In decades of trying to improve schools, things aren’t working out. Maybe, we should apply a lesson of life to our approach to elementary school: Do the present right, and the future will take care of itself.
On the surface much of the lingo of school improvement seems full of confident commitment to excellence and success for all. Language like accountability for measurable outcomes, high standards, data driven decision-making, racing to the top, leaving no children behind, and so on is seductive. Hearing this language in a school system one imagines thousands of children working hard to produce results that will someday make thousands of adults proud of their collective commitment to success.
But the vision does not materialize. Look at the data that data-driven managers keep collecting from the workers. Are we getting those “results?” If one were as rigorous as that word “data” pretends to be, one might hypothesize that our approach is wrong. It is. Children don’t learn best this way. No one does.
Compare the behaviors that result from management-speak with the behaviors one sees in Joan’s first grade class.
Joan, a teacher in a Midwest school, treats her students as scientists. When they study penguins, for instance, they take expeditions to Antarctica as researchers. Each group of scientists is challenged to travel by boat, disembark, camp, observe conditions and penguins, record findings, return home and present results. Students are measuring height, depth, temperature, decoding nautical signal flag messages, weighing, keeping a log, observing and tallying penguin behaviors or playing math games on board ship to pass the time. One day some children slip into oversized black T-shirts to become their studied penguins, flapping flippers, collecting rocks or huddling together. Other children use binoculars from icebergs across the room to tally observed behaviors. When the scientists return home they graph the results and present to the class.
I visit the class at story time and see 24 faces fixed on Joan in rapt attention as she reads a story related to their recent experiences. At the end of the unit the students present their adventures and discoveries to older classes and to parents on Antarctica Day.
Joan’s students take responsibility for their own learning because they own it; they feel that their teacher is trying to give them opportunities to shine.
Learning the conventions of academics in this context, their performance on standardized tests skyrockets right along with self-worth. We all learn better when we take on challenges that are meaningful to us.
Management-speak hides a fear of long-term consequences that distracts from the real work of education. This, paradoxically, results in shortsighted action. Lessons become tests of worthiness, indicators of which students are likely to make it and which are at risk. A child challenged in the moment is seen as at risk at some point the future. Teachers are held accountable for “covering the material” toward some vision of future success. But this vision is a mirage, of course.
By contrast, Joan’s students live in the present thus preparing them for a future of enthusiastic learning. Focusing on children’s natural love of learning in the moment builds a love of challenge, resilience through failure and better long-term results. Measuring-up clouds may hover over Joan’s head, but there is no mirage of success on the horizon. She and her students are exploring the planet, not trudging through an empty desert.
Doing the present right builds on an important truth: first graders are whole people whose detective brains have already spent about 52,560 hours researching the world in which they find themselves. They are natural-born scientists still needing lots of experience and training in the disciplines of being scientists.
No one is at fault that education is not happening in most school systems. Systems tend to be insensitive to the active ingredients of education: internal motivation, individual decision-making, unique characters, useful data, specificity and love.
Many could, however, take responsibility. System leaders could hold teachers accountable for what really matters. Teachers could be true to their calling. We, the people, could expect educators to educate rather than simply follow directions and sort children.
It may seem like a management nightmare, but that is the leadership challenge.