Educating in an Age of Fear

A few years ago I was with my family in a national park and we attended one of the presentations by the Park Ranger. I have fond memories of these as a child in the early to mid-seventies. The presentation I saw with my daughter was reminiscent of my childhood experiences. It was mostly information about the park, the animals and plants—a general presentation about the complexity and beauty of the geology and ecosystem. The recent version of the presentation included a disturbing new element. The concluding message this time was a dire warning that all of this was in danger of being lost and it was really up to the next generation to rescue. I didn’t think much of it at the time until I started noticing the same message in nature programs such as “Nature” or “Nova” on PBS, and at other parks, information boards at science museums, etc. That’s an awful big load to put on the shoulders of an 8-year old.

We are educating in an age of fear—fear about pollution in our air and water, global warming, terrorism, lock down drills, endangered species—hell an entire endangered planet. How many adults are paralyzed by these fears? Should our children be as well?

Buddhism teaches to stand with a strong back and a soft front. The strong back is needed to stand up and face the difficulties of the world, but the soft front is needed to embrace the world. I fear the next generation(s) will not have the soft front. Will they retreat into hard-shelled cocoons in order to protect themselves from the onslaught of burdens put upon them by our generation?

Students today have access to the global information network like we never did as children. This is an awesome gift, but also a heavy burden. As educators, it is paramount that we maintain our soft front so that we can teach with compassion and empathy as children of younger and younger ages are cognizant of the global village and not just their local “tribe.”

But there-in might be the answer. Not only do we need to teach with compassion and empathy, I believe we must teach compassion and empathy. Social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin gave a talk at the Royal Society for the Arts called the Empathic Civilisation in which he puts forth an interesting idea.

Consider this. 50,000 years ago the empathy one felt was to their blood ties or clan. Anyone further away than “shouting distance” was outside your sphere of concern, or empathy. As time progressed, the world became smaller as individual’s “tribes” grew. Agriculture, written communication, and religion expanded one’s empathy beyond clans to tribes. Nation-states formed and one’s empathy was extended to those sharing national identity which at times superseded tribes. Here we are in 2013 and social networking as the potential to expand empathy beyond national borders. Consider the nearly instantaneous global response to a natural disaster. Images and information spread within minutes! The rest of the world offers help within hours! Rifkin we are actually “soft-wired” for empathy and this soft-wiring can and is stronger than hard wiring for individual survival.

Maybe teaching our children (and the adults too) compassion and empathy for the global tribe, which should also include other species as well is the answer. Bombarding our children with fear may be oppressing and dangerous as it might kick in the hard-wiring for survival (think cocoon mode), but fostering the soft-wiring for empathy and compassion might actually be life-affirming and empowering.

Here is a link to the RSA Animate of Rifkin’s talk

Standardization, The Hunger Games, and Broad Generalizations

Warning. This blog post is filled with broad generalizations. However, the point is to spark some dialogue and thinking, so here goes. I stumbled across an excerpt from a George Carlin monologue about education reform. It is amazing what seemingly random things appear on youtube. I was actually looking for an interview by Alfie Kohn about progressive education. At least it wasn’t nude kittens gone wild. Carlin was speaking about why education reform will never happen. In a nutshell, he said that education reform will never happen because the owners of the country (those with the money and power) don’t have an incentive for it to get better. In fact, the opposite is true. They don’t want well-informed well-educated citizens who can critically think about the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. They want obedient workers smart enough to do the work, but just dumb enough to continue to pine for the jobs with increasing hours and responsibilities and decreasing pay, benefits and retirement plans. He used more colorful language. Quite a conspiracy theory I dismissed as the rant of a cantankerous old man. But then I started thinking (which was his point I suppose).

Let’s compare two schools. In the first one, 35 students are quietly listening to the teacher perform a fabulous lecture in front of a Smart™ Board. They take their notes. Some come up and interact with the board and answer a question or two. Eventually they will take an objective test on this material that is organized in scope and sequence to prepare for the state exam on that subject. The teachers use multiple choice tests because they need to prepare their students for the state exams, AP tests, and college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT—and because they couldn’t grade 180 essays.

Many of the students do well on these tests. Many don’t. However, what data we don’t have is how many of these students complete college, love learning, and end up fulfilled with what they end up doing in life. Tough data to collect. In the second school, 18 students are in small groups discussing a topic or working together on an activity. The teacher is moving around, stopping at each table and checking in with each group. At the end of this unit, the students will present the results of their research in a “conference” to their peers. These kids also take AP tests and college entrance exams. Most do well on these. Most go to college. However, what data we don’t have is how many of these students complete college, love learning, and end up fulfilled with what they end up doing in life. Again, tough data to collect. Maybe we should find a way to collect this data?

