School is School

I think that most would agree that there is enough available research that points to the fact that the traditional stand and deliver, industrial model of school is not what is best for learners in the 21st century. We know that students learn best when given autonomy and freedom. We know that students learn from one another, and that teachers who facilitate learning rather than dictate content are successful. However, we also know that the traditional model of education has been very difficult to break free from. For some reason, school always reverts back to what it has always been. The question then is why, despite a wealth of evidence to support the fact that education should change, does in not change?

I thought of this question today as I looked down the hallway of the school that I currently teach at. The bell rang, students poured into the hallway, and within four minutes the hallway was again clear as new students had entered the rooms where the previous ones had left. And I’m sure this hallway has looked much the same way since the school opened in 1957. And that, is school. Everyone has a certain expectation of what is school is because, for them, that has always been school and that seems to be what school will always be. Teachers were taught in a certain way and they then teach in that same way. Students have become accustomed to learning in the same way that their parents and grandparents learned because that is school. Even if we know what school should be, there seems to be comfort in keeping school as it was and is.

I have seen the pull of school as school first hand for almost 10 years. It was about 10 years ago that I really started to change how I taught and how my classes functioned. And each year since then I have moved further away from what school was towards what I hope school to become. And as I have been on this journey I have come to realize that it is not an easy one. I am in complete control of my classroom and my students. And I work hard over the course of a semester, year, or years to transform what they know about school into how I want school in my classroom to be. But for everyone in my school from administrators, to students to parents, school is still school and what I do is something other than that. I am fine with being different. My classes are taught differently than most and students learn differently than most while they are in them. But for most, looking at them from the outside, they are not school because they are different than the definition of what school is. For now, school is school but I hope that as more researchers and more teachers change how they teach and how students learn school can become so much more.

Talent and School

What is the purpose of school and what should school do for the students who attend? This is a question often contemplated but rarely answered. According to Sir Ken Robinson, the purpose of school should be to help students discover their natural talent and to develop that talent. I would tend to agree with his position and have heard none better. But, what if one’s talent is outside the scope of what happens at school? We know that people have up to nine different forms of intelligence, and the happenings of a typical American high school only serve to measure about two or three of those forms. So what about the potentially thousands of students who have intelligence, talent, and passion that are apart from reading, writing, and interpreting?

The short answer is that most are forced to believe that they must succumb to the system and find something within the scope of what traditional schools offer. Students with passions in art, music, athletics, filming, and countless other areas have consistently been coerced or forced into relinquishing those passions and the dreams that go with them to choose a life path that will allow them to have some stability. We tell our children, either directly or indirectly, that their passions don’t matter. What matters is finding a career that can provide one with a salary that will allow for a nice life with a nice house and a nice family and a nice car. The truth is that one can make money doing almost anything and being a professional artist or musician is just as meaningful, if not more, than having any type of professional job.

What if we stopped coercing our students into playing it safe and attending college and major in something that they either don’t care about or don’t know about and started encouraging them to follow their passions and chase their dreams? What if we taught students that it was OK not to go to college and to take a chance? After all, what better time to take a chance in life then one is 18? The time to take a chance and following a dream is not when one is 50, 60, or 70. The truth is that people are their most energetic, passionate, and full of life when they are young lending such an age to taking a chance and making things happen. Much of school works to systematically remove the energy and passion that students have and instead instill complacency and boredom.

What our students need from school is not advice to play it safe, make the smart choice, and study something that they don’t care about. What students, teachers, and public education needs instead is the belief that young people, especially those who show passion toward something they have come to love, should be encouraged to take a chance and see if they can become great. Because it is only through taking chances and following dreams that we truly open ourselves up to the possibility of discovering our purpose in life.

