Educational Buffet


Truthfully, I really like buffets. I always eat more than I should and usually more of the food that I shouldn’t be eating to begin with. I like these kinds of restaurants because I can load up on those items that are the tastiest to me and I can skip over the foods that are not my favorite – that is the true beauty of dining at a buffet.

What if a buffet restaurant opened up that had all of the very best food, we’re talking top of the line ingredients used in each of the food groups, all prepared by the best chefs. But, they have a new business model – you can eat as much as you want after you’ve had the required helping of every item on the grand buffet. Would customers like that? Would they stay in business?

Welcome to our public education.

Just like restaurant customers, some students may like to take a variety classes and the opportunity to explore, while others are most certainly turned off. Consequently, our students are going to other restaurants to eat from that can provide exactly what they want, when they want it – YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, social media…take your pick. Learning is happening everywhere and at any time our kids want it.

I think it is because of those darn Carnegie credits – a product of the turn of the century educational reform (19th to 20th century, like 115 years ago). This concept was reinforced in the summary of an educational report in 1983, you may have heard of it, A Nation at Risk (some 30 years later many would say that we still are). This is where we were first introduced to the concept of students being required to take 4 years of English, 3 years of Math, 3 years of Science, 3 years of social studies, etc…and look where we are today. (The description below doesn’t quite sound like the noble ideas of education that we think of…)

“Today, the Carnegie Unit [is] a cornerstone to the administration of higher education institutions. As higher education is undertaken by the ‘masses’ in the United States, these tools provide the ability to manage and compare students, faculty, and institutions. These units continue as the basis for evaluating student entry into college, and for determining student completion of course work and degrees. Faculty workload, efficiency, and evaluation are rooted in these units. And comparison among institutions, such as that undertaken by U.S. News & World Report, relies heavily on these units.” (Wikipedia – yeah, I quoted Wikipedia, English teachers everywhere are cringing…)

But the world has changed in the past 30 years, right? Has secondary education?

The main reason for our failure to stay current with this concept is that we are afraid of the possibility of upsetting someone’s apple cart. We hide behind the fear that a change to graduation requirements could possibly reduce enrollment (code for “reduce teachers”). I beg to differ – allowing kids to pursue their passions in focused areas of choice would simply re-apportion the student population.

What if schools, instead of requiring all kids to take one semester of a business elective (and forcing many semesters in other contents) we could simply reduce the specific course requirements across the board. This would allow for the student who is passionate about business careers the opportunity to take multiple business courses every year. This could potentially increase enrollment in content areas of students’ passion.

(Let’s allow the students to eat more of the chicken and mashed potatoes and not force-feed the small bites of that weird pink gelatin, the bean salad, dry carrot cake, and the week-old, lemon-garlic catfish.)

As many are aware, there is an expanding interest in providing more individualized, student-directed learning plans and programs. What do the following educational buzz-word initiatives have in common? Flipped classrooms, online or blended learning, 1:1 programs, high quality career and technical programs, and career pathways in secondary schools, Google’s 20% time…student choice! (See previous blogs – “College and Career Readiness” Needs a Makeover & We Just Can’t Keep Up)

What do you think?

  • Do your students’ interests vary? Do your requirements?
  • What institutional walls need to come down in order to make individualized learning a reality?
  • As educational leaders, what courageous decisions do we need to make?

One final thought…

When I was younger, my parents did what most parents do; they forced me to eat my vegetables. On one particular occasion I recall them saying “You’re not leaving this table until you’ve eaten all of your bean soup!” I told them it would end bad…sure enough, I got sick; they had to clean it up.

In schools across our country we are forcing kids to eat something deemed “good” for them that they don’t really like – and for many, may not truly need. Kids are getting sick from our educational practices and we are just trying to keep up with the clean-up.

One day we’ll learn our lesson and start listening to what so many of our kids are telling us. Then we’ll really begin to make a difference.

3 thoughts on “Educational Buffet

  1. My first instinct: Yes! Let’s allow our students to pursue areas of study that they find interesting. Let’s build in more flexibily to allow students to explore and to discover.

    But… Then I think: “Well… How can a kid know she doesn’t like green beans if she never tries green beans?” I believe a broad education in the humanities provides students with knowledge that provides valuable cultural capitol, challenges that encourage criticial thinking, and experiences that build community. In the process, students can explore a variety of disciplines and ways of thinking, and hopefully find an area of study they wish to pursue in more depth, both in high school and beyond.

    Is a middle ground similar to the system in the UK? Students take two years of survey-style classes, and then spend the last two years studying a smaller number of subjects in more depth. This is paired with a high-stakes testing system that I would find troubling, but I like that students can be exposed to a wide variety of experieinces, and then are allowed to specialize in subjects they may want to pursue as a career. (And, I guess I’m biased: It worked well for my parents.)

    Also… What role do the nation’s universities play in this? Many of our graduation requirements are essentially dictated to us by college admissions requirements. How can we get the university system involved?

  2. Taking student choice to the entire system is very bold. It needs to start in the classroom first. Why can’t each Friday of a math or science class be an investigation into a topic a student suggests? How can we make the “requirements” serve the students better so that they can see their value?

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