The Need to Create

What I’ve always found most energizing about teaching are two things. First, is that moment when a student “gets it.” Their face lights up with recognition and understanding when they finally achieve a goal—that first “A” on a paper, or maybe simply finally understanding a difficult concept. The second part of teaching that most energizes me is the creativity involved in creating curriculum. Thinking of and then creating new experiences for students, and then seeing them play out and work, which then leads back to the first most energizing thing for me in teaching. When I am in a teaching situation in which I don’t get to create new ideas, activities, assignments, and so on, quite simply, I get bored.

I was at a conference this weekend with many other educators and at one point the conversation shifted to talk about the impact standardization of curriculum and standardized testing has had on teaching. In short, it is killing the creativity. However, as much as I want to blame bad policy and ill-informed policy-makers (which certainly is not hard to do mind you), I want to also point a finger back at us teachers.

Having recently done some work to align a biology curriculum to Minnesota state standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (created by the National Science Teachers Association) it dawned on me that as much as we teachers want to complain about not having enough time to do more project-based learning, more innovative teaching in our classroom because of the standards, much of this argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Before we proceed. Make no mistake, I still strongly believe that the standardization of curriculum and standardized testing are having disastrous effects on education in this country. Now to continue. After reviewing these standards, what I found was that the content in the standards is the same biology I learned in school, which was pre-standards and largely dictated by what was in the textbook being used at the time. So here’s my challenge to the teachers. Yes the standardized testing is having very negative unintended consequences on education. But set that aside and quite operating out of a fear of failure and instead operate out of an anticipation of success. Set the standards aside when planning curriculum (they just say what we’ve always agreed upon as important information to be taught) and create. Create challenging questions for your students to answer. Create engaging presentations to excite their curiosity. Create fascinating project ideas for them to pursue. Create opportunities for them to ask their own questions. If you do this, they will learn, and they will pass the standardized tests.

When I get in this mode in my teaching and start creating, not only does my teaching improve but I have also found that when I am in a teaching situation that requires a great deal of effort and creativity this then spills into other areas of my life–writing, music, art, and the like. It must have been quite a challenging and creative year for me. Now for the shameless plug. I have recently recorded a CD of original music, and will publish my first book this spring. I hope you will check them out by going to my website, http://www.timothygoodwin.net

Let Them See the Wizard

A few years ago, I started letting my students see behind the curtain, if you will. In addition to teaching them the content of the science I was teaching, I started to share my thinking about why I was teaching them what I was teaching them in the way that I was teaching it. It wasn’t really a strategic decision. It was more a decision out of necessity. It was a few years ago that I made significant shifts in my teaching from a more traditional, teacher-centered model to a more student-centered model that embraced a philosophy of constructivism (or progressivism depending on who’s doing the defining).

It was a few years ago that I started designing all of my courses around essential questions instead of the more common practice of using objectives. When I think of a teacher starting out a unit or lesson by telling their students the objectives of the lesson, I hear the voice of the adults in the peanuts cartoons. “Wa wa, Wa Wa, Waaa.”I also stopped using points in my grading system and switched to all essay exams and project-based assessment.

Some of the students (and some parents) got a little twitchy. So the simplest answer was to simply tell the kids straight up, not dumbing it down for them at all, the reasons I was teaching in this manner. It became a part of my normal routine to explain how grading in this manner increased student engagement and reduced cheating; before exams I explained that writing an essay allowed them to show me what they knew in their own language instead of interpreting my questions; and by using questions at the beginning of the lesson to uncover their prior knowledge and comparing that to what the thought they knew at the beginning, this allowed them to construct meaning which better matched how the brain actually works.

And in the end, they became better engaged in my class and (for many of them anyway) they became more partners in learning with me than pupils. Of course they still were the students, and I as the teacher still set the agenda, most of the time anyway. But I did not realize that for many of the students, the simple act of telling them why we were learning what we were learning and in the way we were, this would make them better students. Nobody, even kids–more maybe especially kids–likes to be left in the dark and feel like they are not in control. When we pulled back the curtain, they found there wasn’t a wizard back there. Just a guy doing his best to make it as easy as possible for them to learn as much as possible. And that made all the difference.

But If I Don’t Give a Test, How Do I Know They Know It?

