My challenge to teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, is to look deep inside your hearts and think about how many times the education process requires you to move your students on to a new lesson before they are ready.
How many times in a given semester, year, or in your career have you had to record a lesser grade beside a struggling student’s name, not because it was the best that they could do, rather because an arbitrary schedule said it was time to move on to a new lesson module? For many of you, this happens, routinely, with one or more students on every lesson module. In some public schools—in all schools, actually—it happens for the majority of a teacher’s students. In our lowest performing schools, it happens to teachers with almost every student on almost every lesson; semester after semester and year after year.
Is it any wonder that so many of these students are unable to pass state competency examinations by the time they reach the third grade? Why should we be surprised that a significant percentage of these boys and girls have given up by the time they reach middle school? We all know what happens when a child has given up and lost hope. They stop trying and begin acting out in class. After all, they cannot appear to care! Peer pressure is far too powerful.
In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (2013), I used an example of children learning how to ride a bicycle and I will use the same example in my new book, which will be finished by the end of the year.
We know that some kids learn quickly and are riding within an hour or two, and that other children will endure bruised egos and scraped appendages for several days before their brains finally gain a sense of balance. We also know that once they learn to ride their bikes they derive the same enjoyment from riding as the early learners. The fact that it took them longer to learn is inconsequential. The only thing that matters is that they did learn and can use what they learned.
There are many things that determine a child’s success in learning. Children learn differently. They have different potential. Some have special needs. Some kids arrive better prepared to learn. Some children are shy and timid and are fearful of being embarrassed in front of their teachers and classmates. Some boys and girls need more personal attention before they are ready to test their knowledge. So many others just need more time to learn.
Imagine that when half the children have mastered the art of riding a bicycle, we immediately push all ahead to learn advanced riding skills. Can you imagine popping wheelies, doing jumps, or racing around turns before you’ve mastered keeping your balance, braking, and steering? Can you imagine even having the courage to attempt using more demanding skills when you are still afraid of falling?
With poignant clarity, this example illustrates the trauma that children face when the learning process is more focused on keeping up with an arbitrary schedule than helping children learn. The more scrapes and bruises, whether egos or appendages, the greater the trauma. Imagine the added indignity when we attach grades to the names of these children: A’s for the fast learners and C’s, D’s, and F’s for their slower classmates.
Learning is not a competition. It is not like a race to see how fast they can run and where the winners get ribbons and medals and the losers get nothing.
Learning should be thought of as more like healing from an illness or injury. It does not matter that some individuals heal more quickly than others and we certainly do not award ribbons, medals, or A’s to patients who recover the fastest and easiest. The only thing that matters is that our patients heal.
Learning, also, is not a trip where all students travel to the same destination. It is not grooming children for the life we envision for them rather it is preparing them to discover their own future. With our help, they acquire the basic academic skills they will need to interact and communicate with the world around them. From that foundation they can begin to discover their own talents, interests and, ultimately, the destinations they choose for themselves. This adventure of discovery requires that they are exposed to a broad range of learning experiences that challenge their own imaginations and the imaginations of their teachers. Teachers, in a positive leadership environment, must keep in mind that we can barely imagine the world in which our students must be prepared to prosper.
If you think about these examples you can see that what we ask teachers and their students to do in our schools, today, makes little sense. It’s the way we’ve always done it, however. The entire education process is structured, tasked, and resourced to reward the speed or ease with which one learns rather than assure that every child learns. Tragically, we have become inured to the reality that so many of these precious young lives fall behind and out, along the way.
We talk a great deal about the importance of relationships between teachers and their students but the process, itself, and the way we organize teachers and their students, makes it difficult to develop nurturing relationships with every boy or girl, especially the most timid and reticent. Where does it say that the best way to organize teachers and students is in grades Kindergarten through 12? Where did we get the idea that it is in a child’s best interest to assign them to a different teacher, every year?
Who decided it was okay to allow children to fall so far behind that they are never able to catch up? Who got the bright idea that it is okay to expect kids who start from behind to keep up with classmates who arrive at school, readier to learn? What were they thinking when they decided that it was in a child’s best interest to learn at the same pace as their classmates and reach the same milestones together?
Who in the world got the idea that it is acceptable to tell students we cannot give them the extra time they need to learn? When did we decide to accept, unquestioningly, that our education process is working when the same kids and the same schools are unable to pass state competency exams, year after year? It is bad enough that administering such exams has become our focal point. Is it not worse that we seem not to learn and then utilize what the exams are telling us?
Whether you are a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member, or policy maker, do you deem it acceptable that some kids excel in school while others fail? Do you not see that while it might be wonderful that some teachers are able to accomplish extraordinary things for their students, it does not mean the education process is working for children, everywhere?
The truth we must accept is that the teachers and schools that are able to accomplish extraordinary things for their students are succeeding despite the system, not because of it.
Examples of these success stories are wonderful in that they show what educators can do when allowed to use their imaginations in an environment supported by positive leadership. The challenge, however, must not be helping more teachers and principals carve out exceptions to the norm. The challenge must be creating a process that allows all teachers to use their skill, training, and imaginations to help children learn as much as they can from their own unique starting point; all kids, not just a few. The challenge must be preparing them to take command of their own destinies.
We must not preserve the existence of a system that constrains the ingenuity of our teachers and the performance of their students. What we must do is go back to the drawing board and create a system that exists to help all children learn, grow, dream, and create.
Through the application of my nearly fifty years of working with children and leading organizations, I have developed an education model crafted around the work of teachers and students. I urge you to take an hour or less of your time to examine my education model. Read it, not looking to find fault. Read it like an explorer to see if there might be a better way to do what you do. You can find the model simply by scrolling down to the previous blog post.