Lower Your Standards

March 13th, 2012

Lower your standards….

Shocking!  But let me explain.  Many years ago, I was privileged to meet and visit at length with William Stafford, a poet who in 1970 was named to a position that was later designated as Poet Laureate.  We “clicked” in part because we had been born in Kansas towns only 25 miles apart, and because we were both published poets.  Well, he’d out-published me by a poem or two – or a couple thousand.  In fact, before his death in 1993, he had published 57 volumes of poetry and won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry.

Bill Stafford was also one of the most highly regarded teachers of creative writing in the country, and his students considered him a master of inspiration.  When we visited – at the University of Tulsa, where I was a graduate assistant teaching a creative writing course, and considered a master of…well, I was teaching anyway – I had the opportunity to ply him with questions.  I’ll reflect on just two that made a lasting impression.

First, “Bill, what is at the heart of great teaching?”

William Stafford: “Figure out where your student is, and help him get to the next step.”

I admit to feeling slight disappointment.  But he went on to explain that teachers often expect students to make great leaps in short amounts of time – sometimes more for their own sake than the student’s.  He noted that a writer, a student of any subject, can only learn according to a kind of complex internal mechanism teachers can’t control.  Figuring out “where a student is” is an extraordinary mystery in and of itself – a monumental task for any teacher!  Then, to inspire that student to move himself or herself on to the next step, the next awareness, the next level of understanding – that’s an equally difficult, even more herculean job.

Second, “What do you recommend to your students when they get writer’s block, Bill?”

William Stafford: “Lower your standards.”

Whoa!  Lower one’s standards?  I thought great writing, great learning was based on high standards, on high quality.  And here was one of the country’s most preeminent writers, someone compared to Robert Frost, saying “Lower your standards”!  Again, he continued by explaining: virtually every young writer – and often the experienced ones – holds such ridiculously high standards that it can block the creative process and choke inspiration.  When you lower your standards, you expect less perfection, you start writing again, you get into the flow – and eventually, over time, your writing improves.  Staring at a blank piece of paper can be paralyzing, even for a talented individual.  Glaring at that paper and expecting to produce greatness right from the start can make one comatose.

I think we expect teachers to work miracles, and that we as teachers – and parents – often expect our children to produce miracles themselves.  We want every child to think like a writer, a scientist, a mathematician, an artist, an athlete, and the like. But that in itself is not really the dilemma.  The problem when we don’t respect the human mystery of children’s internal, God-given development, the unique unfolding of each child as an individual soul, mind, and talent.  Ideally, each child should be inspired to go on to his or her next step so the learning is deeply authentic and lasting.  So when the child’s learning is blocked for some reason, set do-your-best expectations aside and let the student ascend the learning ladder in a way that excellence comes naturally, as the result of hard work, resilience, and the application of passion.

But make no mistake: all this stuff I’m describing is not soft and mushy in the least.  Hard work has to be part of learning in life.  So much is said about the fun side of school that it is all too easy to forget that delayed gratification, serious dedication, and heartfelt commitment have to be part of the education equation.  While lowering your expectations is a tool to overcome a blocked work process, once the block is overcome, writing, rewriting, editing, more rewriting, and proofreading have to be understood by the student as necessary before a fine piece of writing can be prepared for a reader.  The same applies in all areas of learning: science, law, medicine, business, the arts, technology.  Our express-lane solution to things works for a few situations, but not for children’s education.

Challenge, engagement, and exertion are integral parts of authentic learning.  I’m not a believer in tedium for tedium’s sake, and in the U.S. too much “old-fashioned” pedagogy still burdens us.  But not all learning will have the sparkle of a video game.  William Stafford wrote over 22,000 known poems.  But of those, “only” 3,000 were published.  He kept a daily journal – for 50 years, as part of his writing process.  That’s hard creative work.  But it was necessary for his ongoing learning.  Out of his industry came beauty.  In praise of that beauty: accolades.

William Stafford had an immense impact on my own teaching, as well as my writing.  After I shared his views with my undergraduate creative writing students, they wrote more, with a little less pressure on themselves.  And their work slowly improved.  (Also, two of them got married, and had a daughter, who became my goddaughter, who last year published her first novel, to much acclaim.)