In case you haven’t guessed, the first one is your average neighborhood public school. The second is your average neighborhood private school. Okay, here begins the broad generalizations. Most people would choose the second school if they could. Many politicians continue to try and pass vouchers to allow public money to allow some students to go to these private schools because, well, they must be better. They must be better because the teachers aren’t teaching to a test, the class size is almost half the public school, the teacher can spend more time with each kid and require more writing and project-work which builds critical thinking skills, multiple teaching days a year aren’t lost to testing, and the teachers don’t have to follow the state curriculum of the state standards. They can be creative. They can be progressive.      Here’s the broadest, most sweeping generalization. The “owners” of the country, or the decision makers, are more likely to send their child to a private, progressive school for the reasons I just listed above. However, when in power and they want to improve the public schools, they pass laws to make public schools better that make it ever harder to do the things the same way as in the private schools, which they would prefer for their children. They mandate tests, a national curriculum (standards), and reduce funding (increasing class size). I don’t think it is a conscious conspiracy like George does, but what if the system has evolved to the same result? Does it matter if it was conscious our not?

A few years ago I was at the “Progressive Educators Network” annual conference. Most in attendance were private school teachers and administrators, because the majority of truly progressive schools are private. One of the speakers said that as private school leaders we had a responsibility to help the public schools do the same because not just the wealthy students deserved an education that fostered creativity, love of learning, and critical thinking.

The “owners” of the country have the money and therefore the power and therefore the divide between those with access to resources and those without continues to grow. They have access to a cleaner environment and living situation as the toxic waste dump won’t be in their back yard. They have access to better health care. They have access to ever more and more expensive energy resources. They have access to healthier food instead of processed food. And, they get to send their kids to schools that have smaller classes, require more writing and critical thinking, have academic freedom, etc. which furthers the divide for the next generation. OMG! Are we heading toward a future of The Hunger Games where a majority of the population works to provide resources and goods for the few that live in the Capitol City? Kind of sounds like a return to the time of castles and fiefdoms.

Well, now I’m the cantankerous old man with the rant aren’t I? I do know this; all children deserve an opportunity to be in a place that develops their creativity, their critical-thinking skills, and a teacher with the time and means to focus on them as individual learners, treating them with dignity, compassion, and humanity. I also know that the rush toward standardization is not producing schools that do this, so something must change or I do fear dark times ahead for the generations to come.

Educating Those on the Margins

I think there are two kinds of educators. There are those that are educators because they are passionate about a subject and they wanted to share that passion. Then there are those that are educators because they love kids. They could and would teach anything. To generalize, the former tend to be in secondary education, and the latter tend to be in elementary education. However, I believe the great teachers are educators for both reasons.

I have to say, I have generally been the first type. I see the world through a biology lens and as a Jehovah’s Witness is to evangelizing their faith, I am about evangelizing my biological view. But I’m trying to grow as a teacher.

There are students in every classroom that operate around the margins. They are those that have not fit in, been bullied, carry baggage into the classroom that prevents them from engaging with the other students, or in other words, are hidden in plain sight. I wonder how many of these kids I have not seen and not reached out to during my career as a teacher? In what way could I have served as a better mirror for him or her to see them in a new way, instead of in a way that limited their hopes and dreams?

Please watch this Ted Talk by Shane Koyczan and reflect and dialogue with colleagues about those students hiding in plain sight.

Why Are Essential Questions Essential for Good Teaching?

Most teachers are taught to write objectives for their lessons or units. Most textbooks (which drive most teachers lesson planning) have objectives written at the beginning of each chapter. Let’s look at an example:

  •  Students will understand the taxonomic classification system used by scientists and be able explain the phylogenetic relationship among organisms.

Technically, it is a good objective. It clearly states what the student will know and do. If I was 16 and reading this at the beginning of a chapter or on the syllabus, I have to admit that my first reaction might be, “wanna bet?” This objective is essentially useless to a student. By the end of the unit it might have some value. However, as the first thing a student reads to introduce a new topic it doesn’t work. It requires use and understanding of topic specific terminology to understand what the topic is about. That should be your goal for the lesson, not the starting point.

Teachers are taught to use objectives as a means to communicate to the student exactly what the point of the lesson and what expectations the teacher has for them. However, if you can’t understand the objective, the objective statement no longer has any value to the student. It might be a very useful tool for the teacher to organize and prioritize what lessons need to be done. This is emblematic of the problem with much of the teaching that occurs. Closed circuit announcement to the teachers: it isn’t about you! You already know it. It is about the students. Everything you do is to make it possible for the students to learn as much as possible as efficiently as possible. Instead of the above objective, what if the teacher started with questions such as these:

  • “How are living things organized into groups?”
  • “What can the organization of living things tell scientists about their relationships?”

