Riding on the Bandwagon

ClassroomIt seems as though someone is always trying to “Build a Better Mousetrap” or, in other words, fix education! One of the first “new” programs our District jumped into was the IGE (Individual Guided Education) philosophy which came out of the University in Madison, WI.  This fix-all was designed to promote an ungraded system with the children progressing at their own pace . . . depending upon their level of motivation.  Since it was a considerable change from the “traditional” education we had been providing in the District, only two elementary schools were selected to participate, and lucky us, we were one of the two schools.

Our District agreed to send one teacher to the training sessions held in Madison, WI in the middle of January.  Brrrrr!!!!!  Has anyone ever been to Madison, WI in the dead of Winter?   Well, as luck would have it, I drew the short straw and was designated as the District representative at the workshop.  Gratefully, there were two teachers and a principal from the neighboring district who were also making the trip, so, I was not totally alone.

Upon my return from the IGE indoctrination, it was my dubious honor to spearhead some workshops with our staff to prepare them for the upcoming school term.  As one might guess, there was considerable resistance from some of the older, more seasoned teachers, and there was talk of a mass exodus to the other traditional settings.  The District, so committed, even built their newest elementary school with no classroom walls or obvious divisions between the grade levels.

I am unsure how the groups were established at our sister IGE school, but for us, we divided our student population into a group of 1,2,3 and 3,4,5; there was an obvious overlapping in grade three due to keeping the numbers within the groups similar.  In my group, there were approximately 120 students, 4 teachers, and 2 teacher aides.  Each staff group had to elect a team leader, and since I had had the formal training, once again the short straw was mine.  So, as the youngest member of the staff, I had the responsibility of attempting to guide my staff through a new teaching concept and grouping our students appropriately.

Although the idea of IGE was basically sound, the unintended consequences were not felt until years later.  In our group of 120 students, we had gifted first graders and disinterested third graders.  We had many average students who were content to complete the minimum and just slog along, while there were also those who were satisfied with doing as little as possible and remain stagnant.  The record keeping was a never ending task, and constantly moving students within the groups so that they could always be properly placed was exhausting for the staff.  There are probably those who would disagree with my thoughts on IGE, but, I made it a point to visit with students who were part of that experiment” and their reaction and response was nearly always negative.

For those who were academically prepared, but lacked the physical and emotional maturity of the other students, there was little time for social interaction with children their own age.  Yet, the students who were older, but found themselves working in a group of younger children on skills they had failed to master, felt their self-worth was diminished severely.  While it was an attempt to put students in their skills comfort level, there were so many other aspects of the children’s educational experience that we missed.

As one of the teachers in the District who was transferred to the Middle School when the grades per school were re-established to K-5, 6-8, and 9-12, I encountered many of my former IGE students.  It was then that I saw and had to personally confront how we had failed to provide the stability, feeling of security, and classroom interaction that had always been a part of the elementary experience.  Children at age 6 or 7 are not always self motivated learners.  Too many very capable students struggled with this open concept and individual learning, just as many of our teachers did.

Again, I say, there are surely those who thought IGE to be the cat’s meow.  I don’t fall into that category, however.  Though I could agree there were things about the concept that had merit, the full impact of the shortcomings was felt by those who were subjected to this approach to education.  It’s kind of like the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”!  Sitting in a classroom in rows or groups, as imperfect as it is, offers the stable atmosphere that youngsters crave.  It allows for the social bonds and sets expectations rather than leaving it up to the child to set his own.  And, with a great teacher, one can expect that all skills will be introduced and taught in a systematic and practical manner that helps to create a strong foundation on which the child can build as he progresses through the educational system.

Finally, if the testing programs would take a back seat so that teachers could get back to teaching rather than spending the school year teaching students how to test, then perhaps public education may very well begin to get back on track.  It’s apparent that accountability and measurement of the educational system are both important, but, less emphasis on teaching to the test, and more effort on helping children grasp major concepts and to become critical thinkers should be the emphasis in today’s classrooms.

Jacqueline J. Dierks, Author
Rapid Road to Reading

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