Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A growing sadness

      My son Justin is 10 months old. He has entered into a phase where he would much rather be playing than be held. He is active and happy and wants to explore the world around him as much as possible. He is crawling, inch worming, and rolling depending on how motivated he is to get someplace fast (like chasing after the dog). He is extremely responsive to music and loves Mickey Mouse. Justin loves to play with a variety of toys and when we lay him down on the floor, he just goes off in various directions. On any given day, he moves from his toy farm animals to his multicolored rings, from the multitude of learning devices with lights and sounds and songs to his stuffed animals. He plays longer now, sometimes rolling around for over an hour. He expresses excitement with squeals and squeaks and the occasional “mama”. When he gets bored with one toy, he moves on to the next. He is constantly trying new things. He figured out how to get the little people out of the barn and put them back in. I don’t know why this amazes me, but it does. 

Watching him learn and grow brings us so much joy and with each passing day, I am reminded of how “simple” learning can be.

  • It is questioning. (Why can’t I fit this big orange ring into my mouth?) 
  • It is trial and error. (Maybe I can fit this big orange ring into my mouth if I turn it this way.) 
  • It is choice. (Maybe I will play with the little red ring instead of this bigger orange one for now.) 
  • It is perseverance and grit. (If I keep trying to fit this orange ring in my mouth for the next 20 minutes, it will eventually fit in there.) 
  • It is fun. (I am going to scream and laugh and giggle at this big orange ring as I play with it.) 

       While I enjoy this time with Justin, trying to appreciate every moment of learning , there is a growing sadness developing in my heart. It is the realization that while I am busy trying to appreciate every moment of learning and growth, he probably should be doing the same. The sadness is growing inside me because I know that learning in school will most likely never be more personal and more authentic than it is right now. In 5 years he is going to walk into a kindergarten classroom that is going to be driven more by ensuring that all students can read on grade level than by focusing on play. In 8 years, he is going to walk into a classroom that is more driven by being “college and career ready” (in third grade!) than by helping him see joy in learning. In 11 years, he is going to walk into middle school classrooms built around archaic curriculum instead of lively students. In 14 years, he will walk into high school classrooms that are entirely focused on content and the person in the front of the room, instead of the students (and the multitude of questions they have) in it.

      My growing sadness is built around the fact that our modern schools are places built around content and teaching instead of students and learning. I want him to perceive history as something to actively research and explore through his own questions. I want him to learn to think like a historian or an archaeologist. I want him to learn that mathematics is as much a language as it is a process and that the journey of arriving at a correct answer is as important as the final solution. I want him to learn to think like a mathematician or statistician. I want him to learn science through inquiry, through experimentation, by doing science, by developing his own questions and exploring them more deeply. I want him to learn to think like a chemist or an engineer. I want him to love reading and to express himself in a variety of ways. I want him to love music, art, theater, and sports. I want him to be creative and collaborative. I want him to seamlessly utilize technology to research, create, and connect with other students and experts and to amplify his learning. Most importantly, I want him to recognize that each moment is an opportunity to learn and grow.

Permit my cynicism, but schools like this don’t exist in many places (although there are places like this and in the video below.)

 If we were truly honest about our nostalgia for school, (also see “Why School”) we would admit that our beliefs about our modern schools and classrooms are entrenched in a reality that was never as good as we think it was. Think deeply about your schooling experiences. How often were you given choices? How often were you afforded the opportunity to control your own learning? How often were you afforded the right to explore what you wanted, in ways that you wanted, and show what you learned in ways you designed?  If you arrived at the “Look, I made it through school and I’m a successful adult.” or “School was awful for me, but it’s just a rite of passage my kids will have to deal with.” you might be part of the problem.

As an educator, it is incredibly easy to point fingers at: 
  • elected officials: for creating the test-focused climate.
  • media,elected officials, and administrators: who use the testing results in ways they were never intended to be used.
  • curriculum writers and coordinators: who purchase or create curriculum that we as teachers had no say in developing or vetting
  • building principals: who place too many kids in a class or place too many of “those kids” in our classes. 
  • parents: who did not prepare their student for school or do not engage with their students about their learning. 
  • students: for not taking the opportunity to learn nearly seriously enough.
  • other educators: who simply are not cutting it or "did not do a good job teaching the year before."

What’s not so easy, is recognizing that we as educators must: 

     As a parent, I promise that Justin will walk into a Kindergarten classroom with eyes wide open, full of wonder. He will be willing to play and experiment. He will be full of energy. We will work hard to make sure he knows his shapes, and numbers, and can read to the best of his ability. We will spend time helping him to learn to share and play well with others. We will do our best to help him to love and show compassion and kindness. We will spend the next 5 years preparing him to be a learner first, a student second. We hope that he will be met by a teacher with the same learning first mindset we are trying to instill.

     Right now there are many students in each class, just like Justin, staring at us, waiting for us to make the next move. Each student is not the same. They are each unique and deserving not only of our very best, but the opportunity to be the architects of their own learning. We need to stop playing the game of school. These are students who deserve to be learners first and students second. These are students whose future “nostalgia” for school could be based on the reality that school was a place where they did purposeful work for authentic reasons. A place where they created instead of consumed. A place where it mattered less what they knew, and more what they did with that knowledge. A place that honored creativity and perseverance more than grades. A place that personalized learning while also affording opportunities for true collaborative problem solving. A place that put their own individual learning needs ahead of everything else. 

(Sir Ken Robinson nails it in this Ted Talk from April 2013)