Caught in the Middle

I was reading a book about giraffes with my son and it sparked more questions about how they live and how their babies are born.  I didn’t have the answers so he said, “Let’s look it up!”  I grabbed my phone and we watched video after video about giraffes and their calves that helped answer his question and prompted more.  At home he is used to this access to information and it sparks his curiosity.  The better the questions he can dream up the better the information he can find out.  This is how my son learns (as many children do). The problem is that our current system is not set up to foster this type of learning.  This becomes a challenge for students who are used to accessing information immediately to answer questions and solve problems.

I know that many teachers value these learning experiences as it is how they want to learn too. They value their students’ curiosity and see the power of of connecting learners but they are caught in a system that hasn’t prioritized this type of learning. I am so often encouraged by great leaders in education and how they are challenging the status quo. There are so many amazing teachers that have found ways to set up experiences for students to delve into their own questions and solve problems that they see in the world.  Too often, however, these models exist in isolation and educators are forced to challenge the system or are doing things against the norm.  

Many teacher’s days are characterized by compliance and mandates, yet they are expected to ensure their students are  creating, exploring, and developing connections between people and ideas. Too often teachers are caught in the middle. Our current system has devalued the skill and value of a teacher with top down mandates and curriculum that has been required to be implemented with “fidelity”.  This has moved us further away from developing the citizens that we pride ourself on being and developing the skills that are urgently needed. Our educational system has become increasingly standardized, which has quickly escalated over the past decade. Although many district visions focus on preparing students to be productive citizens in a changing world, recent “reforms” have narrowed the focus in schools to the point that we have marginalized opportunities for creativity and curiosity.

This was made clear to me as I sat next to a group of high school students in Starbucks the other day and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.  The four of them made room on a small table for their laptops and phones, while completing a photocopied study packet painted such a striking contrast in between their world and what was required of them in school.  Although they were connected to the world and could look up any of these facts within seconds, they were stressed about  “cramming for their finals.”  They acknowledged that they would never remember all of the information and they begrudgingly worked on completing their packets, filling in answers.  I could tell from afar that this work they were doing was compliance based and had little value to them personally, aside from the grade they would receive.  

As Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith so clearly articulate in Most Likely to Succeed,  

It’s tempting to believe that textbooks students memorize are far more valuable than phone books. But, if all we demand of a child is to memorize and recall a narrow set of content, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s from a biology textbook, an AP exam flashcard, or a phone book.  An ineffective education is still ineffective, irrespective of its purpose.  

I see and hear about this tension as it plays out in classrooms across the country.  Teachers are pressured to cover it all in their pacing guides (or racing guides as many call them) and students, cram in as much as they can remember to prove they can pass a test (or not), then many promptly forget because they never really learned it.  And it’s probably ok because most of it could be found online the next time they need to know it anyway.

As long as we continue testing students on static facts that are just about recalling basic information, learners will find strategies to regurgitate those answers.  Whether it is a memorizing it, using a mnemonic device, copying it from a neighbor, or looking it up online.  Most often this information is retained only for the test and then purged from short term memory to make room for new information.  So, now that content is so readily accessible with access to the internet, many are questioning why we are still spending valuable time and energy teaching and testing it in school. Many educators are seeking a new way and making an impact on learning in powerful ways but butting up against structures and systems that reflect traditional norms of education. While at the other end of the spectrum,  there are educators that continue to perpetuate traditions that they are used to because it’s the way it has always been done.  These traditions are steeped in a   model of education that of industrialized revolution era that functioned to teach content and sort students into varying paths.

I have see the extremes as I walk from classroom to classroom or see the difference between schools but this post from Will Richardson, We Feel Lost,  made such and impact on me as I read it from a student’s point of view. This first hand perspective on school today and why students “don’t care” is truly heart breaking.  Here is an excerpt: 

We are the lost generation.  Many teachers think standardized tests, endless worksheets, and piles of homework are the answer. The other half don’t believe in homework, think standardized tests are moronic, and believe in activities that make us enjoy the lesson. But it’s too harsh a mix for either side to get its point across. So we end up with this generation who doesn’t care about education or can’t find a motivation to continue it.

As educational institutions, we can and must do better to create coherent learning experiences for students that allow them to explore their passions, understand their strengths, and find their place in the world. But until then, as we vacillate between different philosophies of education, today’s students are caught in the middle.


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