Learning is complex.  In my opinion, a child learning to read is the equivalent of sending a rocket to Mars.  Learning is psychological, neurological, chemical, biological, social, and a boatload of other things.  But learning happens all the time, everywhere, with everyone, through some means or the other.  When it happens with respect for each child’s uniqueness, with appreciation of the internal mystery involved – “standards” and data aren’t the issue ultimately.  Our aim should be learning fraught with astounding accomplishment, boundless achievement, and thriving in ways exciting, unknown, and positive.  Aren’t those the goals we want to be at the real heart of the matter?

Why Go to School?

February 14th, 2012

It sounds like an absurd question.  But sometimes the ridiculous questions can bear serious fruit.  Easy answers: To learn, of course!  To end up with a job.  To be prepared for the next school, for college, for life.

But diving beneath the surface, perhaps a few deeper responses might be pondered.

1)   School should not only be a place where learning occurs, but a state of mind.  When children – or adults – approach school, they should open their minds, brains, and hearts to learning, unlearning, and relearning.  You thought there was only one way to solve that math problem? Look at these two others.  Believe you have no real talent for creating things?  Forget that – wait until you get your hands on that clay!  Think you can’t talk in front of a big group of people?  How great did you feel after speaking at the mic at that assembly! You’ll carry that blossoming confidence with you for the rest of your life.

School is more than classrooms, computers, and carpet – it is an entire approach to life that challenges a child to look at the world differently, think about new ideas, and reconsider concepts that may no longer hold familiar truths.

2)   School is an extraordinarily complex social/emotional/psychological/anthropological labyrinth in which young people learn about who they are, who others are, how society works, what social power is and how it can hurt and help you.  Friends, social groups, being “in or out,” conflict, resolving differences, seeking commonalities, recognizing subtle social cues, finding your own place in the grand scheme of things – all this and far more is the landscape every child finds himself or herself in daily.  Add teachers – adults in charge – to this stew, and the social-emotional life of a child at school is more complex than all the computers in the largest business office.  And what tends to upset most parents more than anything about their child?  The lack of friends, bullying, and the social narrative their child brings home or hears about.  We have to remember: that narrative is ever-changing, and has to be told and controlled by the child, not us.

3)   School can be a key to a mysterious lock on a cryptic door.  Odd metaphors aside, school is a unique and highly personal place for each child who attends it.  Because each child is an individual, each child’s engagement with school is a very individualized experience.  It can be a place for daily engagement or occasional intimidation, an opportunity for creative challenge or threat to an intellectual weakness, a social funhouse or a lonely experience.  And for many children, it can be all those experiences and more at different times, sometimes in the span of one day.  Ideally, school is the place where a child unlocks more and more of the mysteries to his or her own personal complexity.  He learns to rely on his strengths, shore up her own weaknesses, build on her talents, work around his challenges.  Though the grade levels go in a straight line, each child’s growth and development do not.  The better each child comes to know himself or herself as a person, the greater he or she can succeed both as a learner or a person.  That’s why the increasing talk about “personalizing the learning process.”

School should certainly prepare children for the future, for their next school, for a career, for life.  But the school day does far, far more than that for a child, and goes far deeper.  School for a student is a job, a career.  It is work and a social life.  A lifestyle and the universe.  There may be no literal salary – but there is hard work, feedback, strategy, tactics, critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, wins, losses, failures, successes, setbacks, plans, rethinking, judgments, decisions, reports, projects, continuous communication.  You name it, and while the life of a child at school might have recess at the swingset or sandbox, it is hardly a picnic at the park.  Learning at school can be the heartiest career of all!

I’m not a big proponent of education as “fun,” though I’m certainly fine with children having fun at school if it is part and parcel of dynamic learning.  When children are deeply engaged in pursuit of something meaningful to them, they retain the concepts involved.  Often, a by-product of that engagement means fun to kids.  Boredom, tedium, pointless repetition, working when highly stressed, physical exhaustion – those factors just do not enhance children’s learning, because when the brain and body begin to shut down, effective learning goes out the window.  Memorizing answers for a test without understanding the ideas, last-minute cramming, gaming the system – what do those have to do with authentic learning?  They might lead to an occasional “A” instead of a “B” – but the effects are superficial, and they prepare a child not for genuine success, but an artificial gain that eventually caves in.  There’s too much of that in schools in our country.

