As our society ages, and bureaucratic ossification creeps into our lives more often, we often need to remind ourselves change can be good.
I took that to heart this month.
During April, I decided to try something new. Our writers possess so much intellectual and experience-driven firepower waiting to be tapped, yet I’ve never really asked them a “big-thinking” question. I wanted to ask them a question that should be near and dear to anyone that cares about students and education, yet wide open enough to allow for allow for the responses to be unique and thought-provoking.
Here’s what I settled on. I asked:
I didn’t give them much room to work – only a few paragraphs were allowed for each response. Here are the thoughts from our first group of respondents. I’ve organized the authors in alphabetical order so there’s no favoritism at play – I think all of the ideas are thought-provoking. Hopefully you will find them interesting as well.
Finally, if you’d like to participate in a future roundup post, please let me know. Ok, enough from me – on to our experts!
Fix poverty. It’s that simple. The answer to crime? Fix poverty. Teen pregnancy? Poverty again. Academic achievement? You guess it. Fix poverty. “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” Nelson Mandela’s words, not mine. We dance around poverty as if there is some other solution. There isn’t. So, the greatest and most important change that I would want for public education isn’t something new for the teacher or classroom. No one needs another great education app. No one needs to play another round of Kahoot. The greatest change needs to happen in impoverished communities across the country. And no nickel-and-diming, please. Let’s start with a significant increase in wages. Livable wages. That would be the greatest change you could make in my Southern California classroom. We use the term, “working poor” as if it somehow makes sense, forgetting that poverty is man-made and an act of violence.
A decade or so ago, I couldn’t go a day without hearing about the great public school system in Finland. And, it is a great public school system. No doubt. We could learn a thing or two from them. Fewer hours in the classroom. Minimal homework. Incredible results. They are clearly doing something right. But Finland has a poverty rate of five percent. Poverty in the United States generally hovers between thirteen and fifteen percent. Let’s start there. Give me a national poverty rate of five percent, and significant academic achievement will soon follow.
Encourage Growth Through Safe Failure
If I could change anything in education, I would give students more chances to fail in a safe environment. If we could let our students explore and try new ideas without the worry and burden that failure is the end, then I think we would see some real excitement and wonder come back to the classroom. By learning from their mistakes we would help foster their creativity and inspire them to push the limits of what they think is possible.
So many of my students are consumed with worrying about failing that they can’t even take the first step towards trying something new; they let their fear freeze them. I especially see this around the time of year where they are taking standardized tests; so many are afraid of getting answers wrong and being a disappointment to their teachers, their parents, and themselves, that they forget the joy of learning.
We want our students to be innovative, yet innovation can’t happen without failure. So much of life is not about getting the answers right, it is about asking the right questions and seeing where those questions take us. I wish that education focused more on asking those questions to help students fuel the fire of learning and curiosity instead of stifling it.
Caring On A Personal Level
By far the best way to positively impact education is to have teachers who care about their students on a person-to-person level. When children talk about their favorite teachers to me, it’s to mention the ones who are nice, funny, and who make learning fun (those are their typical words). It takes investment on the teacher’s part to get to know their students. What do they like to do outside of class? How do they like to learn? What are their special talents (that may have nothing to do with class)? These are the teachers who make students want to come to class. These are the teachers who give students the freedom to own their learning and make it authentic and enjoyable in return. They make students feel noticed and valued, something many don’t get outside of the school walls.
So how do we get teachers to care more? We have to make sure they are well-supported, as well. Teachers need to be given time and resources (mostly in the form of quality professional development) to be at the top of their game. When they feel prepared and successful at their craft, it allows them more brainpower to focus on their students as people. When they feel heard, supported, and cared for, they can turn those feelings back to their students.
Rethink “Grade Levels”
Education policies and practices are ingrained in us. Most people in the United States have progressed through traditional schooling, and so everyone is an expert at what school should look like for today’s children. However, there is one practice that I would like to see changed, having the potential to greatly and positively impact our children. I would like to see the traditional model of “grade levels” restructured in schools.