“But if I don’t give them a test, how will I know they know it?” This question drives so much of our teaching and education policy and practice. And for the sake of this essay, I’m defining test as an objective test—multiple choice, matching, true-false, etc that mostly tests memorization of vocabulary and basic concepts. Granted, some objective tests do go beyond this and require application of knowledge to answer the questions instead of just recall, but I don’t think it is a stretch to say that these are the minority. And even in those cases, success on those more high-quality tests are also an test of decoding the question and of a student’s reading skills.

It is interesting (actually frustrating) to watch novice teachers—even experienced teachers and even me occasionally, fall into this trap. In one way it goes back to feeling the need to have a quantifiable grade to enter into spreadsheet, but that is only part of it. We have been indoctrinated that school is about tests and learning is about answering questions on tests.

We have made great progress in the profession in our understanding of how the brain works and actually constructs knowledge. We know that true knowledge involves incorporating content into one’s own understandings which is then juxtaposed against prior knowledge. This is how one truly makes meaning and is near the top of Blooms Taxonomy. This is what we strive for as educators.

blooms

Because of what we have learned, many teachers are correctly implementing more rigorous project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, more in-depth writing and so on as a part of the teaching tool box. We do this because we have learned that if they can do these skills and apply and work with the content knowledge, vocabulary, concepts, etc. then they will actually know it much better than if they memorize the script of vocabulary definitions. I like to say that if students do this they will “own” the knowledge instead of just “renting” it for the test. Yet many of us still follow up all of that great work students do by using a traditional test as the tool to measure the final outcome of the learning. Throughout our lesson plans we have climbed our way up the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid to the higher order thinking skills, but then at the end fall back down to the bottom when we test them. What this communicates to the students is that all the other stuff was nice and all, but really matters is can you memorize the vocabulary. It’s time to recognize that the traditional test measure, as convenient as it might be is no longer the right instrument to use. By using the other measures you can know that they know it and so much more than before. We have outgrown the test. Now we just need to recognize it.

Meeting a Hero

Some years ago I watched a movie titled Mindwalk. I then read a book by the scientist who co-wrote the screenplay titled The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra. His best-selling book before that was titled The Tao of Physics. The movie and the book were a turning point in my career as an educator. My eyes were opened to systems thinking and in particular, ecological thinking, as Capra would call it. This first introduction to this thinking happened while I was working on Master’s degree in the late 1990s. In fact, it changed the course of my Master’s research and of my teaching of biology.

A few years later I came across a workshop that was accepting limited participants being led by Dr. Capra. So I applied, and to my surprise was selected to go. I got to be one of the thirty people invited to go! This was exciting as this was my academic hero after all. So off I went to San Francisco to explore ecological thinking and the applications of such thinking on education and social justice issues. Where else would something like this be held? I landed in the big city and found the van from the retreat center, while pre-occupied thinking about what I will ask Dr. Capra when I got the chance. It had to be something smart of course. I should add that I was 10 days removed from back surgery so could only survive the plane flight and carting luggage through the airport with the aide of pain medication. So maybe I wasn’t in my clearest frame of mind initially. As the van made some stops I realized I was in a van with 8 other people representing multiple countries and continents and many advanced degrees. Most were older and more accomplished than me. I did not belong here. Self-doubt is a powerful drug. More powerful than Vicodin. Hell, I was just a teacher/charter school administrator struggling to not get car-sick winding through the hills of Northern California. Feeling small and insignificant I arrived at the retreat center an hour north of San Francisco – so like 20 miles.

I found my sleeping room/cabin and then made the trek up the hill to the common building/cafeteria to check it out and thinking about meeting someone whose writing has had a major impact on my thinking. Walking ahead of me was a tall man with curly grey hair. He entered the building a few paces ahead of me and stopped to look around. I followed and did the same. All good introverts do this when entering a strange place–pause to scan the landscape for dangerous predators, you know like tigers, lions, gregarious extroverts, etc. Standing there the was the man who entered ahead of me, now by my side, turns to me and said, “Hi, I’m Fritjof.” Insert sit-com spit-take here. Actually I’m sure I said hello and nothing more. Who can be sure? Remember, the Vicodin.

A couple of evenings later all of the attendees were sitting around a fire drinking wine and having snacks. I recall sitting around the fire and having a conversation with Fritjof (notice the first name basis here) about his next book. A book about Da Vinci that required reading Da Vinci’s work in its original language. Capra is a native German speaker. He wrote the book in English because unlike French or German, he has found English to be better for linear scientific writing. This was said without hubris. We then talked about my career and goals, and serious angst I was having in my current role as an administrator at the time. His encouragement kept me in education and kept me exploring and learning, which led to goals of pursuing my doctorate. This man was not in an ivory tower.

