USA: Mark Alter

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Professor Mark Alter - New York University

Prof. Mark Alter discusses inclusion, the importance of social skills and how industry involvement might help transform the design and delivery of education in the 21st century.

Professor Mark Alter is Professor of Educational Psychology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University. He is a highly respected and widely published education specialist who has a particular interest in how education is provided for children with disabilities. His research and speaking engagements have taken him around the world, and his work has focused on how educators can create the right environment and develop teaching methods that meet children's individual needs.

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Inclusion Benefits Everyone

Prof Alter begins by offering a powerful explanation of what motivates his interest in special education:

"My background is working with kids on the severe to profound level of mental retardation. The more severe the student's condition--physically, motorically, cognitively, socially, emotionally--the more this youngster violates everything we take for granted about human growth and development, and the more important education is, and therefore the greater challenge to the teacher and the educational system. And I like that challenge".

As he describes it,

"It has been an interesting career as an educator, curriculum developer, teacher educator and professor, Most important to me is I have tried to be an advocate for the education of all students; an education that prepares all students to think critically and live as independently as possible as a citizen."

Although Prof Alter's work has often focused on special education, he points out that one of the main challenges throughout his career and particularly as the former Chairman of a Department of Teaching & Learning has been:

"...getting people to think of how to teach all children rather than thinking about a disability"

Prof Alter continues, describing a recent trip to Vietnam where he presented a series of lectures on teacher education and inclusion. He explains that:

"Inclusion is not just a special ed initiative, it is looking at special education as a pedagogy and not simply a placement in general education. For example, the teaching and learning of social skills starts in early childhood. Kids learn to play, communicate, and socially interact regardless of any disability, ethnicity, race, or language--they learn that people are different and that's okay! That is why one of the best initiatives going on across the world is inclusion. Pre-school kids with disabilities and pre-school kids without disabilities are together, learning together, acquiring skills to live together and each in their own way are learning to accept differences."

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Assessment: An Episodic Model Of Education

The focus of Prof Alter's work is to define and assess the outcomes of education, and he is interested in understanding those outcomes in terms of how they affect the way people live together, work together, recreate and basically function on a daily basis. There are two big questions: What are schools doing to prepare their students for the future? How do the schools know that what they are doing is working?:

"How do we create a citizen who both supports and contributes to their immediate community and to the wider international arena--someone who has ethics, morals, respect, and appropriate cultural responsiveness?"

When discussing assessment and the efficacy of specific pedagogies and curricula, he raises a concern about the fundamental basis of current testing:

"We're testing what the child has acquired, but we are not testing how the child uses what they have learned, what the long-term effects are. It is an episodic model of assessment--an episodic model of education--and that is what is very scary to me."

He explains that this 'episodic accountability' means that when children graduate from school, their overall progress--how their education serves them after they leave the education system--is never evaluated. For Prof. Alter, this raises fundamental questions:

"'Did we do a good job?' We really don't know. I think school systems and universities may have dropped the ball. We never systematically collect evidence about post school performance that asked the questions what worked what did not work and why?".

And he goes onto express concern that, while children may do well on standardized tests, they may not be prepared to face the complexities of the world. Prof. Alter's argument is that although math, science, social studies and technology are all important tools schools need to provide children with much more: strategies, decision making skills, to know how to use the regular academic tools; children need to learn to think critically which will enable them to act independently.

"All kids need the tools, but they need to know how to use those tools in a moral and ethical way to support their community, their culture, to support other people around the world. Kids are the future and they are and will be decision makers, problem solvers, and I don't think the acquisition of the academic tools is the major problem. No, the real challenge to education is preparing students to specifically use these tools."

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Embedding Industry Thinking In Education Design

Having made a convincing argument in relation to the need to re-think how we assess education--by looking at outcomes beyond mere educational performance--Prof Alter proceeds to explain his conviction that business people and employers need to be directly involved in the design of education:

"Industry, I believe, can play a critical role, not just as givers of dollars, but as partners in both the planning of schools and the dynamics of curriculum. For example, educators and parents in preschool programmes could sit with corporate people to get a view of the importance of social skills, communication skills and decision making and investigate ways of using play as a learning strategy for future behaviour."

Prof Alter believes that accepting that certain skills are a given (e.g., literacy and numeracy), employers are willing and able to develop job-specific skills; it is the softer skills that can be much more difficult to teach:

"Corporations are really well prepared to upgrade skills as long as the kids come in with adequate communication skills, acceptable social skills and are literate".

He is quite clear on what he believes 21st century employers want from their people, and his assertions are backed up by research including the Effective Education for Employment study:

"Can you imagine an industry that says 'we don't want someone who is creative' Why would I want to work there? ... What industry is looking for is to hire someone who can think critically, act independently and go to their boss, and say 'I have an idea'. They want someone who is strategic, someone who knows how to talk on a coffee break, someone who knows how to socialize."

Prof Alter then draws a fascinating comparison between what he describes as a 'factory model of education' and its relationship to factory-based employers, asking if we are no longer preparing people for factory work (arguably the foundation of every educational system), what exactly are we now educating them for and into?

That said, Prof Alter is careful to stress his absolute belief that education should not be about social engineering, and that our systems and curricula need to equip people with the tools they need to make choices about their lives:

"All individuals should receive an education. People should learn about music, art, technology. They should learn about their culture and how other people live. . And if they want to serve French fries in a McDonalds, they should have the right to make that decision and still be seen as a productive member of society and a good citizen. How do you prepare a kid with an understanding that they can control their future -- that they can make choices?"

