Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Miracle of the Kidney Shaped Table

With very little fanfare, a game-changing technology has quietly taken root in many American classrooms. The kidney-shaped table, as humble as it may seem, has become a key innovation, used by teachers to manage their classrooms because of it’s astounding ability to multiply time.

When Hermione Granger saved the day in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by pulling out her Time-Turner, enabling her and Harry to go back in time, everyone probably just assumed it was another example of that silly wizarding fantasy stuff those movies were full of, because of  course you can’t manipulate time.

But the kidney-shaped table gives teachers a sort of Time-Turner that allows them to create extra time in their classrooms. By simply dividing students up into groups and rotating the groups up to the kidney-shaped table for work that is customized to their current academic levels, the teacher can actually multiply her efforts and solve that pesky but persistent problem of never having enough time to help each student.

OK, I realize this has begun to sound ridiculous, because of course you can’t actually multiply time. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one has too exactly attempted to sell the idea of using kidney-shaped tables as a means of multiplying time. It has, however, been over-hyped as a simple solution to a complex problem. Perhaps one might make the case that overselling the innovative capabilities of the kidney-shaped table is a harmless promotional trick for a strategy that might in fact have some value. On the other hand, I would make the case that this simplistic answer to the complex issues of meeting the individual needs of students causes us to believe we’ve solved a problem when all we’ve done is put lipstick on a pig.

I’m even willing to concede that using kidney-shaped tables could be a part of the solution to how we effectively meet individual student’s needs. As a strategy, though, it has a major fault: it doesn’t actually increase the amount of attention that a teacher can focus on an individual student when you take into consideration all of the students a teacher is normally responsible for at any one time. In fact, I think it is fair to say that it doesn’t improve the teacher’s ability to individualize instruction, but rather what it does is decrease the teacher’s ability to supervise student seat work. It isn’t that difficult to institute a reign of terror in your classroom and insure that the students working at their desks don’t make any noise while you are working with the group at the kidney-shaped table. What is considerably more difficult–I am reluctant to use the word impossible because it is so absolute–is to insure that the students working at their seats use their time productively. No matter how you slice it and dice, it is impossible to add time without adding actual time, so simply introducing a new means of grouping doesn’t increase either individual attention from the teacher or time on task.

We have come to the point of hoping that a simple piece of furniture and a strategy for grouping students will have a more profound effect than it can possibly have because we have locked ourselves into beliefs that prevent us from thinking creatively enough to truly have the sort of impact we would like to have. We have for decades, been chained to the age-graded, heterogeneously grouped classroom, and have become unable to think outside the box that puts us in.

Those of us who deal with students who don’t fit, the round pegs in the square holes, have felt the frustration. School systems, as presently constituted, rather quickly run out of options for students who are struggling, and are forced to place students in settings where we know they will not get the kind of support they will likely need and in which they will be extremely unlikely to rise to their full potential. We have schools that are designed for the system, not the kids.

Why can’t some teachers teach small groups of students who need more attention while others teach much larger groups with students who can benefit from large group instruction? Why on earth do we begin teachers with the full responsibility for a classroom of students instead of working under a master teacher to perform entry level tasks?  In fact, why can’t we have a graduated pay system, with teachers hired at differing levels of development and working at different levels of responsibility?

Unless taxpayers are willing to pay a lot more taxes, we are going to have to get comfortable with ideas like these and many more like them if we ever expect to truly meet the needs of students instead of expecting them to adapt to the needs of the school system.

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