A couple years later I wrote Capra a letter asking if he would be willing to be interviewed as a part of the data collection for my dissertation. Of course he said yes. The lessons to be learned from this story? Well, one is to show up. You don’t know where you will end up if just willing to go through the door that opens in front of you. For me, I almost didn’t send in the application because who was I to go to something like this. I didn’t shrivel when meeting a hero. If I had, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Second, you don’t know the impact you will have—positive or negative. I could have been dismissed as unworthy of the “advanced” conversation that was taking place, but I was welcomed into the conversation like I had something to offer. I don’t know that I did at that point in my thinking and career. Lastly, some people are really smart. Like crazy smart. Able to synthesize voluminous amounts of information, make connections to other information and disciplines and create truly new, novel ways of making meaning of it. Yikes. Four languages and choosing the one that best fits the specific story you are trying to tell. Are you kidding? Sheesh.

The Creativity High

People who run talk about getting a “runner’s high.” Well I’ve never experienced that. I’ve experienced runner’s dread and runner’s pain, but never a high from it. However, today (Sunday) I spent most of the morning and early afternoon “in the zone” on a writing project. When I finally clicked save and closed the lid of the laptop I was experiencing the “creativity high.”

I could be just feeling the effects of very odd December weather—a warm, misting, and deep thick fog is entombing Bemidji right now for the third day in a row. But I don’t think so. When I have had the rare moments when my mood, my intellect, and my creativity align and I can accomplish something creative, I am left feeling euphoric. It’s more than just the satisfaction that comes from completing a task. That is nice, but doesn’t intoxicate. Completing a task feels good, but doesn’t lead me to think I need more. Doing something creative leaves me wanting more—like an addict.

Last night I attended the Madrigal’s Dinner at Bemidji State University. It’s a 17th century period-themed performance with some skits, roaming singers, beggars, and jesters, culminating in a performance by the BSU choir. It was inspiring to see so many students creating something and (maybe?) being left with euphoric happiness and relief when the last notes were sung.

It leaves me wondering this afternoon about the opportunities for creativity we are providing for this generation of students. I don’t think it is enough. We need more. Well, maybe it’s just the fog engulfing my locale, but I think that for today I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the “high” for a while. Tomorrow, I’ll think about ways I can provide such opportunities for my students.

How to Cause an Explosion of Creativity in Teaching

In the 1980s there was great concern over the state of education in this country. On international standardized tests our students were not performing to the same level as other countries. The simplistic look at the data was that we were underperforming. Examining with more complexity reveals however, that while our students weren’t as qualified on these exams, our education system was producing more creative, innovative students. Another factor not examined at the time was the validity of what the test was asking.

The result was that we embarked on two-pronged approach for improving education in the United States. One strategy was to promote school choice. This was done through open enrollment, development of charter schools, and some attempts at allowing vouchers to funnel public dollars to private schools. The thinking was that competition is good for innovation and, in the case of charter schools, smaller, more focused schools with a particular curricular or social niche would be a breeding ground for innovative ideas that would then filter back to the rest of the schools. Nice idea, and to some degree that has occurred.

The other strategy was to implement standardized testing. And if you are going to have standardized tests you have to have a standardized curriculum. This brought about standards in education. Setting a standard isn’t a bad thing. Setting high expectations is a good thing. Nobody would advocate for less rigor in education. However, as the system evolved, it grew into a high-stakes testing machine in which the money followed the achievement on the tests. The primary focus of the testing, especially in elementary school is on the basic skills of math and literacy. Of course the basic skills are important, but because of the testing, the primary purpose of education in the U.S. has become about achievement of the basic skills of math and literacy—not creative and critical thinking. Other subjects, such as music, visual art, and PE have been reduced greatly. What many do not know however, is that because of this focus, many elementary schools teach very little science and social studies as well. In some elementary schools, these two subjects are entirely absent. This is not hyperbole. This is actually happening. If all we teach are the basic skills, then the end result will be a population that is only proficient at the basic skills. This is the unintended consequence of an education system driven by basic skills tests. Unfortunately these two strategies compete against one another.

