The Biggest Flaw in our Education Process is not Giving Kids Time to Learn!

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.

“Something Incredible is Waiting to be Known!”

Recently, Chuck Canady (@chuckcanady) tweeted a quote from Carl Sagan, who said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

I believe something incredible is waiting to be known and it will happen within the next 10 to 13 years. The incredible event we will witness, will be that every single student who walks across a stage to collect their high school diploma, will have received: a quality education; will have a portfolio of skills that will enable them to have choices about how to find joy and meaning in their lives and to provide for their families; will have sufficient knowledge and understanding to participate in their own governance as citizens of a democratic society; and, will have gained a sufficient understanding of the important issues facing our planet and its people to make informed choices. They will also be able to add value to our society rather than be dependent on it.

If we began this fall, implementing an education model focused on success, relationships, giving kids time to learn, and eliminating even the idea of failure, in thirteen years every one of that first group of five and six-year-olds would be ready to graduate. I believe these young people will alter the job market by injecting millions of people, who formerly were destined to be poor, into the market to become taxpayers and strengthen the economic health of society. This will create revenues that will help society address the issues of replacing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, end our dependence on fossil fuels, and address the consequences of climate change. We can only hope that this new group of young Americans will help us narrow the differences between us so that we can work together.

If we start, this fall with all K-5 kids, we will immediately begin to see magic happen in the classroom as relationships blossom and little brains begin to work. The older students in this group will present a challenge, but we will begin to see a real difference when they graduate in the next 7 to 12 years. From that point on, every single child will have never known anything other than a school environment in which they can be as successful as any of their classmates. And, no, we are not saying everyone will learn as much and advance as far because all of us have different potentials. What it will mean is that more people will fulfill their potential which almost always results in the discovery that they have far more potential than they ever imagined.

These young Americans will be the most diverse group of American citizens in the history of our nation and will begin to erode the deeply-entrenched racism that has plagued our nation for generations? We see it all the time. The attitudes of people who have never known a person from another race, religion, or nationality will gradually begin to change when they find themselves working side-by-side with them. The more diverse our neighborhoods, the more children of diverse backgrounds will play together in their neighborhoods and sit next to one another in a classroom.

I believe these new generations who will spill out of our systems of private and public schools, year after year, will have grown more tolerant of the differences between human beings. They will have learned that, like the color of our hair and eyes, the color of our skin is nothing more than a different shade of beauty. They will have seen more mixed-racial and multi-cultural relationships and families, more multi-racial children, more alternate lifestyles. This will help us move closer to a reality in which everyone can be accepted for who they are.

Because citizens will be growing more tolerant of the differences in people they will be learning that what we see on the surface of the people in our lives, like the color of our skin, is not the measure of a man or woman. Our hope is that they will become less afraid of people who look, talk, and worship differently than themselves. Because they will feel less threatened, they will be less prone to resort to violence to settle disputes between people, nations, and religions.

We cannot legislate an end to the prejudices in the hearts of mankind, but we can begin to transform a society to one in which minorities are no longer defenseless against discrimination and in which it is more difficult for others to justify those prejudices. It will be more difficult to justify their prejudices because they know these people. We will no longer be separate and apart.

They will be the generation, who because of their education and employability, will witness the shrinking and eventual elimination of poverty and illiteracy in this country.

They will have sufficient knowledge, understanding and wisdom to see that the policies of the past—whether conservative or liberal, democrat or republican—are not able to provide solutions to the new and yet unimagined challenges of the future. They will know that, as we progress into the mid to late decades of this 21st Century, that we will be challenged to seek new solutions that work for every man, woman, or child in every conceivable corner of the planet Earth.

All these incredible things will have happened because we will have replaced an obsolete education process with a new model for teaching children. It will be a model that focuses on building and sustaining positive relationships between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and between students and their peers.

It will be model that recognizes the extraordinary diversity of people and thus will be prepared to deal with what will, initially, be great disparity with respect to academic preparedness, motivation to learn, and parental support. It will be a model that gives every student that special relationship with a teacher that many of us recall with such fondness when we think back on our favorite teacher. Unlike the rest of us, this new generation will have enjoyed the security and benefit of such relationships for more than a single school year.

Through this recognition, the model will enable us to treat every student as a unique individual with a different starting point on the academic preparedness continuum, with a different pace of learning, with unique skills and talents, and with different dreams to fulfill. Each child will be on a tailored academic path that will give them more time to learn if they need it and more freedom to burst ahead to ever higher levels of academic exploration when they feel inspired; even if it means teachers must rush to keep up. No child will be judged against the performance of his or her classmates.

It will be an education model that recognizes that the power of the peer group, in this world of almost unlimited access to social media, will be stronger than ever. The structure of the model will create small communities of children who will remain together for a sufficient length of time that they will bond with one another and look out for one another. We will be working to create an environment in which, if they must disappoint someone, our children will choose to disappoint their peers rather than their teachers and parents with whom they feel closer than ever. They will be developing the strength of character to be the best version of themselves, regardless of what others think.

Because the relationships between students, teachers and parents will be stronger and long-lasting, we will be able to focus on the whole child; helping them develop their unique talents and interests, learn the self-discipline that is necessary to enjoy success; and develop a healthy self-esteem strong enough to endure the challenges of an increasingly more complex world where the rate of change will out pace anything adults of present day have experienced.

Finally, our children will learn that success is a process where learning from mistakes and building on one success after another, and will eliminate even the idea of failure. Our children will be internalizing the idea that success is a process in which there are only different velocities of learning. Gaining this understanding also helps human beings develop an abundance mentality and learn that win-win solutions and outcomes are by far the best solutions and outcomes.

Children will be learning that losing a competition in which they have given their best effort is only a loss within the context of such competitions and does nothing to diminish their self-esteem, their worth as a child of creation, or the meaning in their lives. None of us will win every time no matter how talented or brilliant we may be. We will be learning, instead, that because we strive to do our best we are winners in life, no matter the outcomes in small episodes of life. We will view those disappointing outcomes as wonderful opportunities to learn and grow.

This vision is every bit as achievable as exploration of space or phenomenal advances in science and technology. All it requires is a willingness on the part of educators and policy makers to open their hearts and minds to a new way of thinking about how we teach our children, and to challenge their assumptions about how we organize, structure and support teachers and students within our schools and classrooms. If a process does not allow an optimal level of learning, growth and development, then it is time for change.

I ask you to examine my education model and white paper because they offer a first step toward the future I have described https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I hope it is a vision that we can all share.

The elegance of the model is that it is just a point of embarkation; that it empowers teachers and administrators to be continually reinventing the education process to meet the ever-changing needs of their students, communities and society. Who knows where the future may take us but if we remain focused on putting teachers in a position to teach and students in a position to learn it will be a great adventure of discovery.