Why waste the first day of instruction explaining what the objective means? Why not ask the students questions they can begin to answer right away? Admittedly, they would not be able to answer the questions using the correct terminology, but they could begin to form an answer to the question within the first five minutes of the unit of study. Beginning with the objective initially marginalizes any students struggling with the course. Beginning with the questions doesn’t exclude any learners. Anyone can fashion an answer that is their best guess. Your job as the teacher is to not accept “I don’t know.” Everyone knows something, because they have experienced life. The journey into a new topic should always begin here, with what they already know. They might be surprised by what they have already observed and learned. Contrary to what many may believe, students are not blank slates, or in more modern imagery, empty hard drives waiting to have new data written on them. As the unit progresses, they can then juxtapose what they thought they knew with what they know at the end. Your job is to then help them refine that knowledge by allowing them the time for cognitive dissonance between what they have already observed with the actual.

Also, essential questions provide the students a practice test question. Reading the objective as they study for the exam elicits passivity on the part of the student. It’s either “yep, can do that” or “nope, don’t get it.” The essential question elicits active work as they actually answer the question, but this time in much more detail than at the beginning of the unit. It also allows the student to see how much he or she has learned.

Maybe most importantly, beginning with the question creates a culture of mutual discovery and exploration, which I believe is a much more inviting learning environment than a statement that communicates an intellectual separation between the teacher and the student. Yes you are the expert on the topic, but in a culture of mutual discovery the student is empowered to learn. In the other the student is the compliant receptacle of information from the teacher. This might make for a quieter, more orderly classroom, but also makes for shallower learning and less meaningful construction of knowledge on the part of the student. So, again, I ask, why are essential questions essential to good teaching?

Let Them Have the Cookie!

Do you know the children’s book, if you give a mouse a cookie? A boy gives a cookie to a mouse. Then the mouse needs a glass of milk. Then a litany of requests: a straw (to drink the milk), a mirror (to avoid a milk mustache), nail scissors (to trim his hair), and a broom (to sweep up). After that he wants to nap, which requires a story read to him, time to draw a picture, and to hang the drawing on the refrigerator. Looking at the refrigerator of course makes him thirsty, so the mouse asks for a glass of milk. And what goes better with milk, than a cookie?

If you give a child the love of learning….

Except children already have a love of learning. As they grow and go to school, we manage to take that away from many of our students. I had a recent conversation with a teacher about when to start having students investigating their own questions and doing their own inquiry. I got the answer I so often get. “We can’t do that until we get the basic skills down first—then in more advanced classes students get to do that kind of learning.”

No. No. No. No! This is backwards. The American Psychological Association has recommended teachers reconsider constructivist methods, contending that students are active learners who should be given opportunities to construct their own frames of thought. Students need to be put in learning situations where they are doing the work of learning, not the work of listening to and memorizing the teacher’s understanding of a topic. They need to be free to infer and discover their own answers to important questions. To enjoy learning.

To dig deeper into what this might look like, see my recorded presentation, Thematic, Inquiry-Based Biology.

There is a notion among many educators that we can’t do progressive or constructivist education until we have “taught” them the basic skills. Do you see the contradiction here? This is especially the practice with students who are disengaged or disenfranchised from school and worse, from a life of learning. It is especially true that as these students get older we need to use these methods. Why does the learning in school look less and less like how children learn—asking questions, making mistakes, seeking guidance, exploring, and play?

Ask most teachers how they learned something complex, say for example how to teach, and they won’t cite a great lecture where they were told how to teach. They will cite doing it and figuring it out, hopefully with the help of a good mentor. Why do they then assume their students can’t do this until they are “taught” the basic skills? I’m not saying there aren’t times for teacher-centered, direct instruction. But, it should be the exception, not the norm. Students would learn the basic skills much better if they weren’t memorizing another’s understanding of those skills and basic content, but instead were applying those skills and concepts as they were investigating something that had meaning, with the help of a good mentor. That’s where the teaching comes in. Don’t lecture about a topic, then have them look at it, and then tell them again what they saw. Instead have them consider what they already know, explore it to construct some meaning, and then lecture, or better yet dialogue with them, to allow them to confirm what they saw and deal with the cognitive dissonance with what they thought would happen.

The problem isn’t that we have gone away from or quit teaching the basics. The problem is that is predominantly all we are doing—especially for students on the wrong end of the achievement gap. I think we don’t so much have an achievement gap, but instead a learning gulf that we have created. It mirrors our country’s economics. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Those engaged with school, get the fun learning. Those behind get the boring learning. If this was you, would you want to keep learning? Why take students that haven’t succeeded in learning the basics through teacher-centered models and slow them down even more and continue to do more of the same that didn’t work the first time? How will that catch them up?