What then is the solution? Well, one solution might be to add more tests so that we test all those other subjects as well. If testing math and literacy increased instruction time of these basic skills then testing the other areas will increase instruction in those areas too. Unfortunately, I don’t think feeding the standardized testing beast is the answer. It might lead to basic proficiency in those other areas, but standardized tests and a standardized curriculum will never lead to innovative teaching and education. If everything is standardized, then from where might creative, new ideas emerge? There is no room for innovation in a standardized process. I’ve never had a creative meal at McDonalds. But I always knew what I was going to get. Nor will a standardized curriculum ever develop a creative, innovative, problem-solving next generation.

Here’s a simple answer. Remove the strategy of relying on standards and standardized testing to improve education and leave in place the other strategy of school choice. If you removed the impediment to innovation and constraints on schools, I believe there would be an explosion of creativity in the next 20 years in education. Driven by the passion of local teachers and parents, schools could truly differentiate to meet the needs of local communities. Maybe schools would implement curriculum in which the basic skills should be learned while exploring the other subjects instead supplanting them. The passion for innovation is there, gasping for air under a pile of standardized tests. If this was the climate of public schools, I also believe more creative individuals would be drawn to public school teaching.

And then let the market decide. That was the original intent of school choice. The schools that are meeting the needs of students and the community will survive and those that aren’t should be phased out with dignity, allowing educators and parents to learn as much as we can from the innovations attempted. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, as a parent, you had multiple choices for where to send your child, so you could find the choice that best matched their learning and social needs? Instead, we are on a speeding train through a long tunnel. And at the other end is an education system in which all schools meet the exact same standards using the exact same testing—which at best will produce an entire population of students who think in the exact same way—minimally.

Plus removing the standards and the testing would save a hell of a lot of money.

Public Education’s 9/11

In 1983 a report titled A Nation at Risk was published highlighting deficiencies in public education. The deficiencies were (are) real. However, the end result of that report was public education’s 9/11. I do not think this was the intent of the writers, and I am not downplaying the most devastating attack on U.S. soil. But consider this. After 9/11, the American people willingly gave up civil liberties and began an endless, financially crippling, war on terrorism. That attack has had a lasting effect on life in this country—even without a second attack ever being successfully completed—the lasting effects remain. I do not know if these forfeitures of civil liberties have made us safer, nor do I know if the war on terrorism has actually reduced or will ultimately increase terrorism.

Similarly, the 1983 A Nation at Risk report has had a lasting, devastating effect on education. We march more and more toward standardization and testing despite not seeing any positive results from that forced march. Unlike my uncertainty as to the effectiveness of our war on terrorism, I know that we are losing our “war” on education. The result of this war has been to set education back 100 years and return us to an assembly line mentality to education. This is not a good thing. It all has to look the same in the name of rigor. Yet because of the measures we are using and the way in which the standards are written, the opposite is the result. Despite the best research saying the proper way to organize curriculum is around engaging essential questions and despite the research that says the best way to produce critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and collaborative workers (what most agree we want) is to use more inquiry and project-based learning, the standardization of education is absolutely discouraging these practices.

We are creating the next generation of teachers who have accepted their role as simply implementers of standards and test prep teachers. Writing curriculum and teaching now consists of listing out the standards and telling that information to the students. The better teachers create activities that align to the standards. But few are allowed to create a curriculum that goes beyond the surface of the standards. And fewer still are creating a curriculum that has any reason for student to be excited to learn it beyond completing a list of objectives to prepare them for a test. Our attempts to increase rigor has ultimately reduced education to rote memorization and test preparation while reducing critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and problem solving.

What I find most troubling is that we have willingly done this. Just like we all agree that we do not like taking our shoes off at the airport and the NSA gathering voluminous data on us, almost all parents and educators agree that we do not like the testing and are not seeing the results we want, yet we grumble and continue to allow it to happen simply because we are making decisions out of ignorance and fear.
We continue down this road in response to comparison of our test scores with authoritarian countries like China. China has embraced capitalism for the elite, but is holding tight-fisted to communism and authoritarian political structures at the same time we in this country are looking to their education model and moving towards a more authoritarian model for education. Now that is terrifying. The education system in China is excellent at producing high test scores. It is atrocious at producing creative, innovative, collaborative problem solvers. The Chinese education system is a hundreds-year-old system designed out of thousands of years of authoritarian philosophy of governing. Beyond being really good at test prep, it is an effective means to maintain the authoritative governing structure ruled by the wealthy elite. Because of this, those few that have benefited from capitalism and freedom in China are sending their children to the U.S. to attend private schools which do not have to meet government mandated standards and testing. The ruling class in China, recognizing that to remain in power they need skills that U.S. schools actually do well (creativity, innovation, collaboration) and are abandoning their own education system for themselves while keeping it in place for the majority of their citizens. This will maintain a majority population with skills to follow rules but not lead. Not a bad strategy for a few to keep a grip on limited resources and maintain control over a large population.

