“My Grandchildren Started Out Loving School”

“My grandchildren started out loving school at 4 years old, but have now grown to dislike it, as have so many children who are deprived of the arts, recess, and true learning.”

That’s one sentence from a very moving letter from someone who read last week’s post in which I reached out to Maria Montessori, John Dewey and Aristotle to get their reactions to 20+ years of ‘Education Reform’ and its impact on NAEP scores.

I wonder how many more grandparents and parents feel as she does, their hearts sinking as they see children’s vitality, their love of learning, and their curiosity diminishing or disappearing?  It doesn’t have to be this way.

In last week’s post I said that rescuing public education requires a new paradigm in which educators ask, ‘How is this child intelligent?”   Our current system, which is designed to sort students into ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ uses test scores, parental status, income, residency, race, and social class to answer the wrong question, “How smart is this kid?”

While it’s easy to say, ‘Ask a different question,’ what can people who aren’t on School Boards actually do to change the direction of public education? What steps are required?

I believe that there are seven specific steps/tasks/actions that parents, other citizens, and change-oriented teachers can initiate.  While my book, “Addicted to Reform,” provides a 12-step program, several entail coming to grips with the expensive failures of “School Reform.”  In this post, I will briefly describe three of them: Measuring What We Care About; Expecting More from Students; and Using Technology to Enhance Learning.   (I will cover the others in subsequent posts.)

1. Measure What Matters.  To be blunt, right now we value what we measure.  In a changed system, we will measure what we value–but that of course requires deciding what we care about.  Just test scores?  What about the ability to write clearly, speak coherently in public, and work effectively with others? Physical fitness?  The arts?

Our current system focuses on academic achievement in math and English, which it generally measures by means of standardized, machine-scored, multiple-choice ‘bubble’ tests.  While academic achievement in those two subjects is important, are bubble tests an adequate measure?  Again, what else matters in the education of a child?  If you want art, music, drama,  physical education, public speaking, and group projects in the curriculum, then you must insist that they be measured, because things that aren’t counted do not count!   If you want change, then you must require schools to report hard numbers for the following:

   How many hours of music per week for all students?

   How many hours of science?

   How many hours of recess, meaning free play?

   How many hours of organized physical education?

   How many hours of sustained silent reading?

Educators will quickly figure out that larger numbers (i.e., more music and more recess) are better answers, particularly if the same evaluation sheet asked them to justify low numbers.  The form should also invite requests for additional resources.

Asking those questions shifts the focus from individual test scores to the school, which I believe should be the primary focus of evaluation.  Focusing on student achievement has produced a test-obsessed culture, widespread cheating, and a narrow curriculum. 

Regular people, especially parents, get that schools come first. When they talk about education, they want to know “Are the schools good?”  We can answer that question with a set of multiple measures, not simply by looking at test scores.  We also need to measure teacher turnover, student attendance, and teacher attendance, 

Anyone wanting to be good at something needs two things: instruction and practice. The only way for kids to learn to write well is by writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. Children become better readers only if they read. They can learn to speak well by speaking often, with some direction, some coaching. It’s no different from how children learn to play a musical instrument well or make jump shots consistently: Practice, Practice, Practice.  Testing and test-prep take away from valuable practice time.  Schools should be in the business of  ‘assessing to improve,’ not ‘testing to punish.’

The question of measurement becomes more complicated because tests cannot measure diligence, honesty, tolerance, fairness, and compassion, which are the values and attitudes that parents repeatedly say they want their children to possess.  Parents want their kids to be well-rounded; to develop the skills they need to continue learning on their own; and to become good citizens, productive workers, and fulfilled human beings, and most employers would probably agree. But how can schools assess those values, skills, and abilities?

This is a complicated conversation that most communities are not having, perhaps because it’s easier and infinitely less controversial to default to mass testing on a narrow range of subjects.   So, step one, begin the conversation…..

2.   Expect More   My favorite aphorism, ‘We are what we repeatedly do,’ applies here.  Because this is true, it is essential that children do different–and important–things in school.  Aristotle continued: “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  And so, if we want our children to strive for excellence, then we must do our part and expect more from them.  Young people need to learn that they don’t have to be perfect, but that they should strive to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday.

This step requires looking carefully at the routines of school, because most children live up (or down) to expectations.

If students fill in bubbles, color inside the lines, fall into line when ordered to do so, never ask ‘why?’ and don’t question authority, they are unlikely to become independent thinkers and doers.  Going forward, we must expect and encourage students to dig deeply into subjects and ideas they are curious about about. Teachers must then use their students’ curiosity–about The Odyssey, sky-diving, auto mechanics, the French Revolution, or the music of Prince–to ensure that they also master clear writing and thinking, mathematical concepts, and other essentials.

It’s generally understood that the longer the learning curve, the longer the forgetting curve.  That means that students who are expected to work something out through trial-and-error are more likely to retain information than those who are spoon-fed the material. The key word in ‘trial-and-error’ is the last one, because making mistakes is an essential part of learning.  That’s right, students must be involved in activities where failure is anticipated as part of the learning process, because failure matters. Independent thinkers, no matter their age, fail….and learn from failure. That’s not only not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. In fact, failure is an essential part of the schools we are going to build.

Case in point: If you’re at all like me, somewhere in your home you have at least one can of WD-40®, because the stuff works wonders. I think science teachers ought to have a WD-40 poster on their classroom wall. Not to advertise the product but to teach a basic lesson about learning: failure is an essential part of succeeding.

