Speaking up for education

A few years ago there was a child who did stats project. The topic included interviews, bar graphs and a written conclusion. The topic was why kids slack off in school. The earth-shattering conclusion to the project? Boredom. The project was shared with other kids in the school and eventually ended up in the principal’s office.

That student was in my in class.

It’s horrible feeling to have your teaching, something that so many teachers live and breathe, criticised and dull and uninteresting. There isn’t a teacher out there who at some point hasn’t faced criticism of their decisions from the kids, parents, colleagues, the government, members of the public.

It’s your fault that the kids hate school, are doing poorly at school.

It can be hard not to take the criticism personally, I’m still learning to see it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

New Zealand education headlines have been dominated by a speech by a Year 10 student criticising teachers for making school dull and uninteresting.  The student and her family say she’s been suspended from school (the school disagrees) and now the child doesn’t feel she can go back to school. The story has been great for online debate, but for the children and teachers involved?  

Not so much.

I can’t help but think we as a community – teachers, parents, kids and member of the public – could all be doing better about talking about education. 

Because for all the talk about wanting to make school student-centred and engaging,  we celebrate the same traditional high schools year after year in the media when the annual school rankings come out in the media. We can’t have student centred education while at the same time rigidly adhering to models of school from the industrial era, where kids are produced in batches and are fitted for different parts by specialist teachers.

It’s a system that’s been operating in high schools for decades and by its very nature sets up an adversarial relationship between students and teachers because it is dehumanising. Teachers can teach 200 teens a day. Kids have multiple teachers who teach their subjects in isolation from each other both academically and physically. I can see how a child could feel lost and mistrustful of the  motives of authority figures. I can also see how easy it can be as an adult in the system to brush aside what seem like small injustices in the name of sticking to the timetable.

Because despite the efforts of schools and teachers, the focus of New Zealand’s education system isn’t on building relationships to make kids feel welcome at school it’s getting as many of the units children through NCEA Level 2. But if we make our target and half the kids leave school hating learning, has our education system succeeded?

How is it that our 5 year olds come to school excited to be learning and yet around adolescence they start becoming disengaged?

Is how we do school, in particular high school, setting kids up to hate learning?

If I was to be in charge of a high school I’d be thinking about:

  • Teams of teachers teaching integrated units working alongside each other. Do the scientists talk to the arts department? Does English make time to plan with PE? 
  • Longer time class periods. 50 minutes isn’t much time for learning let alone building relationships.
  • Looping – children have the same teachers for at least two-three years (unless there had been some major breakdown in relationships)
  • More time for students take meaningful action as a result of their learning.

I currently teach Primary Years Programme (a junior version of the International Baccalaureate). All teaching is integrated, so what the children are learning in English aligns with what is happening in science, social studies and maths. Writing persuasive speeches in English would compliment a unit on Social Studies looking at how communities organise to make social change. However what makes the PYP so special is their focus on children taking responsible and empathetic action as a result of their learning.

This story demonstrates that children and teenagers have enthusiasm and passion to want to make change, but they still need help guiding them to take responsible action. Often the consequences of loudly voicing unpopular opinions is strained social relationships and hurt feelings of the people around you. Learning to look at problems from other perspectives, enables children to empathise and think before taking action. Because for all the gigabytes of bandwidth used on this story – proposed national testing for Year 9s and 10s has barely rated a mention.

Why aren’t we able to connect the dots?

So what happened to the student in the stats study?

I had a conversation with the child about whether he/she could make the conclusion that all classes were boring based on sample size of one class – answer no. What impact the words the students might have on teachers in other classes (hadn’t really thought about that) and how could school be better so kids don’t feel bored.

I’m still trying to find the answer to the last question…

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3 thoughts on “Speaking up for education

  1. One of the things I really struggled with when I became a classroom teacher (switching from an itinerant teacher) was the standards and pacing expectations imposed by the state, the district and the school. There so many people telling you different things that needed to be done this week or this month that it was impossible to insert anything else. This past year I relaxed a little; I said we will get to these standards in our own time and thankfully my principal supported that decision. Oh, what a difference! I allowed my students to decide what they liked about an upcoming unit. I then taught everything else of the standards we have to teach very quickly and simply this then allowed us to focus on what interested the students with much more depth and involvement. They loved developing their own projects and even lectures to teach each other, and I ended up taking a back seat. The units ended up being much longer than the pacing guide despite the fact that the majority of the content in the unit was taught at a faster pace, and there were times when I had to tell my students that they’d done enough research and were moving on even though they still wanted to keep studying that topic. Admittedly, we did not cover every unit and they did not retain the “quick content” as well as is ideally wanted, but I can’t say that they would have retained much more if we had spent more time on it either; clearly it was not of interest and they were not willing to put forth the effort to study it. But they certainly did retain much of the information they chose to focus in on and researched and studied, themselves! At times they far exceeded the expectations of both myself and the standards. I am grateful my principal allowed me this freedom, and I plan to use this same system next school year.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s great to hear. I think schools are very good at adding things in without taking things away which ends up with schooling becoming more frantic than it needs to be.

      Why is that I wonder?

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      • There’s always more to learn? I know that’s true for history especially and I see it a little in science. I suppose it is true for literature too, but really the themes are the same. The texts can either change or remain, but themes tend to be fairly timeless. In math, I have no idea how we end up with more and more content to teach each year. Perhaps it’s a result of trying to keep up with other nations or with new teaching fads without removing the old models?

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