So here we are in this country driving our public education system to be more like the Chinese education system. Meanwhile the ruling elite in this country continue to avoid the public schools as do the ruling class in China. If we continue to train 99% of our next generation in an education system modeled after an authoritarian philosophy, and 1% not, then how long before it is not just our education system that is modeled after China, but it is our government system as well? I hate to say this, but maybe that is the goal. This forced march of standardization supported by president after president and congress after congress and the Patriot Act seem to be the only thing our polarized political system can agree on. And look at the results of both—A reduction of freedoms.

This 30-year-old war on education is an attack on our civil liberties and is what is actually putting the nation at risk. This is unacceptable and must be stopped. We must collectively stand up and say “no more.” To not do so is to accept that future generations we will look back and see most of the population without individual liberties serving those with the money and individual freedoms. To not do so is negligence. At that point the war will be lost.

The Learning Cycle

Consider this question: where does most of the mass come from in a tree? The soil or the air? If your answer was the soil, you would be in agreement with most people. A study of MIT graduates in the sciences confirmed this answer. Except it is false. The answer is that most of the mass of a tree comes from the carbon dioxide in the air the plant absorbs during photosynthesis. Many people have the false impression about this topic because their lived experience tells them that you put plants in soil, water them, and they get bigger. They must be pulling their mass from the soil. What we “truly” know is what we learned from lived experience. That is the knowledge we “own.” The knowledge we “rent” is the information told to us, but not experienced. Think of all the information you heard and forgot in school. You rented it because it wasn’t taught to you within the context of what I call the learning cycle. It was taught to you in a more linear fashion. The teacher assumes you do not know anything about topic, tells you the correct information about the topic, and then assumes you will come out the other end of the equation with said knowledge. Nice and simple. And ineffective.

Every person who has experience in the world has preconceived ideas about topics based on their lived experience. Nobody is a blank slate. Even something totally foreign to them gets equated to a lived experience in the form of a metaphor. It is the lived experience that is the knowledge that is owned. Those MIT students were told the right answer at one point in their schooling about the mass of plants and carbon, but it did not coincide with the lived experience. After the test, the taught knowledge faded away and the lived experience knowledge came back—like mildew bleeding back through a fresh coat of paint. Teaching in a process that incorporates the learning cycle can help to mitigate this problem and help students turn that rented knowledge into owned knowledge.

The learning cycle begins with the consider phase of a lesson or sequence of lessons. This might involved thinking prompts, engaging stories questioning, demonstrations, etc. This is nothing new in teaching, however, one aspect of the consider phase that is often overlooked is to purposefully engage students in exposing their prior knowledge about a topic. Too often teachers skip this step and simply use the attention grabber to introduce a topic and tell the students what they are going to experience. Without exposing the prior knowledge you have embarked on the linear teaching equation and eliminated the possibility of the necessary feedback loop to complete the learning cycle.

The learning cycle continues with the construct phase of the lesson. This is what you think of as the actual activity, lecture, demonstration, etc. In what way can you provide situations for students to deepen understanding and build meaning? This is done through actively engaging the students such as cooperative learning, authentic learning, project-based learning, minds-on learning, etc. I use the phrase minds-on instead of hands-on. Minds-on can be hands-on, but hands-on is not always minds-on. Minds-on requires the student to ask questions, ponder, solve problems and so on. Hands-on can be simply following chemistry lab instructions but not knowing why. It might be active and engaging because their might be the potential for an explosion of some kind (what more could a teenage chemistry student want?), but doesn’t require any construction of meaning.

