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 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!  

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