Saturday, August 23, 2014

Groundhog Day

Somewhere along the way, someone convinced American society that breadth is far more important than depth. That same person also convinced everyone that academics and enjoyment are two different things. In their minds, students should have their nose in the books, cramming for a big test, and praying that nothing weird happens to throw them off on the test day. This has come to be known as rigor. I would like to find that person, point my finger at them aggressively, and say, "shame on you."

There is nothing wrong with research, reading a crazy amount of books (one of my favorite past times), and studying all night for a test. But when this kind of activity arbitrarily takes the place of hands on, practical, experience based learning, there is something wrong. It is no wonder our drop out rates are high in both high school and college. Kids have at least 13 years of the same thing over and over. We are still functioning on an industrial education model and an agrarian calendar that says, all students learn the same, curriculum should be separated into subjects that don't intersect, and everyday should be broken up into periods that end and being with a bell. This model makes it extremely difficult to foster creativity, cross curricular work, hands on learning, and spontaneity.

Admittedly, as a principal and a teacher, I struggle to break from this model. Our whole education system is built upon it. But what we should be asking ourselves is, "how can I break up the monotony and avoid education groundhog day?" We can start by getting with other teachers and planning to do projects that involve more than just one area of content and one skill. We can have our students work together collaboratively (with a productive structure) to accomplish big goals. We can change our bell schedule every so often to allow for creative time, outdoor activities, field trips, and more. In other words we can make school feel more like life.

We all have an idea of college and high school that is strong in our minds. We base our perception of education on our experience. However, just because we learned a certain way and had to go through high school according to a certain pattern, doesn't mean it is what is right for our students today. In fact it means the opposite. If we teach like we have been taught, then we have failed. Because we teach in a new context, with new students, and a new reality of how the world functions.

Fun, spontaneity, creativity, outdoor activity, group work, and projects does not mean that the work is not rigorous. It simply means that the students are engaged and involved. Sure, this will not always be the case, but just like you and I, when we enjoy something, we are more likely to work harder for it. It is time for us to break free from Groundhog Day. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Time to Reflect and Improve

We were raised in the drill and kill classroom. We were introduced to a topic, we heard a lecture, we read a textbook, we filled out a worksheet, and then we took a test. Guess what happened if we failed the test... We moved on to Unit 2. We have also been, in many ways, trained to teach this way. We have a pacing guide that leaves very little room for reflection, remediation, enrichment, creativity, or student feedback. We built our classrooms on a sequence that is actually counter intuitive to learning. Some students are able to keep up based on their particular skill set, while others are left in the dust. Even the students that keep up with the grueling unit march through the year, do not have a chance to learn on a deep level or express their learning in a way that involved creative intelligence.

It is extremely difficult to break this cycle. After all, everything we know of what school is supposed to be is set up like this. Schools were designed off of the industrial model of efficiency. In essence, we push students through the system, using the same exact method over time with the same goal for the "product." We treat our students as if they were the same inventory coming through our system each day. The problem is that our students are products of different home environments, different skill sets, and different interests. The same approach does not work on each student. Additionally, the factory style system of education leaves no room for students to actually learn on a deep level.

I am a strong believer in the fact that we are on to something big in education. We have an opportunity to revolutionize education. In fact, I believe we have to in order to survive and thrive. The world in which our students are entering simply does not fit into the box that the education system tries to create around learning. There are many reasons why I believe this and many methods by which I think it can happen but for the sake of brevity, lets talk about two. We can change education through Technology and Project Based Learning (and every form of it including Challenge Based Learning and Inquiry Based Learning).

Technology. I am not saying that technology will teach our classes for us or that it will solve all of our problems. But technology opens doors to information, creation, and collaboration that we could never have dreamed of when we were kids. If used by teachers correctly, we can reach students at their level using their talents and interests as the driving force behind the learning. We can teach students not to simply retain and repeat information but to be able to qualify and quantify research from around the world. Our students can be publishers, producers, and professionals, no matter what grade they are in. This kind of education will change lives.

Project Based Learning. Project Based Learning will need to be mastered by our teachers. Through detailed and articulated project design, teachers will offer our students opportunities to become problem solvers who won't shy away from challenges. Through project design we will teach our students to ask questions and ask others questions in their pursuit of finding truth. Students who for years have been failed by our industrial system, will be reawakened by the opportunity to final use the skill set they were born with. And for goodness sake, our students will have fun with us!

We have to make it our goal to implement this approach in the new school year. Many students will resist at first because they are not used to asking questions and being challenged. But as we all know, when they start to understand that true learning is happening, the rest will be history. Lets revolutionize our classrooms this year. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Breaking Normal

There is one common element to the story of every great achievement, movement, or person. The common element is the struggle to "break normal" or overcome the status quo. It is never easy, but in the end, great accomplishments are well worth the struggle. This is true whether we are talking about the Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution, the experience of Paul the Apostle, or the development of the West Coast Offense. No matter how big or small, great things happen because of those who are willing to push beyond what is normal.

One of the struggles in education are the initiatives to standardize education from the federal and state level. Whether it is Common Core or NCLB, there is a desire from many to find the magic bullet of what teaching is, and disperse that method across the board in order to come up with standardized data. It is true that this is the most efficient way to collect and read data in a timely matter but the problem is that this is not how teaching or learning actually works. It is a bit more complicated.

The pressure on schools to perform has led to many school leaders and teachers buying in to the notion that whatever teaching strategies and practices that come from the top down are the actual practices and strategies that best suit our students. This is what has become "normal." However, great schools are breaking normal.

I am not suggesting that schools ignore state assessments or don't stay current in their knowledge of expected performance outcomes at the state and federal level. What I am suggesting is that schools take the approach that, "We will not base everything we do on performing well on tests. We will base everything we do on preparing students for college and career, providing social and educational opportunities for them to thrive, teach in a way that is truly based on solid pedagogy, challenge students to work with others, think critically, and create meaningful projects. And as a result of this approach, we will excel on state assessments. Not because it is our main objective, but because our students are actually learning." This is what breaking normal is all about.

So my suggestion for communities, schools, and teachers to spend their time working on expanding opportunities for students, providing opportunities for teachers to engage in professional learning opportunities, and pushing the envelope to create the best schools they can. We need to break normal once in for all if we truly want our kids to thrive! Leading is Teaching.