NOT Giving Up on Education

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Over the summer, the book One Size Does Not Fit All by Nikhil Goyal caught my eye. It crept up on a few different occasions before I bought it. It wasn’t the title that first sparked a curiosity; instead, it was the age of it’s author– 17 years old, yes, 17. I did not read the book when I purchased it. Rather, it sat in my to-read pile for months. When I returned to school, the title of our principal’s professional development workshop was “One Size Does Not Fit All.” I assumed that he’d read the book, but he never mentioned it in his lecture/power point which focused on differentiated instruction. One of his primary messages was to provide students the opportunities to do-over their work until they reach a comprehensive understanding. I walked away from the workshop thoughtful about his messages.

I recall, as a young teacher– some twenty-ish years ago, I was like a sponge at workshops like this, soaking in all of the information I could. Over the last four – eight years, let’s say I’ve become somewhat jaded, if not skeptical, because I don’t readily “buy” the information put in front of me. I’m confident and experienced enough to question when I don’t think something is right– especially where it concerns my passion which is educating young people– the doers and thinkers and leaders of our future.

On a cold January night, I recalled Goyal’s book, sitting in my to-read pile, so I cozied up on the couch and began to read. I found myself connecting to so many of his assertions in the book. How we are dumbing down education and not focusing on the right things. How education, today, is more about political agendas (such as ‘No Child Left Behind’ and ‘Race to the Top’) and financial interests. I was encouraged by his proposals regarding how to engage kids in today’s society. He inspired me to want to DO something as a result of reading this book, which I read cover to cover in just two hours.

We, teachers, have been so entrenched in data-driven instruction, common assessment, common formative assessment, national testing. For God’s sake, we are now administering the P.S.A.T.s during school. As both a parent and a teacher, I find no relevance for the P.S.A.T.s (which is touted as a practice S.A.T.); it certainly was not an indicator of how my children scored on the S.A.T.s. It’s a money maker for College Board is what it is, as are all of the mandated tests, in my opinion. Furthermore, we are moving in the direction of Common Core, a new educational movement to streamline all education. In my discipline, at least, it seeks to move away from teaching classical literature to non-fiction. While I do believe there is a place for non-fiction in our English classrooms, I don’t believe in sacrificing the history of the body of canonical classics that have both reflected and shaped our society. It is in knowing what has come before us that helps us understand what lies ahead of us. The classics teach us to become literate people. I mean literate in the sense that we share a common language of race, segregation, feminism, religion, freedom, success, civil rights, war, coming of age… and the list goes on an on. My stance is not about not wanting to change. I am a huge proponent of change, most recently infusing technology in the classroom. I believe in making education relevant for our youth; moreover, I strongly believe that in making it relevant is where true learning occurs. Students don’t want to be taught a novel, for instance, in isolation. It’s in the way a student can connect it to his/her own life that matters.

But with all of this… minutia… that we are required to address, what truly shapes our students into educated, self-advocating, creative, community-minded, life-long learners is getting lost. Goyal quotes Robin Hanson, when he says “Our schools are creating less creative people.” Why?? Because in order to measure data, one needs to teach measurable information– that is the black & white, right or wrong information of old. It’s in the grey areas where ideas and creativity emerge. To support this, Goyal refers to studies that have found, as noted on Edutopia, submitted by Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond who conclude:

1. Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.

2. Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student     performance than any other variable, including student background and             prior achievement.

3. Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn.

Time and time again, I have referred to Ken Robinson’s TED talk asserting that only through developing creativity in students are we doing our jobs in preparing them for the future.

In my experience, the complex group projects which present a problem to solve or a task to accomplish without providing step-by-step directions are the ones students learn the most from. Through these projects, they acquire life skills in working as part of a team, creating a product, figuring out how to create the product, researching, reaching dead-ends, problem solving, goal setting, working towards one’s strengths, overcoming obstacles, time management… the list goes on and on. Skills such as these will long take precedence over the content knowledge they’ve gained. I receive letters from alumni, who had whined through these kinds of  projects, stating something like, “Just tell us what you want,” who come to thank me for the knowledge they’ve acquired as a result, something that puts them one step ahead of their college peers.

Goyal states, “The purpose of school is to create lifelong learners. Period.” Students who need to learn only to pass a test, learn what they need to in order to pass the test, then forget about it the very next day. Further, Goyal asserts that assessment shouldn’t be a paper trail of who met the goals we set out for them; instead, it should be a conversation. He suggests we allow students to question and critique other students. This reminds me of the way I structure writing workshops. Students are provided with others’ writings, given time to comment in writing and, then, they do so orally in a round-table, workshop fashion. It becomes of conversation of what is and is not working in the pieces. Students come away from this experience asking when we can do it again because they learned so much from hearing the critiques of their peers. If we are asking students to write essays and norm their responses,  how are we honoring their individuality as writers and communicators?

I scarily envision the goals education in the future to create little clones of all the successful models who have come before them. For we will have a precise model if we study the data accurately enough, won’t we?

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What I respect about Goyal’s work is how well researched it was– he covered such a wide platform of issues that have arisen in education, speaking with leaders in education– those immersed in the field of education. Moreover, he provides plausible recommendations for how to make education better for the future.

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creative Thinking
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Curiosity
  6. Risk-taking
  7. Overcoming Failure

He proposes that we re-think education. We change our mindset about failure, realizing that one needs to fail many times before one meets with success. Instead of coddling students with a false sense of accomplishment, we should herald failure when it’s an honest attempt to succeed. Goyal further proposes we allow students a  voice in where the path of their education goes– allowing them to work to their strengths and interests– because people are happier and more productive when they enjoy what they do.

If teachers become so sidetracked through all of the hoops we need to jump through for state-mandates and funds, the real business of education becomes lost. The creators and thinkers and entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow will be the victims.

I urge you to read this book if you are an educator, a parent, a student, a supporter of education. I purchased one for each of my administrators, hoping Goyal’s message resonates with them, so they could pass it on.

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2 thoughts on “NOT Giving Up on Education

  1. In some instances, yes. If failing is a matter of not trying, then no. But I agree w/ Goyal’s idea that we have to accept failure as part of education– there are degrees of failure. To some kids failure is getting less than an A. I think the mid-set of make everyone feel good, everyone needs to get As, everyone needs to get into AP classes– that’s setting students up for a false sense of success. But if, for instance, a student doesn’t do well on an essay, I always allow them the opportunity to revise, but real work needs to take place– they should be revising to make the paper better vs. getting a better grade. In fact, I think students learn more about their writing during the revision process when they can re-see it. But if a student bombs a test because he/she wasn’t prepared, then no– do-overs will not work.

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