In less than three weeks my daughter will graduate from high school. Having a mother as a long-time educator makes her more appreciative than most students of the job that teachers do, and often more patient when learning is not as engaging or meaningful as it could be. At the same time, she lets me know when the work she is assigned looks like busy work, or when her teachers seem more concerned with covering content than whether their students are learning. I immediately thought of her high school experience as I read colleague Mary Rudd’s latest blog: Student Engagement Starts with Leadership.
The reactions and comments that Mary cited were not surprising. None of us wants school to be “a sleepy place” lacking in inspiration. And those of us who trained to be teachers, principals and superintendents—myself included—did not do so to create lackluster classrooms and low expectations for our students. So what accounts for the lack of connection between our expectations and aspirations, and the reality of schooling for many students? For those of us who loved learning while in school, read voraciously and tackled reports and projects with enthusiasm, why are we unable to generate that same enthusiasm for the majority of our students?
I don’t have an easy answer, but I do have some strong hunches based on my experiences as an educator and as a parent. My first hunch is that despite research and calls for reforming or even transforming education, our mental models of education rooted in our own history as elementary and secondary students cause us to replicate the classroom structures we experienced. Even if we weren’t satisfied with what and how we learned in school, those powerful images limit and reinforce traditional notions of schooling, even outdated ones.
My second hunch is that our measure for effective schooling, meaning standardized test scores, keeps us focused on the wrong thing. Instead of creating opportunities for deep and engaged student learning with real world application and requiring inventiveness, we focus on having students demonstrate that they have acquired a discreet set of skills. Limited in our vision by preparing students for a single test that determines school effectiveness or failure, we neglect to teach our students to think independently and to be curious about the world.
My third hunch (which is more a strong belief than a hypothesis) is that we don’t think about the structure and content of schooling from a student’s perspective. Being a parent of two children attending local public schools gave me a much different perspective on how responsive schools are to student interests, abilities and choice. While the schools my children attended were rated highly in terms of test scores and while they engaged students in some interesting activities, in general my two did not experience schooling as joyful or compelling—something I wished for them. Last summer working with a group of GEAR UP Kentucky school leaders I showed the video below showing the kind of schooling I envisioned—not only for my children but for all children. The video is Chapter 8 of a ten-chapter series on this Boston School started by noted educational leader Deborah Meier, but I’d suggest looking at Chapter I: Why We’re Here as well, which illustrates how to create not just a school but a great school founded on principles of democracy and respect for all children.
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