I teach a student who has figured this important life lesson out, perhaps on his own, despite the advice of many around him. He has a natural talent and passion for skateboarding. I’m not talking about someone who steps on a skateboard a few times a summer and proclaims to be the next Tony Hawk. Instead, this is someone who has dedicated much of his waking hours, aside from the time when the state requires that he sit in classrooms, to developing his craft and becoming great at what he loves. Now, why on earth would someone with a natural talent and passion for something like skateboarding take the next four years of his life and study accounting? The simple and traditional answer would be that accounting could just be a good backup plan should the skating gig not pan out. But, anyone who has ever crafted a backup plan knows that is only done in anticipation that the first plan is going to fail. And, to truly take a shot at being great, the passion cannot take a backseat to anything else. Inevitably, someone who majors in accounting but minors in art because of a passion for it becomes enveloped in their study of accounting and art is forgotten. They are not then an artist and never really have themselves a shot at becoming one. To be a great artist, one has to live art.

So let us use this intelligent young man who I have had the pleasure to teach as an example of what our education system should be doing. Rather than attempting to funnel an endless stream of customers from basic to higher ed, we should instead be helping our students find their passions and preparing them to follow their dreams associated with them. Because there is no age limit on when someone can start college, but there most certainly is a limit on when one can follow their dreams at becoming great. Some may question this approach and say that college is needed to prepare one for the general rigors of life. But if this is true then what is the purpose of the first 13 years of public education? In my opinion, 13 years should be plenty of time to prepare anyone to handle the general demands of life, and if this preparation is not happening then major changes need to occur to ensure that it does.

So, here is to taking chances, following dreams, and letting the chips fall where they may. After all, there will always be a college somewhere with an accounting program waiting to take your money if things don’t work out on the half-pipe.

Core Curriculum: Why?

In my last post, I stated that I would like to begin explaining the basics of what researchers historically referred to as the core curriculum. This core curriculum, now easily confused with the current national core curriculum, was a progressive movement that emerged in the 1930’s pre-WWII. Now, to appreciate the potential of a core curriculum to change how and what students learn, you really must move you mind away from what you believe school to be. You must first agree that k-12 education, in its current form, does not do enough to prepare students of today for the uncertain future of tomorrow. If you believe that there is nothing wrong with the current model, then an investigation of core curriculum isn’t for you. You should, in fact, just continue doing what you are doing and keep thinking what you are thinking. But, if you know there must be more to education and believe in the potential of educators to change lives in meaningful ways, then the core curriculum concept may provide some answers.

Before I explain what the core curriculum is, or was, let me first make the case for it to exist. Hopefully, if you’re still reading, you accept the fact that some amount of real change is needed in our schools to meet the needs of students. So first, let’s consider why some of the problems educational systems are faced with exist in the first place.

An education through high school was not a popular choice for most students 100 years ago. But, over time, and largely after WWII, compulsory education through 12th grade became popular as the nation and states saw a need for providing all youth with a common experience that would prepare them to be successful members of society. The system that was already in place within high schools was simply expanded to take on the influx of more students who were required to attend. And the system that was in place was created to prepare students to attend college. In this preparation, the world was divided into classifications and taught as individual subjects. These subjects were intended to prepare students for further, intense study at the university level. And, beneath the high school level of public education emerged the junior high, which was intended to prepare students for the subject area study they would conduct at high school.

The division of the natural world into subject areas is needed at the university level as students are exposed to advanced concepts that require intense levels of investigation. However, by creating a high school system, and then a junior high system, and later a middle school system based on the model of artificially dividing knowledge into fields of study, students are presented with material in ways that separates it from the world in which they live. In a student’s lived experience, there is no separation of math from social studies, science from english, or technology from language. The division of knowledge creates artificial barriers between pieces of information that are otherwise connected. Learning, is largely about making connections and these artificial divisions make those connections difficult for students to form.

The disadvantages created by designing all secondary schools to be college preparatory schools are many. However, perhaps the biggest disadvantage of making middle and high schools mini colleges is that students are presented with information in artificial blocks that do not connect to their own lives. The core curriculum attempts to combat this artificial presentation of knowledge by connecting educational experiences to what students want to know and what they need to know. In future posts I will explore how the core curriculum sets out to accomplish these goals.

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.