Our children, our educational system, our nation need school to be a place where learning is a vast universe of ascending stars, as well as a safe place to occasionally crash to the ground and rise up again.  A nurturing place where each child can wend his or her way toward truth and self-discovery.  A complex place where a child can create and solve real problems, and work with others to become smarter about those problems.  A nurturing place where tough social conflicts can be resolved and learned from.  A challenging place where nothing is too difficult to confront, everyone is willing to help, and each strikingly unique person works hard.

So, why go to school?  To go to a place where one plays an energetic role in the most important endeavor there is: a learning experience in which each child discovers one truth after the next.  When going to school means every child is seeking the truth – preparation for most anything the unknown future brings is a given.

January 4th, 2012

More is never quite enough, is it?  In fact, ask more itself what it wants, it will respond with, “More!”

Most reliable studies indicate that money, for example, is not equated with happiness or well-being. Yet our striving for more is relentless.  And it’s not just quantity we seek, but the perception of a certain elite quality.  The best, the top-rated, the most sought after.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if more actually led to less?  What if the harder and faster we chase after more, the net result is – less?  That would be a disappointing wake-up call.  What if more money led to less satisfaction? If more striving led to less personal fulfillment?  If trying to be the best led to often feeling your worst?

Now, I am not anti-money, or anti-quality, or anti-striving, or anti-best.  But I do worry about certain social and cultural phenomena that work against truly educating children, for example, with a strong work ethic, with a deep sense of moral character, and with a set of values that will serve them and their world well over time.  Consider some examples of where societal values appear to be, in terms of where some choose to spend their dollars.

For example: how many great teachers could be hired in the U.S. for the cost of one NFL player’s annual salary?  Which in 2009 averaged $1.4 million.  Forget Tebow and others of celebrity rank.  By contrast, Finland, which internationally ranks at the top in comparative educational test scores, pays teachers handsomely and regards them likewise.  (Ironically, the U.S. spends top dollar per child, but produces mediocre results by international standards.)

For example: how much teacher training and development could have been undertaken for the price of Kim Kardashian’s high-profile wedding?  Okay, the money involved in our celebrity-obsessed world is an easy target.  The point: compared to sports and media as entertainment, education is a low national priority.  As we bemoan the taxes that pay for it, education remains an uninspiring, unentertaining, and unnecessarily dull occurrence on the national stage.

The addictive quality of more and more bleeds into the quest for only-the-best.  Too often, the best is code for Number One on a published and highly circulated list.  If best were the best according to a set of thought-out criteria matched to an individual’s authentic needs, that would be something else.  But frequently the best is simply more in disguise – more prestige, more social status.  That surface sense of being the best does not saturate the soul with authentic quality.

So, how to counteract this more is more?

Let’s educate our children to engage in deep and reflective thinking.  Let’s give them genuine problems to solve, at home and in school.  Let’s involve them in real decision making that has consequences they care about.  Give them the opportunity to set meaningful rules that affect them and the ones around them.

Let’s talk to them about our own deepest values.  The important things we remember our own parents telling us.  Read to them from the religious texts we revere, the stories that have morals we cherish.  Let’s make sure that they understand we as parents and role models are fair and loving, but also the ones who set the tone, make the final determinations for the well-being of the family, and bear the responsibility for their safety and security.  If sports are important in our family, and winning is of value, let’s make sure that we’ve examined the implications of what “being number one” really means on down the line.

Also, let’s not so over-protect our children to the point that they have no latitude to make mistakes – that only leads to frailty and an unwillingness to take reasonable risks.  Let’s have high but not such single-minded expectations that they fear becoming the unique individuals God intended them to be.  No one escapes failure – those who succeed are those who know how to handle failure well.

None of those efforts requires a lot of money, or power, or capital.  But they all require moral investment, and spiritual equity, and an ethical portfolio that you watch carefully.

