Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Shifting The Pedagogical Focus



In a recent article published on The Guardian "In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant" by George Monbiot, I was especially impacted by the statement, "At present we are stuck with the social engineering of an industrial workforce in a post-industrial era." The significant impact on me here is the accuracy with which this statement is characterized in our schools on a daily basis. As technology and innovation continues to grow at unprecedented rates, I am consistently experiencing students being taught through 19th century methods and structures. Students continue to sit in rows, working on paper worksheets (or digital worksheets), all completing the exact same assignments, and turning them in for a teacher to grade/give feedback to prepare for testing of rote memorization and recall skills.

As an educator and passionate advocate for equality of education to all children, I find myself in a state of frustration on a regular basis by the constraints which our education system places on students, teachers, advocates and schools. These constraints have little, if any, effect on successful development and preparation of students in all capacities. If anything, the constraints are hindering our children from becoming the amazing leaders of a great future for our countries and our world. Redundancy is rampant at every corner of every classroom across the country and it will entirely stifle the opportunities students could access to become amazing contributors to a greater global community.

George Monbiot states in the article referenced above, "When children are allowed to apply their natural creativity and curiosity, children love learning." This couldn't be more true for every child regardless of background, culture or economic status. I can even recall myself feeling this as a child within a broken education system nearly 30 years ago. The statistics are staggering...nearly 80% of children will test as advanced/gifted at a kindergarten age but the numbers will drop to nearly 30% by 5th grade. Why is this? As Sir Ken Robinson has said, "our education system is killing the creativity and love of learning within our children."  

So, what should be done you ask? We need more advocates within and outside of our classrooms. Teachers, parents, school leaders, and more need to step up and speak the truth to the leaders who are driving policy within our system. I'm shocked on a regular basis by the facts about leaders within our educational system, many of whom have no experience what-so-ever within a classroom environment or working with students. The only experience many have had stems from their own experiences as a student in a broken system. If those leaders had any opportunity to work with students on a daily basis, they would be challenged and inspired by the interests, passions, and goals students have and the amount of roadblocks being placed in their paths.

Students need opportunities to explore, play, make mistakes, and learn from their experiences. They also need time and structures which promote collaboration and communication with each other to share their thinking and learn from one another. The real world doesn't work on tests, factual recall, or individualization. The real-world functions on collaboration, creativity, learning by doing, and exploring interests. As adults, we don't take tests which impact our entire futures. There is no system of...take this test to get this job and if you do well you'll be on top. We go to job interviews after preparing resumes and reviewing our work for errors. Each person has their own resume and selects companies and positions to apply for. We collaborate and communicate while exploring new ideas even if they are out of the box. So why do we ask our children to do the exact opposite on a daily basis in preparation for their futures?  

I'm inspired by pockets of greatness within our schools, children with opportunities to explore, invent, revise, and learn from the process. The ideas they come up with are far from anything I could ever conceive at my older age and it's entirely inspiring to watch them. The unfortunate part is these pockets are far and few between the majority of mainstream classrooms and schools. The pedagogical shifts we need to make center around asking students what questions they have, how they will find answers to those questions, and what problems they want to solve. It's not about us telling them what they need to do or need to learn, they'll figure it out and they are far more creative and innovative than any of us will be in our aging minds. We need to continuously put our egos aside and open our ears to their ideas so we can be inspired and support them in their endeavors and future explorations.  

This is not to say teachers need to go by the wayside, far from it!  Teachers simply need shifted roles in the classroom which support students by helping them explore, supporting them in reflection, and challenging them with questions as they seek and explore their interests. There are a great many teachers who do this but the numbers are few and rapidly dropping due to more restrictions and less autonomy than every before. Let's allow all teachers to collaborate, communicate, design and have freedoms to explore with students as learners so we can inspire the next generation to be creators of robots and not act like them.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Developing Thinkers

   


      I recently came across an article from the Harvard Ed Magazine titled Bored Out of Their Minds by Zachary Jason.  It's an interesting read and one I hope it's widely circulated in a quick manner.  In short, the article claims students are bored out of their minds in today's classrooms for four main reasons:

  1. An escalating emphasis on standardized tests
  2. The novelty of school itself fades with each grade
  3. Lack of motivation
  4. The transition from tactile and creative to cerebral and regimented
All four of these are very valid reasons and as an educator who has spent many years within the public education sector, I see them on a daily basis.  Standardized tests have quickly become one of the largest focuses of all classrooms on a daily basis.  Much of what students learn and engage with is entirely based on standardized tests which, ironically, will begin taking place within the next few months across the country.  It's strange to think the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament occurs at the same time and is called "March Madness".  In many schools, "March Madness" is a term which, easily defines the craziness associated with standardized testing and the upheaval it brings to an entire school environment and culture. 

Why is it that the novelty of school fades with each grade for most students?  I recently ran across a staggering statistic in regards to students being identified as gifted learners...in kindergarten, some 80% of students are identified as gifted or advanced learners.  This rate drops to nearly 30% by the time most students reach the 5th or 6th grade.  What is occurring in schools and classrooms to cause such a dramatic decline in a few short years of early life? 

As the article referenced above mentions, relevance and connected learning for students becomes more absent with each passing year.  Standardized testing begins in 3rd grade for most schools across the country which greatly impacts the focus of instruction and developmental practices.  Relevant learning opportunities are simply omitted for the sake of time and testing purposes.  After all, how can students perform rote algorithmic math problems on a test if they aren't consistently repeating them in class? 

This brings up an entirely different issue of how relevant these problems really are.  How many of us as adults stop on a regular basis to solve algebraic problems by setting up complex equations and working them through?  It seems these methods are in some ways entirely disconnected from the real world.  As a former math teacher who struggled severely in math as a young student, I've seen first hand the disconnected practices occurring in many classrooms especially those of mathematics.  

So how do we help students avoid boredom and find success in school?  I believe the article gives us a great starting point,  "The beauty of relevance is that it’s free. If you’re an educator or curriculum developer, and you saw your responsibility to ensure every kid knew why they were doing what they were doing, you can do that tomorrow."  This is a simple starting point for all educators and school systems across the country.  Let's stop focusing so much on testing, scores, and numbers, and allow kids to learn.  Let's stop blowing large amounts of money on test prep and test taking so we can use the funds to provide students with the resources necessary to explore and solve some of the world's largest problems.

We need to allow kids to connect with the world around them on a daily basis, seeking and solving problems they are passionate about and working together to change the world.  Too many classrooms have students working in isolation and competition with one another.  Don't get me wrong, individualism and competition can be healthy but not at the expense of our children's futures while sacrificing community and teamwork.  If we are to truly educate children in our schools so they have successful futures, they need opportunities to genuinely think about problems and identify ways to solve them.

For 2017 I'm thinking differently about how I do my job in public education and I hope anyone reading this will do the same.  Whether you are a parent, educator, or a citizen of this country, we need everyone to think differently about what we are asking of our younger generation.  If all we want is higher test scores so we can compare with other countries, we will surely become just that...a number to compare.  If we want innovators, creators, agents of change, and critical thinkers, we need to provide opportunities to engage in these experiences within our schools on a daily basis.  I look forward to where this journey takes me this year and I hope you will come along for the ride!