The last phase of the learning cycle, and this is the feedback loop that completes the cycle, is the confirm phase. This is the time when the teacher purposefully guides students in wrestling with the cognitive dissonance between what they thought initially about a topic and what they experienced in the construct phase. If they began with correct assumptions, these were confirmed. If they began with incomplete information, more was added. If they began with misconceptions, the act of dealing with this difference is when the student transitions from renting information to owning the information. If you do not facilitate this last portion of the learning cycle, taking them back to a comparison to their initial ideas, the cycle is never completed. If the confirming phase is skipped then often times their experienced knowledge wins out in the brain in the long run. This is what happened with the MIT graduates regarding plant mass.

Let’s put this into an example. Consider the typical cell lab almost everyone who took high school or middle school biology completed. Constructed in the linear fashion, students enter class and the teacher tells them they will learn about the cells that make up all living things. She proceeds to tell them about cells, shows some pictures of cells, demonstrates how to get the sample, make the slide, and operate the microscope. Students draw pictures in their lab notebook. Often these pictures look more like the diagram used to introduce the lab than the actual object in the microscope. I know because I’ve graded many of these labs. At the end, she asks, did you all see the cell and the nucleus, the cell membrane and cell wall? They say yes. If she asked if they could see the mitochondria like the one in the picture, many would say yes to this as well. They can’t by the way, unless using better equipment than in most school science labs. I call this the tell, show, and re-tell model of teaching. We’ve gotten really good at this. I was really good at it for a long time. It is a really good model for short term memorization of the right answer for a test.

Now let’s consider this same exact lab procedure, but now in the learning cycle. Instead of telling the students what they will see, the teacher uses probing questions to access their prior knowledge about what makes up living things and what is inside those things. Then she sends them on their way to experience seeing what those things might be. Exact same lab as the first example. Instead of sending the students into the lab with her answer though, she is sending them in with their pre-conceived answer based on their prior lived experience. Since the students don’t know what they are supposed to see they aren’t going to guess at what they think the teacher wants to see and then draw that in their lab notebook. Instead they will draw what they honestly see. It might be very similar to the expected answer. But it may not be either. It is authentic however. So when do they actually learn the right answer about cells? Now is when the teacher steps in and actually “teaches.”

The confirm phase involves the teacher providing a means for the student to compare what they saw in the microscope to what we already thought they knew about cells. Instead of lecturing up front about the cells, instead she lectures on the back end of the lesson. Instead of taking notes on a blank piece of paper, they are making corrections and additions to their lab report they completed while looking at the cells. In this process they have to compare the accepted science answer about cells with their prior knowledge and their lived experience in the lab. By doing this you are completing the learning cycle and the students are constructing new meaning about the nature of cells based on a new lived experience. This has a better chance to replace the prior knowledge and therefore become the perception of cells they own instead of just renting for the upcoming test. In the end, the activity did not change, but the setup and the closing of the activity were changed and the traditional lecture was changed from a dispensing of information to a discussion of the students’ experiences. This hands-on activity has now been transformed into a minds-on activity as an integral part of the learning cycle.

The First Day of School

I can clearly recall the excitement I experienced before my first day of kindergarten. I sang, over and over, a little song that expressed the joy of getting to go to school for real. I honestly do not have many clear memories of much from my early elementary years. They are more like dream-like flashes and glimpses. But the emotions involved with that first day linger. I must like school, because I have chosen to continue to go to school for the rest of my life.

Now some 40 years of first days of school and I am once again at my desk getting ready for the first day of class. Thankfully I have progressed beyond kindergarten. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I don’t sing a happy “winnie-the-Pooh-like” made up song. Maybe I should.

             The first day of school…tiddely pom

I’m sure my kindergarten experience was not unique. That very first day of school is an exciting, though often scary, milestone. Somewhere along the way, however, excitement for the first day of school turns to dread for the return to school. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that almost 8 in 10 elementary students qualify as engaged. By middle school that number drops to six out of 10, and four out of 10 by high school. Something is not right here. Youthful exuberance and joy may wane as we age or become too cool for such expressions, but for too many students, the prospect of starting a new year just brings…nothing.

I no longer sing a happy song. Instead it is anxiety and nerves. As the new school year approaches I have anxiety dreams. You know the ones. I’m at school but can’t find my locker. Or I’m approaching the end of the term and I realize that I have an exam for a class I never attended. When the anxiety is really high, I experience all of that dressed in only tighty-whities. Sorry for that imagery.

A colleague of mine this morning was telling me about her nerves and anxiety teaching a new class. She wisely concluded that if we are nervous about the first day that means we must care. You don’t care about things that are not important. Therefore some anxiety and nervousness is healthy as a teacher. Maybe as a student too. I’d prefer that they sing a happy song on the first day. But I’ll take a healthy amount of anxiety mixed with excitement.