As for education, school, and learning – children need both more and less of what we sometimes think they need.  Following are a few suggestions for the more, and the less:

More: time to reflect.  Real-life problems to wrestle with.  Play that involves creativity and imagination.  Challenging projects that engage their brain over time, not just their pencil or laptop.  Perseverance, respect, and hard work.  Physical activity.  The arts woven into life.

Less: less worry about grades.  Less memorization of facts to forget after the test.  Not being compared to others in their class by their parents or teachers.  Not rushing in school from place to place, subject to subject.  Fewer activities outside of school so they can rest, play, and regroup.  Less panic about going to “the number one school.”

All the above deserves more explanation, yet that’d be too ironic given the general topic here.  But it’s a rough accounting for now.  Children need both structure and freedom, time to learn and valuable feedback, social engagement and time alone – pretty much like adults do.  School in the U.S. does a decent job of educating children now.  But it needs to do a bang-up phenomenal job, because kids in other countries are working harder and smarter than we are in some ways.  Our children can reorder a few priorities at a time, and deepen the quality of their lives, and the lives of those who follow them – our children and our grandchildren deserve that, as does our country.

A Father’s Personal Accounting

November 28th, 2011

This is going to be personal.  So don’t tell my own children.  Because I’m writing about what I want for each one of them.  Oh, yeah, don’t tell my wife either.  Because I haven’t discussed this with her – yet.  Maybe it’ll help that I won’t use my kids’ names.  They’ll be A, B, and C.  Like when we went for ultrasounds: Baby A, Baby B, Baby C.  That was shocking enough sixteen years ago – triplets!

So, this is what I want for each of my children.  If the lack of thoughtful and thorough college and career counseling sounds odd coming from me as an educator of 35 years, bear with me.  Like I said – it’s personal.

“Baby A”  That you continue composing music, playing the piano, writing all the great stuff you are now, and keeping in touch with your creative, exploratory spirit.  Putting all that on a resume won’t get you an entry-level job in a Fortune 500 company.  But a big chunk of folks with MBA’s aren’t getting those jobs now anyway.  Besides, I don’t think you and Wharton Business School are destined for a relationship.

“Baby B”  That you expand your zeal for the acoustic guitar, your passion for nature and the environment, and your quiet but fierce belief in simplicity.  Find a small college with smart profs that show you worlds you never knew existed!  Sometimes I fear you may end up on a Greenpeace ship off in a remote ocean, taking a whaler’s harpoon.  But though I’d weep for the rest of my life, I’d know you would have packed more meaning into your young life than most people would have in eight decades.

“Baby C”  That you always maintain that positive, outgoing personality, that soul-deep drive to bolster, support, and love others.  Your enthusiastic attitude, combined with your relentless work ethic and keen sense of right and wrong, will put you in a position to lead a non-profit, start a law firm, or fight for women’s right in a Middle-Eastern country.  But if you do that last one, please send me a postcard in the nursing home, just like the little notes you leave me now, okay?

What I worry about: “lost opportunities.”  As the U.S. has stayed in the same educational position it’s been in for decades, other nations have moved ahead of us.  The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.  As an intense educator – I take that personally.

My own kids might be great readers.  Your kids might be great readers, or science and math students.  But we have millions of kids in America who aren’t.  Why?!  Because we have not yet determined how to “update” education for our students.  Do we have problems with discipline, civility, work ethic, etc?  Sure.  Money, politics, unions, school boards – whatever one wants to ascribe as the reasons, bringing U.S. education up in the international rankings has remained a chase after ephemeral goals.  Like running a labyrinthine marathon with no finish line.

So, here is my response, in terms of lost opportunities, changing things for the better, and saving the world.  It goes back to being personal, with my children again.  The three of them won’t solve all the country’s problems.  Maybe you’d want your children to help, too.

