Because the pandemic has exposed the fundamental inequities in our education system, there’s lots of ‘Big Picture’ thinking going on about American public education. For example, Paul Reville, the former Massachusetts Secretary of Education who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, hopes that this pandemic will be education’s “Sputnik moment.”
I hope that he and others who are looking ahead are right and that we will fundamentally overhaul our approach. Because I have written about this in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, I want to focus here on succeeding RIGHT NOW. Not next year when schools have reopened, but tomorrow and next week, when teachers and parents are struggling to achieve ‘home learning.’
Four pathways to success:
- Think like a librarian
- Think like a swimming instructor
- Think like a highway engineer
- Think like a gardener
Librarians do not have a captive audience. After all, no one is required to attend the library. To survive and prosper, librarians have had to identify their audiences and find ways to appeal to them, to draw them into their buildings or electronic networks. For the most part, they’ve succeeded, and without pandering.
With school buildings shuttered, students do not have to ‘attend’ anything. They can log on to classes to get credit for ‘being there,’ but there’s no way for the teachers to know who’s paying attention and who’s FaceTiming friends. And we know that more than 25% of students in Los Angeles, for example, aren’t even bothering to log on. Even parents who are monitoring their children’s efforts cannot be certain that the kids are paying attention.
So the adults must ask students the librarian’s questions:
What can I do to make material this appealing to you?
How can I persuade you to invest your energies in this subject?
What else are you interested in? (Because knowing that might allow you to teach this important material at the same time,)
For example, perhaps focusing on one subject for a month at a time might be more appealing than trying to study five subjects every day. The block schedule of 50-minute periods may work inside school buildings, but that doesn’t mean it can simply transfer to the home. What if we compressed the semester of American history into one month, American literature into another month, and so on? Would a series of deep dives be more engaging? For openers, try asking the students.
Swimming instructors are measured by results. If wannabe swimmers don’t learn to swim, the instructor cannot claim, “I taught them effectively, so it’s not my fault that they cannot swim.” No, he or she has to find new ways to teach swimming, because the instructor owns the failure. In my experience, many teachers already think the way competent swimming instructors do. But not enough! Every teacher and parent has to live by the mantra, “If they’re not learning, then I am not teaching.”
And I don’t mean waiting around for bubble test results at the end of the year (or later). Teachers need to assess frequently, take a clear-headed look at the results, and adapt accordingly. That means asking for help. That also means that leadership must abandon the all-too-prevalent “Gotcha” attitude toward teachers. The new thinking has to be: “Assess to improve,” and not “Test to punish.”
Highway engineers–the men and women who design our roads and streets–have one important goal in mind: to get us safely from Point A to Point B. Because their data and their own life experience tells them that drivers’ attention wanders and cars sometimes stray and weave, highway engineers build roads whose lanes are about one-third wider than the cars that travel on them. Without that extra room for predictable error, we’d have many more highway accidents. Instead, nearly all of us arrive at our destinations safely.
Apply that to teaching and learning, and we will have an education system that treats failure as nothing more than an opportunity to try again. Let me trot out the story of WD-40 one more time. If the chemical engineers who developed that ubiquitous product had been penalized for failing, work would have stopped after their first try, which they conveniently labelled “WD-1.” Instead, they tried and failed 38 more times before hitting on a formula that worked!
Plan your teaching with that in mind. Don’t take it personally when a student doesn’t get it the first time, or the fifth. Explore the reasoning behind the error, but not punitively. Celebrate wherever possible.
Gardeners understand that what they are involved in is a work in progress. And works in progress take time, faith, work, and love. The last thing a gardener would ever do is pull up the emerging plant or flower by the roots to see if it’s growing. Nurturing is essential. That’s true whether or not schools are open.
Gardeners know that roses demand one kind of attention, which is different from what green beans, tomatoes, and hydrangeas require. “One size fits all’ doesn’t apply to gardening or to teaching and learning. The educational equivalent of the gardener’s mind are the questions, “How is this child smart, what is she interested in, and what can I do to nurture her interests?”
What’s more, gardeners don’t hover over their seedlings; they pay the appropriate amount of attention and then walk away, leaving nature, the sun, the earth, and the seeds to do the work of growing.
To be like gardeners, teachers and parents cannot hover; they cannot expect students to be ‘on task’ all the time. In fact, in these awful times, play and free time have never been more important.
Those are suggestions for successful teaching and learning now. Looking down the road, here are three thoughts about how the system must be changed:
- Most likely to succeed are those school districts that have been encouraging teachers to work together and have given them the time to watch each other teach and to grow professionally in other ways. Districts that have empowered teachers to use technology for exploration and production are better suited to today’s new reality.
- Least likely to succeed are districts that either are technology-poor or habitually use technology for control (counting and measuring) rather than exploration and production.
- The current model of teaching in most American public schools is one of ‘Crowd Control,’ and not teaching and learning. Simply put, many teachers are assigned too many students for them to be able to help more than a handful. Sadly, things haven’t changed all that much from when I taught high school English in the mid-60’s. Back then, I was responsible for five classes of roughly 25 students each, a total of 125 high school 10th, 11th, and 12th graders. Because I believed that students needed to write and rewrite regularly, I was reading and correcting 250 short (1 page, written in class) papers every week. I could handle this because I was 22 and fresh out of college. However, I know now that I couldn’t have kept that up for long. In fact, I left teaching for graduate school after two years–two wonderful but exhausting years.