July 2015 - I have just returned from an amazing trip through parts of Europe. I have only been to Europe 2 times before. My colleagues at my high school challenged 29 students to go on an educational trip based on investigating education as a human right. We traveled through Amsterdam, Paris, Geneva, and Davos. I had the epiphany of writing this book after I heard Sir Ken Robinson speak. I felt an urge to express my thinking behind the most positive and effective ways I have found to work in educating high school students. It is as simple as getting out of the way of your students.
Get out of the way of your students.
At the conference in Davos, there were many speakers commenting on how education stifled their success. They spoke of how the rigid ways of the American educational system is broken and in disrepair. The rampant testing of our culture is destroying any creativity our students might have possessed. Students start to lose interest in school as soon as they reach the 3rd or 4th grade. I began thinking of why that is.
Sir Ken Robinson put it in a simplistic way. Schools do three things to stifle educations. Schools promote conformity. Schools are constantly under a compliance model. And finally, schools make their students plan out everything. This could not be any truer. This made me think about my time in school. I hated high school. I did not like any of the subjects except the arts. I was free in that class. I remember drawing and painting things I wanted to. Photography was also interesting to me. I loved to take pictures and show my interests in each print. I look back to the core classes that the school focused on. Math and English were subjects I didn’t care about. I could care less about Shakespeare. I hardly ever read even through my college years because I felt it was forced upon me. I hated history because all we talked about was people who the teachers were interested in. The perspective was always the same. Textbooks were like huge weights that only hurt my back when I carried them. Inside the textbooks, there were always short paragraphs that spewed useless facts to me. I had no say. I never got to talk about what interested me. It was never challenging in a way I wanted to participate. I realized people were trying to shove me in a certain direction in school where I had no control.
After thinking about all of these things, I began to think about my practice at my current high school as an educator. I realized I got in the way of my students and their learning. As educators, we are trained to do so. It is an insane approach. My most successful lesson are when I give my students a problem, and then let them go and solve it in whatever way they want to. It is amazing the ways students will look at things so differently. The diversity of thinkers in the room will not only amaze you as an educator, it will allow other students to see a problem solved differently. Diversity is greater that conformity!
I also have looked at how a unit gets a student from point A to point B in a certain way. I have taught units sometimes that tell only one way to get from point A to B. Most students will go along with the teaching because that is what they have been programmed to do in the last 8 to 10 years of their education. Watch student become creative when you start at A and tell them to get to B and watch them become creative. I have seen this in many classes I teach involving business. I will put students in a scenario where sales are lagging in a company and have them create ways to increase revenue. I have gotten out of the way and let them create. It is amazing to see them work.
Flexibility is the final thing needed to improve education. In high school, we go through 8 periods a day. I have often thought about how much of a toll that takes on our students. I wish every board member had to walk in the shoes of these students for at least a week. They would be exhausted! Students are driven by bells and times to be here and there. SO much structure can be a huge detriment to students. They get into the habit of asking what to do next without understanding they can create their own schedules. Flexibility is a key element all employers are looking for. Why it that we make our students lives so structured then?! I realized this more than ever on our trip through Europe. Many students would ask me what time we were going or where we were going that day. I literally told them over and over that I had no idea. Our schedule was liquid and our tour guide had to go with the flow. I drove students’ nuts. They would get annoyed with my answer. I didn’t understand that they have always been given a schedule. Their school day was the largest schedule. Unstructured time was foreign to them! By the end of the trip, they had learned how to go with the flow in some ways. This is the final improvement to education. Planning one’s own educational path is essential to their success.
Life is how you respond to your circumstances. How are you educating students to respond? Are you stuffing things into students or are you leading students out into the world so they can experience it for themselves?
One of the most interesting phenomenon I witnessed in Davos was when we were working on design thinking. There were six or seven tables of students working in groups and two tables of teachers working in groups. All of us were leaning the same curriculum. As an educator, I knew that this was really for the students in the classroom and for the teachers to learn but watch.
When the room was prompted with questions, a certain teacher kept raising her hand and answering all the questions. She seemed to dominate the question answer session. I thought about what her classroom was like. I felt sorry for students she had. She most likely never let her students discover anything for themselves. She certainly wasn’t letting them learn in this environment even after they traveled all over Europe and sat in that classroom in Davos. I thought about the teachers I tuned out as a student because they would ramble through questions followed by the answer immediately given by them. I never had time to think and knew the answer was coming because they always gave it. This was the most boring class type I had been in. These teachers got in the way of my education. I never had to think. They were just covering the material. It was and still is a ridiculous way to attempt to teach someone.
One of my biggest criticisms about students learning on their own is motivation. I get a lot of teachers who tell me that students won’t do anything in my class. If I do it this way, they will be lazy and do nothing. Quite the opposite is true. The reason they are lazy is because they are disengaged. Students have no say in the process. They sit back and listen, soon to be distracted by others, their phones, or a nap. Let students figure it out on their own, and most will become engaged and interested with some encouragement and empathy from the adult in the room. I also like to put a performance at the end of the lesson or unit as well. The student will have to perform a task in front of a professional other than students or teachers in the room. This can take many forms. Let your imagination run and you will find ways to have these performances happen in your classrooms.