“Baby A”  Keep asking all those unique questions.  Some of them are nuts, but I love them!  As you screen them for your teachers – please! – jot the ones down that strike you as important, creative, useful.  Keep a journal, fold them into your blog (which is great), and pay attention to who responds.  That kind of divergent thinking may spark dialogue with other creative people. And together you’ll develop an approach to schooling that transforms the classroom so each student’s learning is maximized – every day.
Also, take the interest you have in composing music – and find one of your teachers who will let you compose your own test, instead of taking the regular test.  It’s a risk.  But intellectual risk in high school is a rarity.  And the U.S. needs people willing to go out on a limb, especially if it advances our national I.Q.  The worst is, you’ll get a “no.”  Get used to that – you’ll get a lot of them before you get to the “yes.”  We parents too often protect our kids from the daily pain and suffering that builds healthy resilience.

“Baby B”  When I hear you playing your guitar upstairs, I envy how you lose yourself.  Share that music – and yourself – with others as much as you can.  The acoustic aspect of your music represents your naturalist intelligence and your Thoreau-like soul.  As the world grows more complex, it needs the balance of simplicity.  Ours is a world that takes war as a given, that grows more polarized, that thrives on egomaniacal competition instead of collaboration.  We need you, and those like you.
Enter college, and the world, with your own personality, realizing you may be at odds with the majority, that you can change a few things only.  Remember the Taoist maxim: “The tree that bends in the wind survives the storm.”  Pick your issues, the ones that add value, meaning, and love to the world.  You’ll find other people with similar passions.  Shut no one out.  As you change – you will change others.  And the world.

“Baby C”  Normally you offer me advice, so this is a challenge.  Your talent for cultivating friends, working industriously, remaining organized, and being relentlessly positive will serve you for forever.  Though I might imagine you as a physician, while you still hate getting shots, I can also see you as serving as chancellor of education in New York City or shuttling between Boston and a non-government organization you helped create in Bangalore.  Whatever you do in life – pursue it with humility, patience, and creativity.  Don’t let others defeat, humiliate, or deride you.
The maze of life will throw in a boatload of obstacles.  You’ll lose some battles.  There are few arguments with only one right answer.  Remember that the fun of baking a chocolate cake makes cleaning up the kitchen a lot more tolerable.  Finally: being hassled by two brothers may well turn you into the strongest woman in the universe.

I believe my children – and to be fair to my extraordinary wife, “our” children – are unique, bright, and creative young people.  But I have to tell you, yours are as well.  Where education has to go next is personalizing itself to bring out that uniqueness, that brightness, that creativity in all children.  We’re lodged in conventions that work – but they don’t work as well as they could.

Things are changing.  My children, your children, and all of us have to collaborate, communicate, and conspire together to minimize the lost opportunities.  I take that process personally, very personally.

Lessons from the Car Dealership

October 3rd, 2011

You need to buy a new car.  You have a specific amount you’re willing to spend, and you have a raft of questions about financing.  You want a certain color and sufficient space for the kids and their sports equipment.  You’d like a GPS system, but fancy audio equipment isn’t necessary.  In other words, you’re the mostly typical auto consumer looking to spend significant money on something important – and you want what you want.

So, it’s a sunny Monday morning.  You’ve heard of a new car dealer a few miles away, and you’re eager to see what they offer.  The salesman comes out to greet you with that salesman smile, and you steel yourself to engage in that age-old conversation.  But instead of the usual talk, you are shown to a back room, where twenty or so other people are seated in rows.  They are all about your age, sitting quietly, fidgeting nervously with pencils and notepads.  Some have laptops, some are checking their cell phones, some are fighting the tendency to doze off.

You take the last seat available, puzzled about this twist in normal sales technique.  The salesman asks for everyone’s attention.  He turns on a projector that displays a colorful presentation on a bright white screen.

“You are all here to purchase a vehicle.  I’m here to help you.  We have 45 minutes together today, so please pay close attention to everything I have to say about our automobiles.  Taking notes will be helpful.”  You are confused, and not a little put out.  You wanted a lot more individual attention.

“We have 24 different kinds of cars on our lot.  They come in seven colors.  They average 26 MPG in town, and 31 MPG on the highway.  Of those 24 kinds of cars, 23 have GPS systems.  All have standard audio systems, but only five have supreme audio systems….”  You are already behind on taking notes, because you keep glancing at the PowerPoint where the same information that he’s stating is displayed on the slides.  You want out, but that would be embarrassing and awkward.

His talk goes on for 40 minutes, at the end of which the salesman says with a winning smile, “Are there any questions?  This is the time to ask!”

