Saturday, May 14, 2011

What kind of education do I want for MY kids (Part 2)

In a recent post, I asked the question, "What kind of education do I want for MY kids?"

The answer I gave was that I wanted my kids to gain confidence in school, learn to think creatively and ask questions, practice working with others and building relationships and uncover their passions and develop their interests (notice that I did not write about the traditional "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic", nor did I mention technology or another buzzword in education, "21st Century Learning".  I chose not to include those things not because they are unimportant, but because I am sure those skills and tools will be embedded in whatever children become engaged in).

When I look back upon my own days in school, I recall fondly the friendships and the extra-curricular opportunities (I was heavily involved in sports in high school and beyond).  What I don't recall are the specific skills I learned or exams I wrote or facts I memorized.  If I had it to do all over again, I wish I spent more time taking chances and learning some skills that involved my hands (besides playing sports) like carpentry, cooking and some other skills that I wish I was better at today.  My most rich learning experiences consisted of connecting with other people and watching or talking to them about why they did what they did.  Most of those experiences did not occur in the classroom.  I learned the best and improved the most when I had no fear of failure, could attempt something and fail, then try it again.  Sadly, as I grew older, I lost some of that innocence and willingness to try and fail, and became more competitive, concerned with being right, and less willing to experiment.  I now consider myself somewhat lacking in the creativity department, and am working hard at trying new things that I am less comfortable with.  As an adult, I don't think I am alone. 

I want my children's experience with school to be different.  I want them to try and fail, but not fear being wrong, and learn from the attempt.  I want them to be inspired by what they are learning and excited to keep exploring.  I am not saying we should ignore areas where students struggle or dislike the subject matter.  We should just not focus exclusively on those areas.  I want my kids spend more time developing and enhancing areas of strength, thus feeling confident and excited about school.   Exploring and developing these strengths needs to take higher priority than supporting areas of weakness and providing with them homework in hopes of improving these shortcomings.

So, if this is what I want my children's education to be about,an important question to address as a follow up is, "How can educators ensure they are promoting the things I hope my children get?"

1.  Let go of the curriculum - teachers are too often in a rush to "cover" the curriculum, feeling pressure to teach all of the required topics suggested for a certain grade or subject.  I understand this pressure, but we need not worry so much about covering it all.  Rather, we should be more concerned with getting they key concepts of a topic well understood and experimented with, so students can look to explore the topic more on their own if interested by it.

2.  Find out what interests our students and be aware of incorporating their strengths - build relationships with students, find out what things they like to do in their free time, and bring some of those activities into the classroom as links to concepts being taught.  Allow them to present their knowledge and learning in ways that excite them, and utilize the strengths they already possess.  Fortunately, the more I visit classrooms, the more I am seeing this practice.

3.  Encourage students to explore and not to be afraid of making mistakes - this is a tough one, especially in high school.  Standardized tests appear to be a necessary evil, and by their teen years, students are very aware of the competitive nature of school and life, and don't want to be made fun of for being wrong.  We need to do all that we can to delay this.  Don't penalize kids for mistakes, but help them answer the questions that come with being wrong.  Why did that not work?  What could we do next time? 

4.  Examine and grade less, but provide feedback more - again, reflecting back on the point above, the competitive nature of exams and grading makes this extremely difficult.  However, we need to start giving grades and scores based on the growth we have seen from students over the course of the year instead of simply testing and providing numbers or letters that tell students very little about what they have learned or how to improve.  We need to provide more descriptive feedback and allow students to keep working on things until they are happy that it demonstrates what they know.  Help move students away from "playing the game" and simply trying to "credential", and make it more about learning.  In order to do this, we need to re-examine our assessment practices.  This idea is gaining momentum in education, and is a Professional development topic in Richmond.  I am happy to report that the conversations are having a positive effect.

5.  Make learning fun - get students to laugh at and enjoy what they are learning.  Use real world experiences like field trips and mock performances.  Try to create memories for the students with assignments and projects that they will remember and talk about with their parents and friends.  Again, the creative side of our teachers is starting to come out, and I am seeing more risk-taking and fun activities in classrooms than ever before.

I got a few comments and tweets from people who read my original post on the topic, most of whom agreed with what I had written, and wanted similar things for their kids.  One tweet came from a parent @nikidun, who said, "Agreed.  Advice for parents wanting to help it happen?"  This is a great question, and while I don't have the silver bullet to ensure it does, I will attempt to give a few suggestions for parents wanting to help start the conversation at their child's school.

1.  Share your child's areas of interest and strengths with their teacher - you know what your child is good at, gets excited by and responds positively to.  Inform their teachers.  It will help them get your child engaged, and engagement is the key to success at school.

2.  Ask questions of the school - don't hesitate to talk to all members of your child's school community.  Teachers, Counsellors, Administration, Support staff.  They are all in the business of supporting your child, and if you have a question about why things are done a certain way, or how things are decided, assessed or presented, ask.

3.  Ask questions of your children - what are you doing in school?  What do you enjoy about school?  Share the answers with the school staff and encourage your kids to continue pursuing those interests in ways outside of school.  The strengths and interests they have are likely to become what they work with for most of their lives.  Help them develop those strengths and encourage them to appreciate and be proud of what they are good at.

4.  Make learning fun - like teachers, parents need to role model learning and share it with their children.  Make it fun for you and them, do things together that you can both learn from.  Show your children that learning is a life-long process, and that it is enjoyable.  Compliment them on the growth that you have seen.  Nothing makes someone feel better about what they are doing than positive feedback.

Above all else, we need to make school a place where when our children come home at the end of the day and we ask, "How was school today?", or "What did you do in school today?", they are excited to tell us about all that went on, and where they develop a hunger to do more of it on their own and with their families.  That is what I want from school for not just my children, but all children.

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