How do we make learning successful?

Bird Droppings May 11, 2022

How do we make learning successful?

As I do on many mornings, I walk out to a quiet corner of my backyard when I get the time. Nestled in a patch of weeds and brush, I laid claim to my quiet spot and looked toward the morning east. It was still dark when I headed out this morning to glimpse the sunrise or the threads of life, as I call them, glistening in the early morning light. These are strands of spider webbing that are still hanging, connecting everything. The scientist part of me knows that they are simply webs from wandering spiders the previous night out hunting, but the mystic sees the connections. I do see the interconnections, but many do not.

As I see my grandchildren and interact, I become deeply concerned with their education in public school, and I am concerned about learning even more than education. That is a strange statement to make coming from a teacher by trade. We have institutions established called schools where learning is supposed to occur. Sadly, various interfering elements within state and federal politics contradict and destroy the ability to provide learning experiences for children. Yesterday, several editorial cartoons were sent through the internet showing a group of students connected with wires from their heads staring ahead and trying to climb out a window to escape nature. The just of the image was that education reform wants us all to be education zombies all learning the same thing simultaneously. If we cannot reverse the decline in learning, our children will be simply pawns of whoever is or whatever is in power. I have raised a simple question for nearly twenty years. I can, through “DATA,” show a direct correlation between the standardized biology and literature tests in Georgia and reading levels.

A co-teacher used terms and numbers that I questioned and said these are the numbers the state uses to evaluate schools. It was 80% and above. Of all the scores I checked, 100% of students with 80% or higher in the biology 2019 EOC test read on grade level or very close. I randomly checked to find where the magic cut-off was for failing and found that a Lexile score of less than 950 had 94% of students. We were asked to find ways of teaching biology differently. I raise the question, how do we teach kids to read in high school? Different teachers’ same results. Read on grade level pass, below, and fail.

“The first object of any act of learning, over and beyond the pleasure it may give, is that it should serve us in the future. Learning should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily.” Ted Sizer

I received an email yesterday or responded to a Facebook post I shared with a friend. The video clip I shared many months back was directed at the Teach to the Test mentality that is the driving force in education due to state and federal law-mandated high stakes testing. A recent college graduate, a young man, stated he could not get a job because his teaching method was more hands-on than what administrators were looking for. Daily I see my son’s frustration; he was trained to teach experientially and is now limited by the curriculum map today. I have co-taught with a teacher in physics who likes to provide context to the learning. To study the concepts of velocity and acceleration, we did a slip and slide lab to take data to calculate acceleration and velocity. It was interesting to see physics come alive for those kids and still comply with the curriculum requirements. If I were wagering, I would say we did.

“A vision without a task is a dream – a task without a vision is drudgery- but a task with vision can change the world.” Black Elk

“Too much emphasis has been placed on reforming schools from the outside through policies and mandates. Too little has been paid to how schools can be shaped from within.” Roland Barth

Just a few days ago, I addressed that we are educating more diversified students in the United States than anywhere in the world. I borrowed from Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux Holy Man who passed away nearly sixty years ago. Black Elk believed in the power of visions. Roland Barth was a professor at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. His book Improving Schools from Within was a best seller in 1991. His latest book, Learning by heart, addresses the need for school reform and changes and that they need to come from changing the culture of schools. As I read both pieces and thought of a Sioux holy man talking about making a vision real and a renowned educator saying we need to look within to elicit change, maybe we should be listening to them and not politicians.

“Rarely do outside of school remedies work their way into the fabric of the schools or into the teacher’s lives, and more rarely into the classrooms. Therefore, they only offer a modest hope of influencing the basic culture of the school.” Roland Barth

“Community building must become the heart of any school improvement effort.” Thomas Sergiovanni

“The best we educational planners can do is create the conditions for teachers and students to flourish and get out of their way.” Theodore Sizer

