Freedom to Learn

“Throughout the country teachers are striving to reorganize their classroom programs and methods. Traditional procedures are not longer adequate. Help is desperately needed, however, for many are totally unable to visualize other techniques. Even in the teacher training institutions little is being done to prepare prospective teachers for the demands of the modern school”

These words are not my own, but those of Gertrude Noar written in 1948. I suppose the more things change, the more they really do the same. Noar was a progressive educator who wrote about the benefits of moving from a traditional curriculum to that of what she and others referred to as a core curriculum in which units of study were designed around student needs and interests. I can only imagine the hope that Noar and others approached their curriculum work with as schools adapted the approach and true change took place at many schools across the county. But the reality of this progressive movement is that in large part, it failed. The battle that once waged between traditionalists and progressives was overwhelming one by traditionalists, and the education system that we have today is a result of that victory.

But I return to the words and ideas of Noar here not to reflect on a battle lost but to acknowledge that some have known for a long time that our traditional curriculum is inadequate for the needs of today’s students. Noar, and others before her dating back to the turn of the 20th century understood that preparing students for a rapidly changing world could not take place with a static curriculum which artificially divided and presented knowledge apart from the authentic world where it originated. And as the world was rapidly changing in 1948, I think we can say that change is happening much faster now.

Gertrude Noar wouldn’t recognize the world in 2019 but I’m sure she knew that. And I’m also sure that I won’t recognize the world in 2089. If I were to write a curriculum for the students of 2089 it would be impossible for me to anticipate what they need to know to be successful using a traditional curricular approach. And it was impossible for those in 1948 to know the needs of students in 2019, but the curriculum has remained largely unchanged. Just think about that for a moment. We are teaching the same things in the same ways to students in 2019 as we did in 1948. It’s almost unbelievable. Now, if I were to design a curriculum that was driven by student needs and interests, it could truly apply to students in 2019 and 2089.

Educators had this curriculum problem solved in 1948 but we just haven’t listened. In upcoming posts I will further explain what a core curriculum designed on student interests and needs looks like. Here’s hoping that in 2089 students are learning differently than they are in 2019.

Learner Centered

Student-centered learning is a common buzz term in education. Basically, researchers and like-minded educators are attempting to impart to teachers that students must be at the center of what is being taught. This process is described as breaking the traditional stand and deliver model that has been occuring in classrooms since the dawn of time. The truth is that the teacher-centered model of educational delivery still dominates classrooms across the country despite what is known about how students learn.

But I have always thought the terms associated with this movement are funny if not ironic. We are attempting to convince teachers that their instruction should be centered on students? Where else would anyone assume teaching should be begin but with students? All learning essentially begins and ends with the student. Teachers who want to remain the center of the show can believe that learning in their classrooms is centered on them but it isn’t. Without students, there is no learning. But the truth is also that most teachers simply refuse to give up the amount of control necessary to make students the focus of what they do. For most, giving up control and allowing student interests and needs drive educational experiences comes with fear and anxiety and probably will never happen.

So, perhaps instead of attempting to change the way that teachers teach we should focus on changing the ways that students learn. If learning should be focused on students, and it should, then students have the ability to take control of the ways in which they learn. Common refrains heard from students concerning a poor grade or why they didn’t learn something are often that the teacher didn’t teach. But what if students were taught that their learning was their responsibility? We don’t teach students this or present education in a model that acknowledges this, but we know it to be true. People learn things that they either need to know or interest them. And this learning, in most areas of one’s life, is natural and free from the artificial mechanisms put in place by schools. Students must come to understand that their learning in school is no different from their learning anywhere else. If they are to learn, it’s because they learn and not because of what someone else does. The teacher is the facilitator or the presenter, but the student is the one who must take ownership and drive their own experiences and their own learning.

By Any Other Name

Today I was struck by just how entrenched people are in their own ideas and beliefs. I supposed this entrenchment exists in all areas of ones life, but I think it often becomes very apparent in education and among educators. I mentioned today to a few of my teaching colleagues that I thought the school where we work should eliminate the bottom track of courses offered and fold them into the academic level of courses. I cited several reasons for this belief, among them being that the students in the lowest track would benefit greatly from being exposed to academic-level work and classmates. Lets just say my opinion didn’t go over well. While I’m never one to back away from an argument or discussion, I actually couldn’t speak another word as everyone in the room attacked my opinion with their own, deeply personal opinions of why my suggestion would not work. Now, what I proposed is well supported with empirical research highlighting the downfalls of tracking and the benefits of challenging students academically. But, that research doesn’t matter to those who I presented my opinion to. They have their own opinions that were most likely formed about the time they entered kindergarten and they just aren’t changing what they believe. I’m sure if my school listened to my opinion and implemented such a change, each one of those teachers would be lined up to fight against it because, despite what anyone could show them or tell them about its benefits, they know it’s wrong.

This post really isn’t about tracking, but instead about the challenges of implementing real change in schools in environments where everyone has preconceived notions of what school is and how it should function. Anything that is proposed that goes beyond what everyone believes school to be is wrong, and most likely destined to fail because those who are dug in will never dig out. And because of this deep entrenchment and the clinging to old beliefs it may be time to just change the name of school altogether. If it’s not school, then it can be changed and nobody will be upset. I’ll work on some names later, but for now I will close with the belief that real change is possible but to achieve it, educational professionals dedicated to truly bringing it about must fight against forces that often seem insurmountable.

The Emotionally Intelligent Teacher

Formal education is most certainly an interpersonal experience. Much of taken place to reform education over past 30 years has served to diminish the importance of the emotional, interpersonal experiences between teachers and students. However, perhaps it is time to once again acknowledge the importance of the human side of learning. Students learn best from teachers who they believe care about them and what they know. And because students learn best from teachers who they believe care about them, the ability of teachers to display care and convey a genuine investment in student learning is essential. Emotional intelligence stands as a concept with the power to bridge the gap between teacher and student. As we delve deeper into the importance of emotion in the learning process, emotional intelligence emerges as a method for understanding the emotional capabilities of teachers and a tool for strengthening their ability to best educate students.

Happiness of Pursuit

I heard the phrase happiness of pursuit on the radio and it caused me to pause. I think that everyone probably gets caught up in striving for accomplishments and ignoring the journey on the way to those accomplishments. I’m currently working on my doctorate in curriculum and instruction and am taking my final semester of classes now. Recently I’ve been feeling that I can’t wait for my coursework to be over so I can move on. But as I heard this phrase today of the happiness of pursuit it made me think that soon, I’ll probably never be a student in a classroom again. And despite the long drives to class, endless hours sitting in a seat, and sometimes being bored, I genuinely enjoy being a student. I am going to try my best to enjoy this final semester and be happy while I pursue my degree.

Teachers can also probably take a lot from this idea of the happiness of pursuit. As a teacher at any level its very easy to become unsatisfied with some aspect of the job. Some teachers I know are waiting for retirement. Others are waiting for another position or career. Regardless of where we are or where we want to go, we should try our best to be happy where we are while we’re there for the sake of our students. All educators owe students their best from the first day they enter a classroom to the last. After all, every student is in pursuit of their dreams as well. Let us learn to enjoy the journey to wherever we may be traveling.