin blew it by saying:

So what would it take structurally to enable teachers to work collaboratively for improved learning outcomes?

Perhaps the most important change is in school curricula. One of the key differences between public education in the U.S. and elsewhere is the lack of a common curriculum. In other countries common curricula unite the work of teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, students, and parents. With a common curriculum there is agreement about what students are expected to learn, what teachers are to teach, what teacher educators are to instill in potential teachers, and what tests of student learning should measure.

A common curriculum for the nearly 100,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. could be a major step towards productive teacher collaboration.

No—a common curriculum won't improve teaching, and the things that will don't need a common curriculum. To understand why, have a look at another article in The Atlantic from last December titled, "What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success", which is based in part on Pasi Sahlberg's book Finnish Lessons. Sahlberg and others believe that the key to Finland's success are (a) the fact that teachers are respected as professionals in a way they no longer are in North America, and (b) the fact that when they say, "No child will be left behind," they actually mean it:

It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important—as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform—Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

The question of how much commonality in the curriculum should be enforced vs. how much freedom instructors should have to adapt to local needs is clearly relevant to Software Carpentry, particularly when we start thinking about standards for responsible conduct of computational research. More important, I think, are the questions of professionalism and equity: how do we develop a cadre of instructors who know what to teach, and how to teach it, and how do we level the computational playing field so that everyone doing research has a fair shot at acquiring and using these skills?

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