As I ponder the various authors I am reviewing and borrowing from today, Barth, Sergiovanni, and Sizer, in the quotes above, I find continuity. These men are all innovators and have made significant and influential suggestions about education. Many school systems use learning communities that Sergiovanni promotes in his writing. I know that Roland Barth’s ideas are taught and re-taught in graduate schools nationwide, and teachers seldom leave college without hearing the name of Ted Sizer. What concerns me is why it has the potential to change education; we seem to be in a rut and going nowhere different. Why do we continue to know what to do to educate kids better and not do it? I wish an answer were simple to place in writing, but I see blame as being in schools’ leadership. I see blame in school boards, state education boards, and eventually at a federal level. As the ideology leaves the classroom, it goes from being real and meaningful to being business, and is it cost-effective? Can we afford this? Should we spend dollars on this? Somewhere children get left out, and learning gets sat by the roadside.

“To cope with a changing world, ant entity must develop the capacity of shifting and changing – of developing new skills and attitudes; in short, the capability of learning.” A. DeGues, The Living Company

“The challenge of discovery lies not seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

“You cannot have a learning organization without a shared vision…A shared vision provides a compass to keep learning when stress develops. The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gaps, there would be no need to move toward the vision. We call this gap creative tension.” Peter Senge

Dr. Peter Senge is a professor at MIT and a renowned scholar in learning. His books and theories are used in management schools and education studies. The idea of a collaborative effort in learning falls back into many ideas that have been mentioned in previous droppings dealing with Foxfire and John Dewey and the democratic classroom. Students learn more when relevant to them, and they have some buy-in. Proust provides that we need a new perception rather than using the same old mythology to view education and learning. We have to develop new skills, not just use what is available. Although John Dewey’s ideas are still considered progressive at over a hundred years old always strike me as interesting.

“We learn best from our experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions. In the absence of a great dream, pettiness prevails. Shred visions foster risk-taking, courage, and innovation. Keeping the end in mind creates the confidence to make decisions even in moments of crisis.” Peter Senge

“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. It comes from non-conformity, the ability to turn your back on old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesteryear for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”  Thomas Sankara, African leader

“Schools are among the very few institutions that have remained almost entirely unchanged for most of this century.” Judith Aitken

“No other organization institution faces challenges as radical as those that will transform the school.”  Peter Drucker

“Today’s Schools are not Tomorrow’s Schools. That’s a fundamental misconception.” David Lange

Authors, speakers, management consultants, professors, educational leaders, and great teachers in their own right have been outspoken for years about our schools and learning. Why do we let politicians decide what our students should be learning or evaluate these students? Why do we put arbitrary numbers on children with disabilities who can and can not be exempt from state-mandated tests? One IQ point separates two students, one who, because they cannot pass the High School graduation tests is and receives a special education certificate of attendance and is counted as a dropout because they did not graduate, and the other by submitting a portfolio of what learning occurred in high school graduates with a legitimate high school diploma and is a graduate. One IQ point separates the two and how they are assessed.

“The overwhelming number of teachers …are unable to name or describe a theory of learning that underlies what they do.” Alfie Kohn

“It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather… I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” Haim Ginott

“In teaching students to think, the emphasis is not on how many answers they know. Rather, the focus is on how well they behave when they don’t know.” Art Costa

I recall reading Alfie Kohn for the first time in 2001 at the suggestion of my principal, who had formed a book club. The title of the book is The Schools our Children Deserve. As I read through these authors and quotes last night as I researched my morning wanderings, I wonder, can we ever really change the industrial complex that drives education? Can we unseat lobbyists and politicians who seek profits at the cost of our children’s learning? I wonder as I finish up today if we can overcome.

“In the absence of a great dream, pettiness prevails. Shared visions foster risk-taking, courage, and innovation. Keeping the end in mind creates the confidence to make decisions even in moments of crisis.” Peter Senge

I started and ended with a vision. “A vision without a task is a dream – a task without a vision is drudgery- but a task with vision can change the world.” Black Elk The great spiritual leader Black Elk spoke of his visions, and Peter Senge offered a shared vision. I was once told it took leaders who had the vision to lead. I wonder if we can find those people who care enough about children and learn to pave the way to a new understanding and realization of our educational system. Please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and your hearts and give thanks namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


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