           Brings the world anew…tiddley pom           

Educating Hunter-Gatherer Minds in Modern Society

Modern humans’ brains evolved approximately 200,000 years ago. For most of our species existence we lived as hunter-gatherers with maximum group sizes around 150 individuals. This persisted until 10 – 15 thousand years ago. From that time forward, our society has evolved a rapid pace—much more quickly than the biological evolution of our brains. Therefore, we are educating hunter-gatherer brains, but now in a modern society based on agricultural histories, which changed us from nomadic social groups to sessile, agricultural groupings.

Social group (class and school in this discussion) size really does matter. All teachers know this. Give a teacher too many students, and the best he or she can do is lecture to the masses, but not interact with the individual in a meaningful way. Too few students, and he or she does not have enough learners to create a community of learners that interact, encourage, and teach one another. I have long felt that classes of 15 – 20 students were the size with which I felt most effective as a teacher, or a total of 45 – 60 students to have contact with throughout a day and I would have to get to know throughout a term. I have had the luxury of this experience. However, this is not the norm for the typical public school secondary teacher. The norm is 5 classes of 30 – 40 students, or 150 – 200 students a day that a teacher interacts with each day and must get to know throughout the term. I’ve been in the experience of teaching 150 students and felt that was my limit to how many I could work with and effectively “know.” Though I could know this many, effectively teaching, assessing with writing assignments and projects, required smaller numbers just for logistical reasons.

My personal experience as a student and my professional experience as a teacher tells me that classes should be smaller, for logistical and social reasons, and schools themselves should be smaller as well—hundreds of students housed together, not thousands. Turns out there might be some research to support my “gut.”

Evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar, has discovered a link in primates between brains size and average preferred social group size—the larger the brain, the larger the acceptable social group size. The more neural connections, the greater ability to manage the intricacies of neural information required for social interaction. In Apes and Old World monkeys, most species effectively lived in groups of 5 to 50. Comparing brain size of the different species of primates and effective social group size, then extrapolating and adding humans to this chart, the predicted, highly functioning social group size for humans is around 150. Interestingly, this size matches natural human group sizes, from military companies, Hutterite farming communities and even average size of hunter-gatherer bands. It also matches my (an probably many teachers) experience as well.

While we may be able to remember up to 2000 people, according to Dunbar’s research, the maximum number of social interactions tops out at around 150 individuals. In hunter-gatherer bands, this translates into groups splitting when they approach this maximum size of 150 individuals. In schools, this translates into smaller social groups, clubs, sports teams, classes, and unfortunately then cliques. If the maximum number of individuals one can know is around 150, then when put into groups larger than that, the individual must dehumanize on another. To not do so would be too overwhelming for our senses. Imagine trying to maneuver through an urban setting, or a school setting with many hundreds of individuals passing on the street or in the hallway, and then trying to manage all those social interactions. You would never get anywhere. The only option is, to at best acknowledge presence of most of the other individuals, but for the most part you must ignore most other individuals. To do otherwise would simply be overwhelming with too many social interactions to mentally process.

There appears to then be a mismatch between our human brains which evolved over thousands of millennia as sparsely populated hunter-gatherers and the now densely populated, noisy, modern world in which we live. This background overstimulation might very likely be the cause for such high rates of mental illness—the highest rate of which occurs in the most developed and urbanized environments as well. The most prescribed drugs in the United States are antidepressants. Additionally, 10% of American boys are prescribed ADHD stimulants such as Ritalin. Why predominantly the boys? In a TED Talk, Ken Robinson said that many children weren’t suffering from a disorder that needed pharmaceutical treatment. They were suffering from childhood. He went on to say that, if you take a child and make them sit and do clerical work for 8 hours a day, then yes the might get bored, fidget, and even act out. Maybe being forced to sit still in too-large of social groups is just too much to ask of many of our children—especially the boys—who need to be out “hunting and gathering.” If so, what ramifications does this have for how we design schools, classrooms, and curriculum? Maybe us educators need a better education in our evolutionary history as we continue to reform (or evolve) our schools for the future. To do otherwise, might simply exacerbate the problem and marginalize more and more students, requiring more and more medical intervention.

To dig deeper into this, I highly recommend the book Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells.

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