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Transforming Education

Along with several other thoughtful leaders in this interview series, when talking about reform, Prof Mark Alter challenges some of the very building blocks of the existing US system:

"You have a system that was set up based on an agricultural environment. School started stopped at a certain time of day and year. It was structured around a 10 month agricultural model of society and its economy, which subsequently became almost entirely industrialized. Now if you try to say to schools change--extend the school year by using the summer months, for instance--you run up against a resistant system that does not have the resources or maybe the will to change..."

He believes the structure of the school year inhibits effective education delivery and asserts that

"Education is dynamic, with no time limit or boundaries. So we need to use as many hours as possible--not necessarily in a school building--but it should be ongoing from preschool through adulthood. Education should have a synergy that needs to be understood but not controlled."

For Prof. Alter, the time for attempting to improve education with small, incremental measures is past, and he suggests an entirely different approach to one of the most intractable problems cited by educators everywhere:

"I don't think it's a question of reforming schools, I think it's a question of transforming schools. Class size is a big issue in this country but I think the question is how much variability should exist in a given classroom. How much variability for a topic? How much variability for that teacher? I would argue that certain classes, certain topics, certain teachers, can handle a broad range."

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Barriers To Change And Managing The Risks Of Transformation

Whilst pushing for transformation, Prof Alter also recognizes the complexity and scale of the task and describes some of the barriers that must be overcome:

"I think systems are not future oriented. I think systems are episodic. Systems are dependent on people and the people are episodic. There are so many pieces to it - education doesn't belong to any one group or any one individual, and to get everybody on the same page to go in the same direction... I don't think there is any one silver bullet."

He rejects, however, the idea that more money alone will meet the challenge:

"Now this is going to sound strange, but I don't think money is the issue. We were in Senegal and I have seen some really great programmes in villages ... 30-40 kids sitting in one room , no technology, limited resources, just chairs shared by two students and teachers were teaching and students were learning!"

Echoing previous points made, Prof Alter lays down a challenge to legislators and policy makers by demanding evidence to support calls for increased funding in the school system:

"I think money may be the excuse, but I think it would be interesting to see if we give schools more money, how would they use it and what is the evidence that it is going to give you a better product, a better educated student? If I pay teachers more will they be better teachers? No evidence to support that. If I pay the parents to be more involved, how involved do you want a parent to be?" It is interesting to look at the world of sports--does more money make a better athlete? Or, do athletes play better because there is a significant reward based on their performance?

He continues by describing how it is quite plausible that world events and macro-economic factors may drive the direction of curriculum in terms of education policy:

"I was in public school in 1957, and Sputnik went up. The curriculum in this country changed to more math and science because we feared we were scientifically behind another country."

Prof Alter argues that school systems are inherently reactive, which limits the scope for implementing genuine change:

"I am not sure that school systems are proactive. I think school systems are reactive, and that's why I contend that you need to transform rather than reform--to reform is being reactive, and to transform is to be proactive". And as a result of this stance, he questions the traditional research-based approach. Instead he suggests a 'development and evaluation' approach, believing that by supporting development, innovation and change, then studying what worked, and did not work we can create a dynamic educational system that is simultaneously reactive and proactive. For example:

"Lay out the ideal school system, see who and what matches up to the criteria for that ideal school system, and then evaluate it; not research it, but evaluate it".

Perhaps one of the major barriers to profound change in education is the issue of protecting the cohort of children currently going through the system. How can transformation--potentially turbulent and challenging--be achieved whilst protecting the interests of everyone affected by it?

Prof Alter recognizes this as a legitimate concern and returns to the business world as a source of support and advice:

"If you plan for the future, someone gets hurt in the present, yet are we willing to hurt anybody? If we transform a school, if we close schools, what are the consequences to the student, the family, the school staff? I think the key is how do you build in a synergistic environment that is based on systemic change? And I think this is where the business world can play a very important role. They know how to change a product without losing the market--how to renovate the store and not lose customers."

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Education Is Everything

Prof Alter then takes a step back from our discussion to frame the bigger picture and re-assert his belief in the central role education plays in everyone's lives:

"I must share with you, every society that I have experienced is dependent on education and each society in their own way sees education as the key to the future of their culture. The future of any society is dependent on the education of their children and I fear we have not done enough. And while everyone seems to talk about education and ask how can we fix our schools we still have inadequate salaries for our teachers who are the heart and soul of any school; we don't have an adequate empirical understanding of what works efficiently and effectively in all schools, we have not adequately supported families as a partner in education and we have not agreed on what kids should learn in order to guarantee that they will have the opportunity to challenge their future. If everyone values education, everyone believes in the need to educate all its children and everyone wants to do a better job at education, then what are we waiting for? Unfortunately, maybe we have other priorities."

As our interview draws to a close, Prof Mark Alter shares his vision not of what an ideal system would look like, but of what education could be like for the most important people in this discussion; children:

"Wouldn't it be interesting when something happens, a great soccer game, an election, a great concert, a stock market collapse, whatever it is, instead of following the daily routine of 9.00 to 9.30 doing spelling because the schedule says spelling, the teacher is free to change the schedule and maybe extend the discussion to a full day! Maybe using technology Google the topic, using Google earth visit the site and maybe even send the topic home as a family activity. The teacher ends the day by saying we have just talked about this topic go home, discuss the topic with your family, friends, and neighbors and send me and your classmates an email about what you are thinking. How exciting."

 

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