A woman with an irritated expression raises her hand, “Can’t we see any real cars?”

“What a great question!” the salesman replied.  “Certainly, ma’am.  At the end of the week, when you come back for the fifth visit, we’ll all take a tour of the lot.  Other questions?”

A man in a short sleeve shirt and tattered shorts and flip-flops asks sheepishly, “What financing plans do you have?”

“Another wonderful question!  If you need financing, there are handouts by the door as you leave today.  You can read those, and then we’ll cover details in the sixth and seventh visits.”

By now, you have decided this is not the approach to buying a car that fits your style, your personal comfort level, your individual needs, or anything else.  In fact, you wonder who might have come up with this approach to car sales in the first place.  You don’t think it would fit anybody’s desires.

But ask: have some aspects of formal schooling been historically set up like this hypothetical car dealership?  Though children aren’t adults, goodness knows, they are truly as individual as adults are.  So, while there are advantages to how education has been structured traditionally – how else might it be constructed to be more far advantageous and effective for the learner?

Consider just three factors that might increase students’ critical and creative thinking, that would result in a higher degree of accomplishment, and that would ultimately raise our nation’s ability to compete internationally.  All three concepts are not new, and some schools are in the process of actively engaging these ideas.  Think education at most all grades in regard to the following:

The Problem of Problem Solving: When students are working on problems, ideas, and issues that have real-life meaning and significance for them, their brains are more enthusiastically engaged in deep learning.  According to a dynamic program at Southern Illinois University, “Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a learner-centered educational method.  In PBL, learners are progressively given more and more responsibility for their own education and become increasingly independent of the teacher for their education.  PBL produces independent learners who can continue to learn on their own in life and in their chosen careers.”

Reassessing Assessment: How students are tested and evaluated for their learning might seem as cut and dried as the price of a car, but it’s a complex issue in education.  An aspect of one-size-fits-all pedagogy, traditional “letter grade” assessment can too easily ignore the subtleties of the individual learner, and does not always advance a student’s achievement and potential.  Further, students’ – and adults’ – preoccupation with “the grade” has too often overwhelmed what the grade should stand for: true learning.

Department Content vs Student Discontent:  Children and young people – and adult car shoppers – need learning to be connected, meaningful, reasonable – and somewhat personalized.  Historically, though, school has divided knowledge into an assortment of skills and content areas that might or might not be connected in the mind of the learner.  Skills are certainly crucial, and need to be taught in the context of content.  But ponder how much more students might learn if their day were integrated in ways that made clearer sense to them, rather than divided according to historical subject matter divisions.  When the school day is carved up in schedules that make more sense to the adult than to the student, discontent rather than deep learning ensues.

Most students are not car shoppers.  Car shoppers don’t sit in rows in classes listening to lectures instead of wandering the lot actually looking at the vehicles.  But what if we gave students just a little more responsibility for real life learning?  Maybe they’d make even wiser choices in their adult lives.

Learning: Take It Personally

September 8th, 2011

My thought is that you and I have as many differences as we have commonalities.  Seat us together in a discussion about books, movies, tropical birds, or our favorite fruit, and we’ll have as many friendly debates as happy agreements.  Even if we attend a lecture on a topic of common interest by an expert we adore, we’re each apt to hear a somewhat varied message.  The things that make us diverse and the things that make us the same are things that make the world go ‘round – especially in a dynamic time when more and more has become “personalized.”

Life is a really personal place.  So is learning.  Or at least it is becoming more personalized, in terms of educators realizing just how individual, unique, and “idiosyncratic” each learner is.  Many educators have recognized, however, just how difficult it can be to reach the “person” in a “person-alized” era, since school has historically been based on a “one-size-fits-all” model.  I was educated in a time and place that had the following assumptions: 1) student brains are empty, 2) teachers fill the brains up in the same way, 3) you get it or you don’t, end of sentence.

Variations on the above model involved other assumptions: A) you are smart or stupid, lazy or hard-working, B) teachers know everything and you know little, C) knowledge is out there to get, memorize, and forget after the test.  Now, that’s all very simplified – and insulting – but it’s a working model.

