I Have the Solution to Education’s Problems

Okay, MAYBE I have the solution to education’s problems.  More likely I’m just going to open up a big debate and more problems.  If you haven’t been to my blog before, please scroll to the bottom and read my disclaimer.  I think I may need it for this post.  (I saw a question on Twitter the other day questioning whether or not those disclaimers are still necessary:  I’m thinking they are.)

I spent about 2 hours this evening talking to my principal about education:  where we are headed as a school, a district, a system overall.  I appreciate my principal’s willingness and encouragement to have these conversations with me, and this one was quite accidental. (It took place in our school hallway after she came in because myself and a colleague each locked our keys in the room we were working in.)  Near the end of the conversation she commented, off-handedly, that we pretty much covered the entirety of education and had begun over again.  That was our informal cue for closing arguments, and when we finally wrapped up we noticed two hours had flown by.  It wasn’t until my short walk home from the school that I thought a bit more about that off-hand remark.  We really had talked our way around a lot of issues.  Yet, we kept coming back to just a couple main points.  I truly value these types of conversations, with her and with others, not because they are necessarily accurate representations of what we each truly believe (because speaking in off-the-cuff conversations often don’t allow for deeply considered remarks), but because of the thoughts they inspire afterwards.  So please, leave some comments and help me consider new perspectives.

This post is about one of those thoughts I had on my way home. I was playing back some of the comments I made to see where I truly stand.  I thought about some of the challenges to my perspectives.  I stood for a bit on my porch to considered the points I conceded to the other side.  One point I kept coming back to was the idea of differentiation.  At one point my principal commented something along the lines of “but that’s just my experience.”  Several times through the conversation I recall thinking that about my own experiences and trying to keep an open mind.  But that comment struck me as important.  That’s just me.  That’s just me.  That’s just me. 

THIS IS NOT A RESPONSE TO MY PRINCIPAL.  THIS IS A DEEPER REFLECTION THAT GOES BEYOND THE OPINIONS WE SHARED WITH EACH OTHER. THE STATEMENTS I SEEM TO VEHEMENTLY DISAGREE WITH DID NOT COME FROM HER.

What if the answer to all of education’s problems lies solely with students?  I don’t just mean students as an overall group of participants in the grand scheme of education.  And I don’t mean one set of students, at one point in time, in one place.  I mean, what if every single student provided the answer to education’s problems in a way that resonated with her and himself?  Of course, that means the answer may change even for that student from year to year (or more frequently) and by subject to subject and from teacher to teacher.  But what if every single aspect of a child’s education was focused on what was best for that child?  Not a group of children who happened to be born into the same age-cohort and reside in the same geographical location.  Not statistics who live in the same province or country.  Not peers who are part of generation x or y or whatever letter of the alphabet we may generalize them into next.  What would happen if we gave education back to those it actually affects?

Some benefits to giving education to the students: 

  • Students could learn in a style that best suits their needs:  tests, right/wrong answers, m/c, project-based learning, authentic learning tasks, etc.  
  • Students could receive the type of feedback they want:  grades, rubrics, written feedback, oral discussions, etc.
  • Students could seek motivation to learn in the manner they prefer:  grades, awards, rankings, scholarships, competition, proud moments of success, the satisfaction of perseverance despite no external rewards, teamwork, sheer thrill of learning.
  • Students could study the content areas they are interested in: math, science, English, social studies, physical education, drama, dance, art, computer programming, health, foods, music, hunting, race car driving, etc. (This list could go on forever.)
  • Students could learn at the rate they wanted/needed:  outcome by outcome learning, life-long learning, fully comprehending the content because there is no one to belittle them by telling them a “normal” student would have been done by now.

Some of the criticism to giving education to students:

Kids don’t know what’s best for themselves.

To some degree, I understand this argument.  I have my own kids.  Do I let them do whatever they want?  No, of course not.  Their desire for immediate gratification and lack of awareness of consequences comes without thought to their own safety or well-being.  But is all of this childhood innocence or am I partially to blame for not letting my children make their own mistakes and face the consequences?  Is our incessant need to caudal children stifling their true capabilities.  I’m not talking about asking children to grow up too fast and make wise decisions.  In fact, I might be saying the opposite; a child’s desire to play should not be frowned upon because they have homework to do.  I believe children are capable of so much more and of being so much wiser than we give them credit for.

