Voices of learners inform the compelling purpose of our roles as educators – why we exist. The voices of learners, if we listen to them, also call us to question whether 20th century “command and control” structures and practices serve contemporary learners well.
In the first decade of my work as an educator, I had the chance to watch Dr. Bill Glasser interview local high school students about their experiences in school. Not even one of the mostly “teacher pleaser” kids on stage chatting with him in front of a district-wide assembly of educators could describe their high school experiences as creating joy, passion, or interest in their learning. That was 1986. In describing his perspective on the foundational work needed to create quality learning opportunities, Glasser that day explained to educators why the coercive environment we often create in school does little to meet what he labeled as the basic needs of all humans to:
survive and be secure
belong and be loved
gain power to gain and keep respect
be free have fun
He ended his student chat with a message to educators that has resonated with me ever since that day, “If something isn’t working for you, stop doing it. Consider changing your own behavior.” As I consider the last decade of escalating public focus on whether we are educating children well, the data suggest that we are accomplishing exactly what we expect to accomplish in school – Bell curve achievement is still the goal for students that it has always been. And, despite all the attention to reading, trend data are essentially flat since 1971.
Over the last year, I’ve had the chance to listen to learners sharing with and even teaching educators in planned “student voices sessions.” It’s been a personal mission to provide young people with the chance to inform adults’ understanding of what learners value about their experiences in school. I believe learners of all ages have important perspectives to which we must respond if we’d like to change the stories they tell about learning in this century.
A year ago, a high school senior spoke to my school board about the challenges of growing up in a rural area and the impact of the digital divide playing out in her life with no technology or broadband availability in her home. She described how access challenges limited her capability to apply to colleges and FAFSA online, to work with peers on Google docs at night, to pull down homework assignments on the Internet, and to do research for AP courses. She attributed her acceptance to a top flight Ivy League school to a teacher who loaned her a mobile device so she could connect to colleges as her subdivision peers were doing. She shared the necessity of tool and Internet accessibility for today’s learners so they aren’t caught in a growing digital divide.
Learners activate when they get opportunities to search, connect, communicate, and make.
In May at #ICTEDU at the Tipperary Institute in Thurles, Ireland a 12-year-old chatted on a panel with educators about the long stretches of frustration and boredom he experiences in school as compared to the excitement of attending the interactive, informal, student-determined, project-based learning of a #coderdojo, a movement in Ireland begun by 20-year-old James Whelton just a couple of years ago. Boredom is a state of mind among high school students and a key factor that leads to dropping out of school.
Kids see working together as quality learning time.
Last June, I asked a group of first graders to co-teach with me to share how they are using iP*ds as learning tools. In sessions facilitated for about 300 educators working in a summer learning institute in our district, the first graders articulated that “ working together lets us write more interesting stories.” Their excitement about co-creation of a “day in the life” photo album at school using their tablet tools was palpable to everyone in the room. Their teacher understands that the quality of their work reflects shifts in pedagogy, space, and tools and continues to unfold her response to contemporary learning.
In October, a third grader and high school senior answered questions in front of a live audience at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit about their experiences as learners. The high schooler described the importance of teachers and librarians understanding the power of choice in what students read and the projects they do. The third grader said at one point, “I get to go to the library but just when the teacher lets me.”
Everyone can be a teacher and everyone can be a learner.
A group of fourth graders helped two teachers to facilitate a workshop on coding with Scratch at a recent district professional development day where I work. They shared some of their projects and then assisted the teachers in trying out Scratch. The class evolved into a Coder Dojo for grownups in which students became teachers and teachers became learners. Watching the children assist adult learners reminded me that the hierarchy of schooling is shifting as young people accelerate technology skills more quickly than many of the adults responsible for teaching them do.
Joy and Passion are good for learners and teachers.
That same day I dropped in on a group of high school students facilitating a session on what teachers do to make learning work for them. One young woman said that teachers who are focus on testing all the time don’t seem to have passion for their work – it’s the teachers who get excited about what they teach and whose passion is contagious who get kids excited about learning. The students noted that they enjoy learning in those classes. In this small discussion group, the students led the teachers through an exercise using Legos to build education as they believed its future to be.
We talk a lot about how the world is changing. We spend a lot of time admiring the problem of being stuck in the early 20th century cult of efficiency that shaped schools into factories. We set mindless targets for results, outcomes, performance indicators, and measurements of standards that represent reductionist thinking about what’s important to learn in this century. In doing so, we subtract joy, passion, interest, choice, and quality, losing valuable opportunities to optimize access to powerful learning. We forfeit the potential of activating learners as teachers and teachers as learners. We sustain old traditions of schooling that anchor learning to standardized tests of a narrow range of what humans need to learn.
Bill Glasser knew in the last century educational traditions needed to change. We held the possibilities of those changes in our hands in 1986 but continued down a path shaped by the factory school makers of the early 1900s. Now the factories have been outsourced along with the factory work. So, what’s the grand challenge of 2012? If our job is to make mindful decisions that transform 20th century teaching into contemporary learning what key shifts in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, tools, resources, and culture do we need to consider now? Where do we look for what we need to know and do? How will we respond to what’s coming next?
According to Mozilla’s Pascal Finette, the rising culture of participation coupled with technology advances and the power of networking will instigate the most fundamental change ever in human history.
Education will be a part of that change.
I think our kids also are telling us that, too. But, are we listening?