Have you ever wondered why it is called WD-40?  The answer is, in a word, failure! In 1953 the three employees of the San Diego-based Rocket Chemical Company were trying to develop a product that would prevent rust, something they could market to the aerospace industry. They tried, failed, and tried again…and again..and again. Being methodical, they kept careful records. They labeled their first effort Water Displacement #1, or WD-1.  After 39 failures, eureka! They had a product, and the product had a name.

Students need to know that adults try and fail and fail and fail–and keep on trying. More than that, they need to experience failure. While I am a big fan of both project-based learning and blended learning, I believe the most critical piece of the pedagogical puzzle is what we ought to call ‘Problem-based learning.’

In my experience, many teachers assign tried-and-true projects where they already know the outcome.  Because students, especially older and more capable ones, see through this, that approach to project-based learning is suspect. 

Expecting more means giving students real problems to tackle.  They cannot be intractable (“How can we achieve peace in the Middle East?”) or trivial and uninteresting (“What color should classrooms be painted?”). Instead, the problems should be both genuine and manageable.  “How does our air quality compare with the air quality at other places in our city, town or state?” is an issue students can tackle with the help of technology and the internet. 

Unfortunately, a pedagogy based on discovery and knowledge creation flies in the face of what seems to be happening in most classrooms and schools, where the emphasis seems to be on ‘critical analysis’ to arrive at the predetermined right answers. Some years back a math teacher in Richmond, Virginia, told me how he used to take his students down to the James River and challenge them to determine the distance to the opposite shore. He didn’t give them a formula; just the challenge, which he expected them to solve. Then they put their heads together and, he said, eventually ‘discovered’ the formula, which they then could apply to other situations and problems.  They failed and kept on trying, until, like the creators of WD-40, they were successful. Sadly, he said, the new state-mandated curriculum no longer allowed time for field trips and discovery. Now he explains the formula and gives his students a prescribed number of problems to solve.

The schools we must create will build on student strengths and interests; they will also expect much more from students.  However, giving students more control over their learning does not mean the adults just say ‘Whatever” or tell kids to “follow their passion.”  Most young people aren’t likely to have developed a passion yet, and they shouldn’t be made to feel deficient. Ask them what they’re curious about, and encourage them to explore, experiment, and follow their interests. It’s a journey and a process to be celebrated.

3. Embrace Technology (Carefully)    

The cliché about idle hands doing the devil’s work has been rewritten for an age of smartphones and computers, to read “Idle thumbs do the devil’s work.”  Cute, but wrong, because it is idle minds and brains that do the work of the devil. What that means is that, because technology is ubiquitous among the young, their brains and minds must be engaged productively; if not, lots of bad things–i.e., cyberbullying–are likely to occur.

Let’s begin with the basics: Both the common #2 pencil and the most tricked-out smartphone are technological tools. Both have common sense age restrictions. No 3- or 4-year-old should be handling a sharpened #2 pencil; the appropriate age for a smartphone is arguable, but it exists.  Both technologies are value-free, meaning that how they are used depends on the user. The individual wielding a pencil can write a love sonnet, a grocery list, or a threatening anonymous letter. The user of smartphone (which has more computing power than the computers that sent the first man to the moon in 1969) can do all these things, and far more.  However, the essential fact remains: how technology is used depends on the values of the user.

Much good can come from harnessing technology’s potential; conversely, harm results when adults ignore technology’s potential or fail to accept their adult responsibilities.  Some adults are wont to say, “Technology is the kids’ world. They’re digital natives, and I’m just a tourist.” That’s inadequate. Young people may be digital natives, but it remains the responsibility of adults to see that they become digital citizens.

Here’s an example of technology in support of genuine learning that expects more from students: Imagine if every third grade class in a city had access to an air quality indicator (roughly $200 per machine).  Suppose that three or four times each day the third graders went outside, activated the monitor, and recorded the measurements. After comparing the daily and hourly readings for their playground, they would enter the information into a database that also contained readings from other schools in the city, the state, or a range of places around the world.  Now they can compare the air they are breathing with everyone else’s! They would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher. Perhaps they would ask local scientists to come in and talk and also Skype with experts from all over the globe.

As they began to understand–and perhaps be outraged by–anomalies, they might feel compelled to write letters or articles for local publications.  Perhaps some would create video reports that could be posted on YouTube…and maybe even picked up by local television news.  

That’s for elementary and middle school students. A high school project that will also lead to the creation of knowledge involves the study and analysis of water in Texas, which has about 4,000 miles of fast-running water.  Suppose every high school within reach of a river owned a water quality monitor (about $1,000 per machine). Once or twice a week, the science class could go to the water’s edge and take measurements of acidity, alkalinity, speed, amount of detritus, and so forth.  Like those third graders, they would analyze the data. Share the results with other high school students around the state. Where there are anomalies, dig deeper. Ask for explanations. Publish the results.

This “curriculum” is about more than air and running water.  It’s also about democracy, independence, collaboration, and knowledge creation.  Projects like these will teach other lessons besides science as well: information is power, collaboration produces strength, and social policies have consequences. Students will learn that they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential.  They matter.

Technology makes all this possible. To be clear, I think it’s also imperative on at least two levels. For one thing, much schoolwork today is hopelessly boring regurgitation, whereas this is real work in uncharted territory. For another, we need our young people to be in the habit of asking questions and searching for answers.

And to circle back to another central theme, technology allows our schools to ask of each child, ‘How is he or she intelligent?’ and then create learning opportunities that allow every child to soar.  Technology allows students to have more control over their own learning, without downgrading or minimizing the role of the skilled teacher.

Those are three steps toward creating schools that children won’t hate. In subsequent posts I will write about teachers, ‘outsiders,’ the value of preschool, and more.

I’d welcome your responses, of course.



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