To start the new year and the revival of my blog, I would like to share something I recently wrote. You might want to see #TeacherTom piece about learning styles and what #AlfieKohn has to say about doing with rather than doing to children.
Schools, Not Children, Need to Change
Every day another article or book is published about a necessary fix or transformative activity that will improve children’s success in school. Rather than focusing on real learning and growth, success is usually defined by test scores. Most of these suggestions rely on fixing, changing or “doing to” children rather than changing the environment and the attitudes of those who work with them.
Parents and schools are told that they need to make children more mindful, grittier, and de-stressed. We are told that children, in order to be successful, need to be able to self-regulate (wait for that marshmallow!), develop a growth mindset, and build character. The children must be taught cooperative learning methods while coding and pedaling at their desks. They must apply rigor and use some metacognition while they’re at it and, even during the summer, avoid the “slide!”
Based on these articles and books, curriculum packages and lesson plans are created and adopted. Teachers attend workshops and webinars while an entire new vocabulary and jargon is established, and then widely used. Instead of questioning, over time, the validity of these various solutions for children’s success, schools swallow them whole and then feed them to children in their classrooms.
The problem is they’ve got it backwards. It should not be about changing or improving children, it should be about changing and improving schooling. We cannot tweak, here and there, an existing system that is not conducive to promoting thinking, learning and caring. And we distract ourselves with trendy faux solutions rather than truly looking at the environment in which we place children and teachers. In short, it places blame and responsibility in the wrong places.
If we were not concentrating on test scores and, instead, celebrating how capable children are, we might then look at the schooling culture, and make real change happen. But when we constantly distract ourselves with so-called new fixes, we miss some very good ideas. What we need is to completely rethink what schooling looks like and use what we have long known about learning and happiness to create something better.
It isn’t that children need more grit, more mindfulness, more de-stressing activities, more executive functioning, more and better understanding of how neurons fire, more structure, more, more, more. We need to stop devising methods for fixing children and, instead, put the focus on fixing school.
So, let’s turn the tables and consider how to use these ideas and practices to fix schools:
Grit – schools need to have the courage to advocate for what is right for children. Schools need the grit to stand up and say, “Enough is enough!” when it comes to standardizing teaching.
Mindfulness – schools need to allow teachers and children slow, precious time to be together and to build strong, authentic relationships. Teachers need to be experts, rather than technicians, in understanding individual children.
De-stressing techniques – schools need to create environments that are flexible, comfortable and interesting, not test driven and competitive so that there is less stress and no need to incorporate de-stressing activities.
Character education – schools need to provide an atmosphere where everyone—teachers, families, and children—are respected, advocated for and treated well.
Cooperative learning – schools need to be a model of collaboration, trust, and cooperation. That means teachers collaborate, families are invited to participate and share in decision-making, and administrators support their staff and community. This does not require a curriculum or lesson plan.
Self-Regulation – schools need to provide space and time for children to practice being together in natural, positive ways. Play is the best way to do this. Play experiences and long periods for recess, should be the norm for every school day, at every age. When conflicts arise, children and teachers work them out.
Pedal or standing desks – schools need to offer flexible seating and work spaces with a variety of ways to work—on the floor, in a loft, in a cardboard box, at a table, on a couch. And children need to spend long periods of time outdoors, every day.
Growth Mindset – I admire the research of Carol Dweck. However, children and teachers don’t need to know how neurons fire in order to boost a belief in their capabilities and potential. Instead, schools need to stop interrogating and judging children. Competition is a destroyer of learning and sets up conditions that are ripe for cheating. The school should embrace risk taking, exploring, making mistakes as necessary to growth, and seeing teachers as co-researchers with children.
And then, there are other suggestions and approaches that, on the face of it, make sense. However, they often deteriorate into lesson plans, removed from the real life and realities of human children.
Resources – Children don’t need more corporate “resources” such as test packages, curricula, and textbooks. Schools need to provide space and time for children to explore, to tinker, to invent and to make things. They need to “do” and stop being done to. Children need to be seen as resources.
Global Studies – Being a good citizen of the world begins in the classroom and then extends out to the community. Understanding global issues, diversity, and universal connections requires that children gain knowledge through reading, discussion, and debate but it must begin with children seeing democracy take place within the school itself. Does the school ask children and families for real input and ideas? Do children get a say in decisions about what affects them directly in their classrooms? Do the adults know how to help children work through conflicts? Also, children need to go out into the school neighborhood and town, meet their neighbors, work, and participate in the life around them. They can apprentice, observe, and be mentored by adults in the community while learning that there are people nearby that care about them.
Environmental Education – As David Sobel has said, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.“ Children shouldn’t learn about nature and the environment through pictures, lesson plans and dire warnings. The school needs to provide outdoor learning and use nature as a regular part of the child’s school day. Being a good steward of the Earth begins with loving nature and learning about the interconnectedness of all life.
Summer Slide –The school should send a clear, strong message about learning, through demonstration and conversation, that learning is happening all the time and not exclusive to a classroom. Summer should be about another kind of learning experience, one that broadens the child’s horizons through active learning, play and adventure. Besides, when something is truly learned (not memorized for a test and then lost), it is not forgotten.
But until we can actually change schooling, let’s ask schools and teachers to–
- Be kind.
- Focus on the child as a whole person.
- Regularly ask the “why” of what you are asking kids to do.
- Be curious about kids, about the way they think and learn.
- Listen closely.
- Write for your own understanding and growth.
- Have real conversations with children.
- Ask good questions—not to quiz, but to provoke more thinking.
- Encourage, don’t praise, reward or punish.
- Recognize that there are many ways for children to be smart, many ways for them to express feelings and many ways for them to be who they are.
- Stop being the interrogator and judge of children. Be their co-researcher.
- Recognize and celebrate that each child learns in different ways, at different rates.
- Remember that children have all the same feelings we do, but don’t always think the way we do (and the younger they are, the more this is true) and
- That all children want to learn, to be heard, and to belong.
- That they need to be comfortable and safe, physically and emotionally.
- That they love being engaged in inquiry, mystery and adventure.
- That they need to move.
- That learning grows when children collaborate with others in work and play.
No catchy or clever words and phrases, no webinars or fixes for children. Instead, treat all children like human beings who are intelligent, curious, and capable within environments where children thrive, each in his or her own way. Environments where kindness, joy and understanding are a given. And kids get to do interesting things, with ample time and space to explore and invent.
Dr. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, said it best:
For the past two centuries or so, we have come to believe that what children need to know in order to become happy and productive adults can be learned by sitting in a crowded room and listening to an adult talk abstract language, while surrounded by other immature children. It takes a gigantic act of faith to believe that this is possible, but we seem increasingly willing to delude ourselves on this account, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Let’s work together to change schools, not work so hard to change children.