Kids don’t know what they need for their future.

Again, I’d have to agree with this to some lengths.  What happens if a child attempts math at a “grade 3 level (when it starts to get hard), hates it, and wants to quit?  It’s a valid concern.  To what extent will children need this knowledge later in life?  My rebuttal is this:  A student will only get so far in the study of what they want before realizing they need other knowledge in other areas to progress further.  At that point, the child who may dislike a certain subject will realize they need it to be happy.  This need will provide the motivation to acquire the knowledge they need.  If that point never comes, then what harm is it really to the child/adult to have never learned that particular content?

Kids won’t receive a well-rounded education.

In the grand scheme of things, who truly is a jack of all trades, let alone a master of any?  There is so much I don’t know, about so many topics, that I can’t even begin to fathom what it is I don’t know.  Yet I am living the life I want to live.  It’s just plain wrong to tell someone that if they’ve never read “this classic” then they haven’t truly lived.  I’m not going to go on and on about all the different things we have the audacity to judge other people for not having done, or for not knowing.  People know what they need to know to have the life they want.  And if we fix our education system to provide ongoing learning opportunities no matter what age an individual is, then I don’t see why everyone needs the same shape of education.

Final thoughts

I know I’m sounding a little naive right now.  I do know there are many many more concerns with handing education over to the students, and none of the concerns, even the ones I addressed above are easy to solve.  But I also know there are far more benefits than those listed above.  And those benefits are also farther reaching than I’ve done justice to.  I don’t know exactly what the answer to education’s problems are, but I have a gut feeling that it must lay in the fact that we are all individuals.  Education has begun to emphasize differentiated learning and I think this is a step in the right direction, but this needs to apply to every student in our classrooms, not just those who excel and those who struggle.  It also needs to go that extra step to give students a voice in their own education.  Teachers can’t keep doing “things” because those things are easiest for them.  We can’t even keep doing things because the standardized tests say “these things” are working–who are they working for? (governments, universities, teachers, society’s expectations?)  We need to do the things that will allow success for every student in our classroom, as success is defined by each individual student in our classroom.  After all, isn’t that why we all got into education in the first place?

***I know the blurb at the bottom says I’d love to hear your feedback and opinions, but I wanted to personally challenge you to leave a comment.  If you’ve made it this far, you must have something to say.  A question, a challenge, a disagreement to voice, an Amen!  You’re thinking something right now, and I truly would love to know what it is.***

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13 thoughts on “I Have the Solution to Education’s Problems

  1. Ideally, if we could spend each time coaching the children about how they can go about determining what is best for them, how they best learn, how they can go about finding internal motivation, then the rest of the year could be spent empowering the students to seek and learn. Is that possible in our institution based classroom settings?

    • Yes, DawnMarie! What’s really cool is that if every teacher, for every “subject,”was focused on competencies and habitudes, then that reinforcement would quickly convert students to a school system as a learning opportunity rather than school as a ranking system.

      I think to some degree this can be accomplished within our current educational system. There’s no reason at all that teachers can’t begin changing their practices to make school more about learning. I’ve already begun this and have started to see positive results after 2.5 months of this term. An activity we completed today asked students to reflect on the written feedback of work I returned, then to share there work with others (no % given, loads of written feedback and a rubric). I’ll dedicate a post to this soon; however, during the course of the activity one student commented that he wasn’t as concerned with the mark he got (or could improve to) as much as he was about learning from his errors. It literally brought a tear to my eye. They were a true community of learners intent on improvement.

      To another degree, I do believe that in order to progress to the point where students can get the most out of education, an overhaul to the current institution based classroom MUST happen. And that’s certainly an achievable goal.

