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The Uneven Landscape is a Given

By Bill Madigan

The rocking boat which we ship our students off to can be likened to the immigrant experience: there are new customs, rules and a whole new language.  Technology is always flexing and morphing into greater complexity, and the vocabulary of the day is always changing.  This is a burden of which we are all familiar: Google, Twitter, Moodle, Yahoo, Skype, and on and on.  We also suffer from these ever-shifting sands whenever we get a new phone or computer.  My tech-savvy friends call many of us “non-native” digital speakers.  Ironically, I have taught English language learners, yet I am not a “native” to this brave new world; at 53, this world is new to me.  However, our youth must become “native speakers” because these new technologies and the language that goes with them are the tools of their age.

Thirty-three percent of all American jobs are “contract-based” – no permanency – thus, our students must not only learn a new ever-changing language, but also must come to terms with the new norm of temporary work.  An ex-student of mine, Matt, is one of the growing numbers of native tech creators and tech leaders.  He recently graduated from a college near Seattle.  He says that since he graduated he has yet to be offered a permanent job, and this is true of all of his tech acquaintances.  In fact, he is slowly accepting the possibility that he may always need to move from contract to contract in a similar fashion to that of farmworkers - following the seasons and crops.  In his CNN article, "Are Jobs Obsolete?", Douglas Rushkoff discusses this new world of work,  “This sort of work isn’t so much employment as it is creative activity.  Unlike Industrial Age employment, digital production can be done from the home, independently, and even in a peer-to-peer fashion without going through big corporations.  We can make games for each other, write books, solve problems, educate and inspire one another.”

Thus, we need to give our students a new experience in the classroom: one that is cross-disciplinary, team-based and which allows for creativity and autonomy.  As I stated in my book with Gary Kroesch, "What We Need to Face in American Education," we need to balance “personalization” with “standardization.”  Allow students to face problems and to solve them alone and in collaboration.  As a result, “critical thinking” must now become a new standard – not memorizing bits of information, which is what the plethora of high-stakes standardized tests have emphasized.  As a nation, we were number one in the world 20 years ago in critical thinking.  Today, measured by the same instrument, we are 24th out of 28.  We must engage our youth in more problem solving and project-based learning.  While we make this shift, we should attempt to embed important learning standards into these project- and inquiry-based approaches. 

By the way, this philosophy of learning is not new.  For over 100 years, the Cal-Poly schools in California’s State University system have as their guiding principle “learning by doing.”  On the other side of the continent, MIT calls it “connecting the hand to the head.”  We can learn much from these successful institutions.

Sir Ken Robinson, a noted educational philosopher, calls this “new” approach to learning the “Agricultural” model as opposed to the common and traditional “Industrial” model.  Instead of packaging students in classrooms based on their collective date of “manufacture” and artificially separating the subject areas and teaching “standardized” curricula, Robinson says educators need to be more like farmers who create the optimal environment for learning.  The students are allowed to make their own meaning and grow according to their own needs and capacities: “Personalization.”  AVID has several structures and approaches that illustrate this approach: Socratic Seminar, where the teacher is somewhat removed and is more of a facilitator of learning; Philosophical Chairs is another approach, which is at its core “student-centered.”  Indeed, the core of the AVID Elective – the tutorial – is another agricultural structure that allows students to grow and challenge each other.  The teacher becomes the “guide on the side,” and responsibility of learning and problem solving becomes the student’s.

Looking for more?  Read Bill Madigan’s previous blog, Sending Students to Barcelona with a map of San Diego, and check here for future posts coming soon!


Bill Madigan has a Masters degree in Humanities (M.A.L.A.) from San Diego State University and has been a high school teacher for 23 years.  As a high school teacher, he has taught English, ESL and AVID.  He also has taught all grade levels from ninth through twelfth grade as well as varied student populations from the emotionally disturbed and at-risk students to Advanced Placement and honors. He has also taught college courses on educational theory. 

He has been a staff developer both privately and with the AVID organization for over 16 years, training teachers across the United States.  His training focus has been best practices for English Learners as well as “brain based” learning.  Mr. Madigan aims to balance curricular strategies and activities with the emotional-relational and cultural aspects of learning and teaching.

He is currently an A.P. English teacher, and he is also the staff Mentor teacher at Steele Canyon Charter High School near San Diego California.  He continues to give lectures and train teachers across the U.S.  Bill can be contacted [email protected]


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Reader Comments (4)

Lots of food for thought here. With the continued (and continual) emphasis and reliance on technology, our approach to education must adapt by shifting from teaching students specific facts to teaching them how to learn, in essence, teaching them how to "teach" themselves maximizing the use of technology to achieve this requisite goal in our ever-evolving, competitive world. As a personal aside, it's nice to read a blog from someone who "gets it."

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterajs

Right on - I couldn't agree more!

November 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Semik

My main worry is that even if the learning environment could change to be like this, the college board would need to change with it. If the college board doesn't change its testing standards, teachers will continue to have an environment lacking much individualism. If a student wants to get into a college or university, they must do well on their SATs and often pass AP tests, both of which have vast amounts of non-analytical questions. It seems the students are often looked at as no more than a number, and this leads to conformity. I hope what I am saying is put together right and makes sense... Our education system needs to change, but shouldn't it start with the college board, and not the teachers who are required to teach college board material?

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Doolittle

This is spot on. If you ask most high school students, they hate coming to school. One side of me thinks that they hate school because they're annoying, ungrateful teenagers who are uninvolved and bored and only want to drink and smoke. Another side of me says wait, I hate school too. Every single person is different. School teaches us that lesson but doesn't practice what it preaches. We are told to be tolerant and accepting, but we are all treated in the same way. We all learn the same thing and get tested on the same thing. Why? if we all have different personalities, why are we all treated the same way? It may seem unethical, but teachers need to learn how to play to each students individual need. It's not going to be easy, but it could cause major changes. Let's try it :)

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHaley Moss

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