Relevant learning experiences

I just had a conversation with a teacher in which the fundamental question that has to be asked and answered is:  How do students engage in relevant learning experiences?  We already know the answer.

Compulsory learning does nothing for the student.  In fact, it demeans the entire goal of learning and the intrinsic motivation to do so.  Going through my preservice teaching classes, much discussion revolved around intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation to learn.  Extrinsic, from my point of view, learning is achieved when I give a student a reward – candy, bookmark, computer time.  Intrinsic motivation is learning because the student is compelled to do so.  To compel a student to learn means the learning experience is not contrived.

Contrived learning is the lesson plan that structures every step of what to learn and how to learn it.  The teacher, knowing the easy path is giving the student everything they need to learn, writes down the steps to be followed.  Students know they are not really learning.  As I frequently reiterate to myself, learning is messy.  At times there is a straight forward process to learning though, more often than not, there is no process, no steps to follow, and certainly no plan.

Real world learning is the only way we will get students to remain engaged but this means a shift in teaching.  The shift is from teacher centered to student centered.  Many claim to be student centered in planning, teaching, and assessing, but the reality is that we, as teachers, do what is easiest.  It is easy to lecture, use the teacher manual, use online textbook resources, and download content.  However, we already know that the degree to which the content is learned is much deeper than traditional teaching models.  The same mantra is repeated in spite of this and that is there is too much content to cover and little time to teach all of it.  We cannot call downloading of content teaching.  We can call it a speech with information but no student is really engaged as a teacher speaks to class for an entire period.  Teaching would involve inquiry by asking important questions to solve real life problems today, and not just creating the presentation that show regurgitated content.

We already know the answer to high quality teaching, it is transforming ourselves to do it.

Shut ‘er down Clark

Often times the real meaning of teaching gets lost when confronted by antagonists like

  1. standardized tests
  2. Common Core
  3. textbook adoptions
  4. technology without training

The real meaning of teaching, maybe better said as the essence of teaching is the relay of relevant content to spongelike minds that can will use it to either benefit themselves, society, or both. By the time students reach middle school the desire to learn is largely stamped out of young people.

A conversation I heard recently by two teachers voiced this same observation. While my observation is not new, it does need to be addressed on and at some level such that the today’s students find there place in the world, whatever that might be.

Where Piaget is right
Jean Piaget is right in the stages at which we are ready to learn. What public education has to assume is that every learner is ready to pass through the stages at the same rate and depth. Hence, children move from one grade level to the next whether or not they are cognitively ready to or not. How many times have we not seen the “are not ready” students go to the next grade level despite clear indications both socially and cognitively.

Kids are ready to pass onto the next learning challenge when they are ready. While a student may not have the concept of fractions down, she may be reading at at the eighth grade reading level as is ready to be challenged to write her own short stories and novellas. The readiness to learn is not limited by the grade level but rather by the individual’s desire to do so, and no one person learn something at exactly the same rate.

A new system
There is a lot of talk about education being broken in the States because our scores internationally do not meet the rankings of other nations. If this is really the case then we need a new system. Clearly the desire to learn is being lost by the time kids reach middle school because education is not reaching the student as a person and only as a statistic. Student based education should be about moving the student from one readiness to learn to the next without contrived mastery based on age and grade level. I propose a system that uses looping, grade bands, teaching teams grades 1-12, three levels of school, strong technology integration, a talent based model, and risk.

Can education be reinvented?

Grant Wiggins made me do it

Grant Wiggins published thoughts yesterday on students taking the French Baccalaureat. Admittedly, I know nothing about this test, and, from what I gather, this is tough test. The philosophy portion challenges a test taker to think in broad terms, open-ended terms, with no exact answer. Sandy’s France posts this year’s philosophy questions for you to read at your leisure. What really interested me was Grant’s take on these types of questions.

Note that the questions are all framed in a way that teachers have long been trained not to do in the US, i.e. frame open-ended questions in a format that suggests that there is a simple yes/no answer to them. I hope you agree with me that these questions actually sharpen thinking and thus show the need for a good argument better than many of the wishy-washy open-ended questions people often give students to write on.

He states that teachers have long been trained not to ask open-ended questions. As I went through my teacher readiness program through the University of Akron, there was a professor that pounded the need to ask convergent and divergent questions so as to acutely know student’s comprehension of content, and create an expansive, almost dream-like, atmosphere that allowed for open thinking. Now, I am one person who recalls being taught to ask open-ended questions that have an answer, your answer, based on rational thinking supported by evidence. I read a few of the questions on the bac and asked myself how I would go about answering these questions. Needless to say the questions are complex, and complex questions that force critical thinking cause consternation and distress because there is no easy answer.

I am a technology integration specialist and teach four computer classes at Brecksville-Broadview Heights Middle School and reflect regularly at Sync Tech. When I ask questions that are open ended, and I do this a lot, I usually get blank faces because the question has no definite answer. The blank faces are also a result of kids lacking experience to answer these kinds of questions. If there is no apparent and quick answer, kids tune out rather than delve into deep thinking to try and answer the question. Obviously this is a problem.

The problem is two fold where I teach. The first is the amount of time teaches and students have to experience learning. Forty-three minutes constitutes a period and students have eight of them during the day. Know that I am not bashing my school, but it points out a very apparent problem and the problem is no real learning can happen in 43 minutes worth of time. One could argue the learning of facts and steps in a process and dates and other such things is learning. Ok, I agree, but facts are forgotten. By real learning I mean the mental gymnastics students go through to grapple with a problem or paradox that causes them to pull from prior knowledge and problem solving processes to derive an answer that not only shows creative thinking but creates new knowledge. This new knowledge is what will be remembered and encoded because of the wide context of the question and the complex answer given.  Shuffle kids from one period to another and in those few minutes factual learning takes place with teachers shoving the information into the students and then assessing facts, and when the facts aren’t mastered teachers wonder why the kids aren’t learning.  Kids aren’t learning because they are not spending time on open-ended questions that cause them to use content to solve problems and think critically.  The other problem is the current atmosphere of high stakes testing to measure the growth of every student. Lets be honest. Teachers teach to a test and while they may espouse teaching critical thinking, most of the learning strategies have to do with rote learning so students can pass a test.  And, because students have to pass a test, the learning goals are really about AYP.

If our students are going to compete in a global society, they need to be taught how to think in a global way to solve problems that have not been encountered yet. The bac is right on par if you ask me. Let’s see how students at all levels think by answering complex questions so we can see the true grit of the mind divulged in words penned on paper or device that expose critical thinking as a way of assessment and not answering fact based questions. We have a long way to go if we are going grow a society that excels in thinking and solving problems in broad contexts.  However, the current state of testing is forcing us into an acute and narrow minded focus on facts vs. critical thinking.