  2. Pingback: There is a but. In between the things. | JJBollOX

  3. I’v’ just read about the students response to learning over marks and, believe it or not, before I hit your reaction fought back a tear (of joy?) and totally lost all that I was going to write.
    I am now working slowly on a book about a better world. Truly. The educational system in this world reflects some of your own ideologies.
    “..who truly is a jack of all trades, let alone a master of any?” The more I learn the more I know that the less I know. The more that I remember something of which I have actually forgotten and the circle of life long learning goes around and around.
    I must disagree. Because I like the reaction that i receive from that opening 🙂
    You do not sound naive. Idealistic, simplistic even. Aren’t the best and strongest principles those most so?
    I will return to your blog frequently and look forward to developing real conversation and exploration of ideas, our own and those of others. I thank you for visiting and even more so for commenting and the ping back on your site.

    • Thanks for voicing your thoughts. While I do not write looking for others to appreciate my ideas, I must confess to feeling a certain pleasure knowing I’ve touch someone. I too look forward to sharing ideas and opinions and perspectives with you.

    • Thank you. I don’t believe schools are purposefully out to harm students, but I think a lot of what we do is based on traditions rather than critically thinking about what might be best for students. Granted, others may say I’m acting in simple defiance to tradition rather than what is best for students, but this may at least begin a starting place for discussion.

  4. Usually, I take the time to read other people’s comments before I comment, but decided for this post, I’d comment directly. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about education. I was a good student, one of those kids that loves school. My younger brother struggled with school. He is dyslexic & also has ADHD. (I’m 36 & he’s 33). He told me that it wasn’t until he was 18, doing a prep year before college that he felt a sense of academic success. This broke my heart a little & also pissed me off. So, yes differentiation is extremely important. But I find that critical thinking & learning how to learn must be top priorities. There are basic reading, writing & math skills we all need. And especially as kids get older, more choices should be available. I am a rather firm believer in a liberal arts education. And I think creativity is important in assignments. Take, research papers. You can learn how to write a good research paper without it having to be on a “serious” topic. Education is supposed to be about opening doors. There is so much out there to explore. And rather than medicating kids, let’s set the hook using their own interests. Scate boarding, graffitti art, parkour, clothes, heavy metal, techno, video games… to me you could write a relevant research paper on any of those topics. So in some ways, yes, kids need more choices & more room for exploration. And so do teachers. Peace, xx

    • In the foreword of the book, Education for Judgement, (a series of essays edited and largely written by profs at Harvard Business School) Richard F. Elmore states that “the main value that students [should] take away from our classes is not knowledge of the subject, but a predisposition to learn.” He goes on to say that “if this predisposition is not consistently communicated across the curriculum, then we have failed students” (xvi).

      This is pretty powerful, and it is contrary to what many in the field of education believe. Of course the basics are needed, but unless educators choose to believe that first and foremost our goals needs to be to teach kids to care about life-long learning, we are letting down our students.

      • I have read some of your posts, since my comment to you. I applaud u for your efforts. I’m 36, so it’s been a long time since I was in school. As a senior in high school (1994), I was chosen to be part of a pilot project. The purpose of the project was to mainly to stop the “senior slump” by offering an interdisciplinary project, lessening class time while allowing us more freedom in our studies. I adore interdisciplinary learning. At the time, I was completely intrigued by the History of South Africa. The film, the Power of One, opened my eyes to the multiplicity of cultures in South Africa, information that was totally new to me. In the end, I wrote a novella of historical fiction based in South Africa. Despite biting off more than I could chew, it was a really great experience. Peace, love, hope, xx

  5. I believe education should be student driven and teachers are the guides, providing a foundation and keeping them on course. Just as when students get their driver’s license, the goal is to give them the tools and skills they need to successfully drive wherever they want to go.Once they have the necessary skills, the possibilities are endless.

    • I like the idea of a student-driven education system. I doubt many, if any students would argue that they know everything and can do it all on their own. They need teachers. Unfortunately, I’d say many students have learned helplessness and believe that they can’t do any of this on their own. The first skill students need is a sense of self-efficacy. They need to understand that learning is not a bad thing, and that they should be in control of their learning.

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