One of the principles of Positive Leadership is to challenge people to re-think their underlying assumptions about why we do what we do. Education in America provides a perfect example of a system or education process that demands a complete re-examination.
Think about how children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many opportunities to practice whatever it is they are striving to learn. We understand that some children learn more quickly than others and, when we are teaching them to walk or ride a bike, we do not push them to learn any more quickly than they are able. We know that the only thing that matters is that they do learn.
When children make a mistake while learning to walk or ride a bike, they fall down. When that happens, we pick them up, we comfort them, give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again. When they finally get it, we celebrate their accomplishment just like we celebrate all victories. Victory is just another word for success.
What we don’t do is tally the number of times they fall, nor do we diminish the degree to which we celebrate their ultimate success based on the number of mistakes they made along the way. We also do not push them ahead before they are ready.
If we are helping two children learn how to ride a bike, simultaneously, and one child catches on more quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling and tell them time is up. Neither do we push the second child to take off in pursuit. We certainly do not start teaching both children more advanced skills, rather, we give each the attention they need appropriate to their progress.
We continue to work with the child who struggles and we do so patiently, providing lots of support and encouragement. Once both children are riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly, nor do we celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one rides every bit as good as the other and has just as much fun. Once one masters a skill, it no longer matters, in the least, that one student took longer to learn than another.
Now, think about how we teach children in many of our schools. We present a lesson to the entire class and we encourage them to practice, both at school and at home. We call it homework, not practice. The next day, we gather up all the homework and we review the most common mistakes that students make to help them learn from their mistakes. We, then, require our teachers to do one or more of three things that are incomprehensible when you think about it.
The first is that we do not, routinely, give struggling students whatever extra time they need to understand their mistakes. If they are to acquire a sufficient level of mastery of the subject matter to demonstrate to us that they understand and can use the knowledge or skill, proficiently, they must have time to learn from all their mistakes, even the uncommon ones.
Secondly, teachers will either record the grades of their students’ practice assignments or give or withhold credit for those assignments. They, then, factor a students’ scores/credits into their final grade at the end of the grading period, which often influences their grades at the end of a semester or school year.
The third unfathomable thing teachers are expected to do is require struggling students to move on to the next lesson in a textbook or syllabus, ready or not. It is as if the designers of the education process did not consider that for students to understand many lessons, they must be able to apply what they have learned on previous lessons. Teachers are expected to let their students advance without the prerequisite knowledge and understanding they will need.
The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the education process and entire American educational system is that we move everyone along to make sure we cover, within arbitrary time frames, all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process.
It was not always this way. When we first began teaching children, in a classroom setting, the only thing that mattered was whether each child learned as much as they were able at their own best speed. How, along the way from the early days of public schools until now, did we gravitate away from a focus on individual student achievement to an environment where we judge schools and teachers based on whether their classrooms are on an acceptable pace with respect to academic standards?
We also label the students who learned more quickly and successfully as “A” or “B” students or “honor” students and, we label the slower kids as “C”, “D”, or even “F” students. We may or may not feel some sense of concern that these labels may follow our students well into the future, but that is what is expected of teachers. We ask teachers to shove aside their reticence and plunge ahead.
If we look closely and carefully, we will probably be able to tell that the kids we have labeled as “A” or “B” students seem to be having more fun and demonstrate more enthusiasm for learning than their “C, D, or F” classmates. Certainly they enjoy more success. In fact, it does not take long before it becomes clear that the latter group of children is having no fun at all and are demonstrating a diminished enthusiasm for learning. Oh, well, as the saying goes, “it is what it is!”
We observe this fully understanding that it is as much fun to learn successfully as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose? How can one learn how to be successful without experiencing success?
If we were to examine this practice from a positive leadership perspective, what an educator, school principal, school superintendent, or educational policy maker would do would be to step back and begin to question what we are doing and why. These positive leaders would begin to challenge some of their assumptions.
The truth is that every time we push a child on to a next lesson before they are ready we are setting him or her up for failure. It is this practice, as much as anything else we do, that leads to an unhealthy focus on failure throughout our entire system of education.
If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin questioning the fundamental assumptions of your leaders and policy makers.
You are also invited to examine an education model in which all these issues have been examined and where the way we have structured teachers and classrooms, and the way we teach kids, has been re-envisioned. The result is an environment where we give our students the time and attention they need to learn every lesson and we evaluate teachers on how well they focus on that priority. It is amazing how, when we expand our paradigms, the possibilities multiply.