Should not our Schools Be Set Up On the Basis of How Children Learn?

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 that demands a complete re-examination.
Think about the way children learn to walk or ride a bike. Children learn these things very much the same way as they learn almost everything else. We provide lots of encouragement and many of 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 the fact 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, give them give them a hug or a kiss, dust them off, and we encourage them to try again.
What we do not 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 walk, simultaneously for example, and one child catches on quickly, we do not stop working with the child who is struggling. Neither do we begin teaching both children, ready or not, how to run. Riding the bike is the same way. When the first child to learn takes off on her own, we do not push the second child to take off in pursuit and we certainly do not start teaching them both to develop 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 walking or riding proficiently, we do not remind the latter child that their counterpart learned more quickly and we do not celebrate the quicker child’s success more lavishly. The reality is that, once both have learned, one walks or rides every bit as good as the other. It no longer matters, in the least, that one took longer to learn than the other.
Now, think about the way we teach children in the overwhelming majority 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 grade it and spend some time going over the most common mistakes that students make in an effort to help them learn from their mistakes.
Then we do three things that are pretty incomprehensible when you think about it. The first is that we do not devote extra time the students who made the most mistakes.
Secondly, we record either the grades each child earned on their practice and factor those scores into their final grade at the end of the grading period, semester, or school year; or, we give them credit for completion of the homework and this also is factored in to the grade the child is given at the end of the grading period.
The third unfathomable thing we do is to move the entire class on to the next lesson in our textbooks or syllabus, ready or not.
The fact that one or more of our students is poorly prepared for the next lesson might trouble us, but the expectation of the entire American educational system is that we have to move everyone along to make sure we cover all of the material identified by the educational standards that drive our curricula and our competency testing process. 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’s the way it is done and so we shove our reticence aside 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 the “C, D, or F” students. In fact, it does not take long before it is pretty obvious 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 even though each and every one of us understands that it is as much fun to learn successfully and as it is demoralizing to fail repeatedly. How often do we refuse to play a game at which we habitually lose?
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 about why we do what we do, the way we do it.
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 systems of education.
If you are reading this post, you are challenged to begin asking some serious questions of our professional educators and policy makers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box