A few things have changed since I went to school in Shakespeare’s time, however, such as the notion of personalized learning, which is education adapted to the needs of the learner, in order to maximize that person’s unique potential. Much has influenced this thinking.

  • Multiple intelligences – Howard Gardner wrote Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), postulating seven varied intelligences (he added an eighth in 1999).  That catalytic thinking led educators and psychologists to rethink how people think, learn, and process the world.  You can, for example, be a struggling reader but a brilliant math student, or be challenged by math but be a gifted leader, athlete, or musician.
    But the essential message: teaching and learning will never be like the old days – it has to be more personalized.  Trinity has sent numerous teachers to “Project Zero” at Harvard to listen to Dr. Gardner.  Read more about him at http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm.
  • Learning styles theories have emphasized a variety of ways in which people process information.  The most common tend to focus on visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learning.  Researchers and theorists include Ken and Rita Dunn, Anthony Gregorc, David Kolb, Robert Sternberg, and others.
    While implications of learning styles remain largely unproven scientifically, teachers recognize that different children deal with information differently.  Light, temperature, and color can also affect children.
  • Brain research has provided extraordinary insight into human learning at many stages of development, from infancy through old age.  Each brain is unique, but we now know so much more of the neurological patterns by which a learner processes information, sensation, and emotion.  Understanding these patterns can help us personalize teaching and learning.  But much still needs to inform classroom practice.
    A discovery by Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti may prove to have profound implications for the teacher-student dynamic: “mirror neurons” in the brain that “allow us to see what we’re missing simply by mirroring people who see different things than we do.” (p. 55, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, by Cathy N. Davidson) Read more about Davidson’s new book at http://nowyouseeit.net/.
  • Emotional intelligence theory likewise has enlightened us about how limited a high SAT score is for success in life.  Traditional IQ and standardized test scores have their place, but Daniel Goleman’s work, particularly Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, tells us that “kids who are better able to manage their emotions, for example, actually can pay attention better, take in information better, and remember better. In other words, it helps you learn better.”
    Accountability, benchmarks, data-driven, outcomes, deliverables, and other business-related concepts may have their place in education, but we should not ignore thinkers and scientists who have devoted years studying how the brain operates, how humans function, and how education needs to personalize learning.
  • Technology – Little needs to be added about the role that digital technology has played.  Kids were born into it, they know it, they expect it, and we should help make it safe, available, and humane for them.  Technology provides access to information and knowledge – and it allows people to create new knowledge.  That’s powerful!  Should we still educate our kids about the risks?  Certainly.  Should we fear it?  Fear isn’t an effective motivator in day-to-day education – education is.
    Personalized learning will increase dramatically as we incorporate technology and free teachers to spend more time in building authentic learning relationships with their students, and minimize time on rote tasks.  Technology has the potential for generating thinking, increasing collaboration, and improving efficiency.  We must simply be aware of the downsides.

Teaching and learning in the 20th Century had a lot going for it.  But just as we had to get the lead out of gasoline, it’s the 21st Century and we have to get the lead out of education.  We have to consider what will give our children the power to motivate themselves, to derive the most from their teachers, to be self-directed learners.

2011: Memorizing content to be forgotten after a test – forget it!  Always cramming for exams – even an “A” means you fail!  Not knowing who you are as a learner – so 20th Century!

The goal then?  Personalize the learning so each child can achieve his or her unique potential.  It’s not easy.  But then, working hard for something of great value transcends the centuries – and is maybe even more important than agreeing on a favorite fruit.

Where Does Learning Need To Go?

August 16th, 2011

One question I occasionally ask parents new to Trinity is: “What are your hopes and dreams for your children?”  The answers are wide-ranging, touching, revealing.  Few speak about a prestigious MBA or number one-ranked medical school, though those may be unspoken assumptions for some.  Many talk about kindness, about wanting their children to know the world is bigger than their own egos, about service, about spiritual awareness.

Whatever the hopes and dreams, some form of learning has to be involved in moving toward our goals – it’s just in the human equation.  To get from A to B and B to Z, we have to learn.  Not to diminish our species’ uniqueness, but the squirrels in our backyards face the same challenge.