In 2018, most schools are still structured using the Industrial Revolution model of education, where students start at a particular age in kindergarten and continue through the grade levels until they graduate from high school. We base our schooling on age. Students are tested in particular grade levels for state and federal accountability, and it is an expectation that all students master particular skills by a particular age.
However, we know that students progress through skills at different rates. Within one 2nd grade classroom, there could be students still working on early reading skills, such as blending CVC words, where there are others within that same classroom reading chapter books. The gap continues to widen as students get older, forcing teachers to continually differentiate for a variety of levels of skill readiness, but still expected to get students ready for a one-size-fits-all state assessment. It is no wonder many students are disengaged and unmotivated in their learning. Some are frustrated as they struggle and others are not challenged enough. Teachers are doing all they can for every child, begging the question – how does one person meet 25-30 different needs within one classroom?
We may not be able to change our state assessment schedules, but we can change how we look at “grade levels” so we are better meeting the needs of students. By grouping similar-age students together, we can focus on skill sets, designing engaging and interactive lessons based on standards in age-spans. Students should be with their similar-age peers to develop socially, but there are flexible options that many schools are trying that eliminate grade levels to some extent and provide a flexible collection of learning environments that are student-centered and more personalized to learners’ needs. Teachers facilitate and plan learning, focused on standards and skills that progress accordingly.
Essentially, the key will be competency-based learning, allowing students to move on to new learning objectives and skills once they have mastered others. This will take time to create and new philosophies to foster. This mindset can be found in pockets throughout the country, and so for lasting impact on not only every child’s growth but also their love for learning, it is imperative we take a closer look at these models to create schools that meet all students’ needs in new and innovative ways.
Significant Smaller Changes
While the Fractus prompt (“What one change in education would have the biggest impact on students if implemented in 2018-19?”) suggests a grand plan, I would like to propose three slight pedagogical adjustments with the potential to transform the 21st century college classroom, and thus overall learning, in small but significant ways.
Laptops, i-pads, and other devices are considered hallmarks of 21st century learning. However, they can inhibit learning in two ways. First, a recent study (“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Psychological Science, April 23, 2014) found many benefits of hand-written (over computer) note-taking, including: improved listening and concentration, better processing of key lecture points, longer retention of conceptual information, deeper comprehension, and improved test scores. But second, tech can inhibit the overall learning experience in another, less concrete way. Especially in smaller classes, the net effect of students looking down at screens rather than at each other or the professor can be alienation and a lack of community. Making a classroom tech-free can foster a stronger sense of community and the recognition that learning is a shared endeavor.
Gutting the text.
Another aspect of 21st century culture that can inhibit deep learning is the preponderance of the short and superficial: soundbites, bullet points, Twitter, etc. To counter the tendency to surf rather than deep-dive, I advocate a technique called “gutting the text.” Modeled roughly after the ancient Benedictine reading practice of lectio divina, “gutting the text” privileges short, primary text readings (1-4 pages) that students must contemplate, dissect, and annotate, over 50-100 page assignments they will likely skim or even skip. This practice can be applied to any passage the instructor wants students to read deeply, from Descartes to Shakespeare to Junot Díaz.
In an age of distraction, multi-tasking, and noise, students don’t realize they crave silence and stillness until they get a taste of it. In a lesson on Buddhist-Benedictine meditation practices, we tried 5 minutes of in-class silence. At first, many found this difficult. Yet in the end, my students—among them Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and “Nones”—found it useful, and asked that silence be made a regular feature of every class. Furthermore, after the silent period, many students remarked that they could concentrate better on the topic at hand. They were able to “gut the text” more effectively. Practicing silence in the classroom will not work for every course or subject, but it’s worth considering.
I’ll share more as they come in. I hope you enjoyed their work – if you have any additional thoughts please share them in the contents below.