Instead of decreasing the amount of inquiry, exploration, and play, our students are doing, we need to increase it to keep them loving learning. For Pete’s sake, give them a cookie. Who knows what will happen next? Well, maybe that is what scares most teachers.

Assessment and Standards

Assessment and standards. Ugh. Do we really have to talk about standards and tests used to assess students’ progress on standards? I have to say I am exhausted by this topic. But I also know that it isn’t going away. It is only going to get more exhausting. While working with the next generation of teachers, I do not know if I see hope or despair on the horizon around this issue.

We had an interesting conversation in class the other day. I projected the US News and World Report ranking the top ten schools in Minnesota. I began with a question. “If you could choose any of these schools, which would you choose?” They looked dumbfounded. It was universal. The number 1 school of course. Then I asked them to collectively list the qualities they would look for if visiting a school under consideration for their child. They listed things like class size, the “feel” of the classroom, the enthusiasm of the teacher, the “sense of community,” and a litany of other qualitative measures. Test scores was not a criterion mentioned. Then we clicked on one of the schools on the list to examine the criteria used to rank the schools. There were four measures: College Readiness Index (AP test availability and scores), Math and Reading Proficiency (MCA test scores), and Student/Teacher Ratio. Digging in deeper we compared a top ten school with a non-ranked school. The non-ranked school had exactly the same MCA scores and a better student/teacher ratio. It was unranked because they did not offer AP exams. Therefore with N/A in the college readiness category they did not qualify for a ranking. Since when did the ability to take an AP test signify college readiness? How about the ability to research and write? Hope or despair. I can’t decide. These future teachers get it, but they do not have the information they need to make an informed decision.

The next day in class we were exploring assessment. I asked these college students to make a list of the type of assessments they felt were most effective at allowing them to show what they really knew and could do. The list is predictable: performance assessments, presentations, essay exams, etc. “What type of assessment doesn’t work?” Again the answer was predictable with a chorus of “multiple choice tests.” Hope or despair. Really, I can’t decide.

Lastly, the discussion was about the use of standards. When I began teaching at my first job, I was teaching 7th grade life science. I asked about the curriculum. I was handed a textbook. That was it. No other guidance. It was great, at least from the standpoint of academic freedom. Those learning to teach today have been through a different education system—one dominated by standards and testing. There is no consideration of another way for most of them. The reality of school is that individual classes are exercises in checking off standards. It’s a wonder why anyone who went through an education system like that would volunteer to spend the rest of their adult lives “going to school” in such an uninspiring system. But here they are saying things like “I have always wanted to be a teacher,” and “I can’t wait to teach.” To their credit, this crop of future teachers seems to understand that the standards are for the teacher, not the students. In a sense, the standards should stay hidden behind the scenes for the students, and that their job is to view the standards as the content to teach and that their academic freedom now is relegated to how to teach the content. God bless them. Hope, I guess.

Here’s the despair. These future teachers are all (hopefully) going to get a job soon. And in that job they will be surrounded by a variety of pressures. Other teachers focused on the test, using the efficient scantron multiple choice test because they have 185 tests to grade, merit pay based on students’ test scores, teachers and principals that don’t understand that the standards are NOT the curriculum, and that true learning happens when students conduct inquiry into interesting essential questions. Seriously…hope or despair?

Talking is not Teaching

I was having a discussion with student in on of my education classes the other day. They were telling me about some of their experiences in their practicum–which is when they spend 20 hours during the term visiting a classroom. Their time hopefully is a mixture of observing the classroom, sort of educational ethnography if you will, and interacting with students. This comes in the form of tutoring individual students, assisting the teacher during classroom activities like labs and group work, working with small groups, and so on.

It’s interesting, and sometimes disappointing to listen to them talk about their experiences. This is especially true for some of the students placed in high school classrooms. “I don’t get to do anything, because all that happens is the the teacher talks the entire time.”

We had an interesting discussion about the difference between talking and teaching, which concluded the statement, “remember, talking is not teaching.” Unfortunately, for all too many teachers I have known, and for some of the students I am working with, this is a revolutionary statement. During my years as an administrator and teacher, I’ve heard too many teachers say in exasperation, “But I talked about (fill in the concept) over and over again, and they still didn’t get it on the test.” Well, no wonder I’ve wanted to say. “What have the students done? Not what did you do. You already know it, but they don’t.”

When you as a teacher tell your students the information, at best they will rent the knew knowledge from you and give it back to you on a test. It isn’t until they have to do something with it, construct some understanding and make some meaning will they actually own it.

This reminds me of a quote that underscores the basic element of California Indian pedagogy that I got from a book titled Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. “When you teach someone something, you’ve robbed them the person of the experience of learning it. You need to be cautious before you take that experience away from someone else.”

Talking is not teaching.

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