Throw Away the Cookie Cutters

The opposite of TFA. That's how Tina Seelig described her idea.

The Teach For America (TFA) model is relatively straightforward: take the best and brightest students from undergraduate colleges and universities, give them limited training, and place them in some of the most challenging schools in America. The idea is to get talented young people to commit to a few years of teaching underserved students, and the hope is that these teachers will expand opportunities and improve the education for the young students they teach. TFA has received weighty praise and significant criticism, and it remains a source of both inspiration and controversy in the education world. 

But this post isn't about TFA.

Earlier this week, while I was talking to Tina Seelig, Professor of Practice in the Stanford d.school, she gave me an idea. She described it as "The Opposite of TFA" -- and I love it. She also referred to it as a "Master Teacher" program, but the name isn't important.

Here's the idea:

What if, she asked, we took accomplished professionals, experts in their fields, who were nearing the end of their careers and put them in classrooms to teach students? What if we find people who have achieved demonstrable success, people who are legitimate authorities in their fields or sectors, and had them teach for a term or a year? Wouldn't that be cool?

As we talked about it, the idea developed and took turns. It was a "Yes, and..." sort of conversation, where each idea built off the last one.

What if we enrolled all the professionals in a pedagogy class together, and they could design their lesson plans?

What if, instead of these professionals being stuck in a classroom all alone with only a few weeks of training, we partner them with a teacher who can help them design curriculum and prepare for instruction?

What if we could make it a prestigious program and attract executives, governors, engineers, professors, and lawyers? What if we could make it a prestigious program for the teacher partners, too? 

One of my biggest concerns with the current education system is that the content often feels outdated and irrelevant and boring from the student perspective. "When am I ever going to use this?" is an oft-repeated question in American classrooms from students. One consequence of the standardization of American education is that curriculum is often cookie-cutter, leaving teachers little room to innovate and explore with their students. The teacher and the students suffer in this scenario, and while there are many potential solutions to this problem, one is this great idea. 

I really disliked math in high school, and I suffered through many a math class. I also missed many a math class. But if an executive came in and demonstrated how she used math to run his business, or a former elected official came in and taught how he used math to analyze public budgets -- I would have loved that, and I wouldn't have asked when I would use it, because it would have been self evident. Math would have been less an abstract concept and more of a leadership skill -- and that's the framing I needed to hear, but never did. That's what would have motivated me.

Of course, there are students who similarly needed a relevancy re-frame for social sciences, or for English -- and no doubt a patent holding chemist or the accountant for a Fortune 500 company could have explained how writing skills or qualitative analysis skills were useful in their work. 

Being bored at school is basically an American tradition, but it ought not to be. Making curriculum and instruction relevant, implicitly and explicitly, is a great place to start.