Learning is acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences, and may involve synthesizing different types of information.  That’s a simple Wikipedia definition.  (My philosophy/psychology degrees from ages ago would lead me to definitions so tedious even I would stop reading them.)

Understandably, learning has had direct associations with schooling.  It starts at 8 and ends at 3, occurs in blocks, behind doors too often closed.  But we know better.  In a highly engaging book, The Social Animal, David Brooks cites neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s statistic that fetuses grow about 250,000 neurons – brain cells – a minute.  So by the time a child is born, his brain has over 20 billion brain cells.  That’s the potential for monumental learning, learning that occurs all the time, everywhere.  But while we have accumulated significant data about the brain, we really know little current research about learning that has transferred to the classroom.

So, where does learning need to go at the pre-K to 12 levels of education?  Let me note three responses, all meant to open, not resolve, that question.

  1. 21st Century Education — While the phrase has become clichéd, 21st Century skills does carry meaning.  Though some are far from new, their application has become pressingly relevant.  Critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity, astute oral and written communication, dealing effectively and ethically with a digital world – these and other aspects of learning are increasingly necessary for students.  Two sources are especially interesting in this regard.  For a good overview, read a substantial excerpt from 21st Century Skills by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel at http://21stcenturyskillsbook.com/pdf/21stCS_excerpt.pdf.   Also, many of our faculty and parents have read a provocative, widely recognized book by Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap.  I found this interview with Dr. Wagner to be relevant: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/features/2008/08/20_wagner.php.
  2. Personalized Learning – Education in general has long been modeled on a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.  We now know too much about the individual brain, about learning styles, about multiple intelligences, and about the complexity of gifts, talents, and struggles that children possess to continue that approach.  Personalizing the learning process is something Trinity has been studying – and it is a process that is difficult to define and complex to implement.  Though we are a leader in elementary education in that regard, we are not alone in the endeavor.  The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), though primarily dedicated to public education, publishes some excellent work that should provoke important discussion in all schools.  Click here to read ASCD’s list of “10 Components of Personalized Learning,” some of which are certainly relevant for private-independent education.  http://www.ascd.org/news-media/Press-Room/News-Releases/Education-Leaders-Identify-Top-10-Components-of-Personalized-Learning.aspx.
  3. Technology – The word conjures up everything from enthusiasm to fear, and from transformation to “I’m-going-to-throw-that-cell-phone-away-if-you-don’t-talk-to-me!”  Technology, however, is increasingly like electricity, or silverware, or automobiles.  It’s here, it’s gear, we need to get used to it.  Like driving on a scary highway on a Friday at five, technology does come with threats we have to confront.  Living in a state of anxiety and fear, however, merely clouds our judgment and impedes reasonable progress.  Our children are making use of digital technology in ways that will solve some of the problems people in my generation created.  They will make mistakes, just as we their parents did.  It is our children’s creativity, their critical thinking, and their gift for problem solving that will ultimately trump the downsides of technology.  Noted British educator and thinker, Sir Ken Robinson, who many of our teachers heard at a conference last year, wrote a captivating book called The Element that speaks of the importance of seeking one’s true dreams.

“Education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” – Sir Ken Robinson, The Element

These three reflections merely point, suggest, and hint at where learning and education might be headed in the 21st Century.  Many other perspectives and observations would be just as valid.  What seems no longer sufficient, however, is to say, “What was good enough for me is good enough for my kids.”  Too much of everything in the world has changed in the last decade or two.  Just try tossing your smart phone and putting that ten-pound brick of a 1995 phone back up to your ear, for instance.

Our students need us as adults to be role models who learn, think, and adapt – without losing our values.  They don’t really need to be baby Einsteins and kindergarten Mozarts.  They’ll do fine without our pushing academic stuff at them before they’ve exited their diapers.  Their brains develop at an astonishing rate, and take in galaxies of information.  Our role is to help them transform that information into knowledge, knowledge that eventually has a chance to become wisdom.

As adults, our brains contain about 100 billion neurons.  That should give us ample resources to hope and dream for our children – and to support them as they move into the 21st Century with an education that has provided the confidence and competence not only to succeed, but to thrive as truly good people.