Great Teachers Focus on Education, Not Tests.

A few years ago I taught a class of fourth- and fifth-graders in order to give the teachers some time to plan together. It was the easiest and best teaching I ever did, and a great example of how a great teacher doesn’t do it themselves but rather creates the conditions for the students to do it. Continue reading

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This March on Washington, Where’s the Dream?

At the end of this month there will be a  “Save our Schools March” on Washington. Unlike the 1963 March on Washington, there is no clear, shared vision of what it would look like if the desired changes happened. What would it look like if teachers and parents “took back the schools?”

Last month I published “Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really” in which I suggest that parents and other educators actually do know what we want. We want schools to graduate young people for the world as it is rather than for the industrial age.

The good news is, we know what those graduates should look like. Educators from Tony Wagner at Harvard to Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have identified the kinds of skills the world will require of our graduates: focusing, making connections, changing perspective, creating, making judgments, finding meaning, working with others, managing conflict, planning, taking on challenges, persevering, etc.

Citizens with these skills, however, will not come from whomever wins the big debates over testing, teachers, unions, accountability, privatization, vouchers, charter schools, and so on.

The great news is that the changes we want have already occurred in some schools for some students. Hundreds of schools across the country, both public and private, rich and poor, are learning communities whose cultures are focused on bringing out the best in each person, building their character and their competence, and growing their authority. They have abandoned the Pyramid Model. For these schools and the people in them the game of school is not the “Get the Right Answers Game” but the “Work with Others to Investigate Interesting Questions Game.” These schools are graduating young people for the future—any future.

I have met many of these young people. They are everything we say we want: confident, creative collaborators who can communicate, they can speak and write, and solve problems on their own and also know when to involve others, and they are not into measuring up but rather into making a difference. They are trying to find their own unique place in a very wide world, and seem quite ready for the dynamic never-ending process of self-reinvention.

Moreover, they aren’t all under 30. Apparently this change has been going on for at least a generation. A parent at one school was going on about how wonderful her daughter’s school was. He said: “I visited 15 different schools. I could tell in five minutes that I wanted this school.”

So, I asked, “Terrific, but what’s so great?” Continue reading

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Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Why do Americans want one set of things for our children and then behave as if we want another? Parents and teachers I talk to want their children to be self-confident learners who are good at working with others, and they want school to help with this.

Of course we want our children to read, write and learn the language of mathematics, but we want much more, too. We want them to learn the requirements of our family and our society and to become active participants—leaders, actually—in an increasingly democratic world. We want them to grow up with self-discipline, respect for others, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, a love of learning, and the internal motivation to make something of themselves. We want them to be people who take responsibility and make a positive difference to others, their community, and the world, …and the world needs people who think creatively—now more than ever.

When it comes to school, however, we often behave as if all we care about is test scores and what colleges our children attend. In urban systems our expectations drop even lower to things like “Our goal is for all students to be at or above grade level.” We are even blind to the obvious fact that such a goal is impossible and self-defeating.

Why? Fear.

When we are confident and courageous, we act as if authenticity matters. We trust the part of us that knows that success and happiness depend on pursuing your own calling and finding your own niche in society. We realize that great colleges are looking for leaders, people who think creatively and make a difference. We, therefore, act as if we believe in the genius of each individual child and encourage them not to lose sight of their own personal mission as they find their fit in society. We create environments at home and at school that value inquiry and are open to the wisdom of silly questions. Achievement is put in its proper place as a subset of learning. We have a sense of humor.

In an atmosphere of fear, however, our minds are taken over as if by an evil empire dominated by a social pyramid where life is a race to the top. In this model it is quite reasonable to be afraid that some children will be left behind. In fact in this model the vast majority of children will be left behind, and only a few will make it to the top—it’s a pyramid, right?

We seem to believe the many myths of this model–lies like: Continue reading

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Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence II

After reading “Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence” Lyn decided to try the approach and told me this story about her two-year-old daughter Uma: Continue reading

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Arrogance is a Learning Disability

The Education of Character is Education Itself.

Many years ago I was consultant to a school that had a reputation for “strong academics,” but was experiencing a lot of “behavior problems.” The kids were mean to each other and to their teachers.

In one conversation about a seventh grader named Justin the teachers expressed their frustration that Justin interrupted his classmates, sounded like a know-it-all, blurted out answers, put others down for their questions and insulted teachers. One teacher said: “He takes after his father.” Others agreed.

At one point in the conversation one of the teachers said, “It’s a shame because Justin is such a good student.” At this point I said: “Wait. That statement is oxymoronic. Arrogance is a learning disability. He may get good grades on tests, but he is inhibiting his own learning as well as others. A know-it-all will not learn as much as someone who will listen to others.” I paused. “And we will never get his father to help us help him change if we label him a ‘strong student.’ That’s what his father cares about.”

By placing “academics” and “morality” in separate categories we compromise our ability to educate. Whether a student is searching for the right words to address a classmate or the best way to state a thesis in an essay, the challenge is essentially the same. Collecting oneself before entering the exam room, the sports arena, or the playground requires the same disciplines. The skills for solving math problems and social problems overlap. Educating “the whole person” starts with understanding that our work is to fully educate each kharakter in our care.


Humility, perseverance, openness, courage, patience, creativity, integrity, resourcefulness, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness are not so much virtues as disciplines, and they serve us well in all endeavors from the social to the academic, from the artistic to the athletic. The habit of taking responsibility is necessary for both homework and interpersonal conflict. The habit of always being respectful no matter what produces best results both in and out of the classroom. Respect, like other disciplines, is not a character trait, but a skill that can be learned. Parents and teachers need to work together to teach our children the disciplines that will help them build character. In the end, education of character is education itself.

 

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The Story of the Three Little Girls

Once there were three little girls, Kathy, Lilly and Susan. They were all new to my school in the seventh grade and had come from different schools. But in eighth grade, when they were together, they turned themselves into a gang that was mean to other kids with increasing frequency and ferocity. Teachers knew it was happening, but the girls were clever and slippery. We could rarely catch them in a teachable moment or a punishable act. The most we could do was talk to them. As you can imagine, that didn’t change anything.

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