Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Education, standardization, reformation, revolution, transformation, evolution... frustration!

"The fact is that given the challenges we face, 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."   Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

I had just seen a fabulously inspiring TED Talk (Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion) suggested by a colleague and was looking at the other suggested TED education talks. I have seen a few of Sir Ken Robinson's commentaries and a TED Talk of his before. He has many to choose from. He is quite an engaging speaker and always keeps my interest longer than anticipated. This title of his really intrigued me, "Bring on the Learning Revolution!" (from 5/24/10).  I am always wary of that word; revolution. Hmmm... learning revolution. This was worth a listen. 

Ken Robinson speaks of people finding their authentic self, the search for who they are. Human communities depend upon a diversity of talents. Not a singular conception of ability. Yet, education has dislocated many people from their natural talents. Human resources, he states, are like natural resources. They aren't just floating there on the surface for us to find, lying around. Some are even buried deeply. Often you have to go looking for them ardently with purpose. This is not the current educational model, in fact, often quite the opposite is true.

Then, he really piqued my interest. He said, "You have to create the circumstances where they [people's talents and passions] show themselves." This reminded me of my recent post about the interview with Dan Pink referring to his new book, To Sell Is Human. He asserts that as salespeople (as we all are - trying to move people), we must create the context in which it is easier to move people. In other words, we must make it very accessible for people to act. How can we create the context in which our students can find their passions?
How can we create conditions where kids' natural talents can flourish? Do we know our true passions? Are we willing to go on that journey ourselves?

Innovation is hard. But that is what we need. Sir Ken Robinson says we need a complete radical overhaul, a transformation. Innovation challenges things we take for granted. It's very difficult to know what you take for granted, he reveals. His theme seems to be that we cannot fix the current broken system therefore needing this complete transformation, hence revolution. 
That may be true but that is one extreme end of the continuum.

I'm a teacher. I'm practical. I want to do this. But how? How do we completely transform the current model of education in our country? We need to start somewhere. I will tell you what won't make a difference -- standardizing and testing our students (and teachers!) to death. This is the other extreme end of the paradigm. This is what our political and business end of education have decided to do and have pretty much instilled without funding or proof of its efficacy. Were educators involved in this? But of course not. Are educators involved now, after the fact? Yes, they are working educationally to fix the business model forced into place, again. Square pegs in round holes, again. See the articles relating to The Common Core at We know this model doesn't work. We have tried this before, more than once, and failed miserably each time. 

So what do I do in the meantime to facilitate the learning of my students preparing them for the next century workforce? How do I at least begin to create the conditions for them to find their passions and use them for the highest and deepest levels of learning?  How do I help to begin this paradigm shift?

Sir Ken Robinson suggests moving from our current industrial model of education to an agricultural model of education. Human flourishing is organic, not mechanic. But the outcome cannot be predicted. It is just like the farmer, he says. The farmer can only create the conditions in which the crops will begin to flourish. How they grow is up to many variables. Each one needs personalized attention and guidance. He suggests customizing education based on a personalized curriculum. This would include a complete overhaul of the current model. That is just as unlikely to happen right now as is for the standardization model currently being forced upon us to turn out successfully.

So, we need some places to start. We need anchors. These anchors work with what we are given (demanded) to do in a way that can encourage students to explore passion, risk, resilience, perseverance, and grit as a way of learning. We have to use what we have now as we continue to build the scaffolding for the evolution. This is always how educational change has happened over time, and always through the teachers.

One example of using this kind of "growth" model could be shown through Dr. Gravity Goldberg and her associates ( Her model is doable in schools, right now. It's a start. It's a way of looking as what we have and deciding which part of the scaffolding needs to begin at the bottom. You can personalize any lessons to each student through starting with the larger group. She refers to this at the 3 T's -- Teach, Tend, and Tether. She uses a gardening metaphor because it is about helping living things to thrive. Does this sound familiar? 

Teach is the first step. We teach students the lesson we intend for them to use/try. This part of the model can be the group model as we know schools to be right now. This may be the section where the teacher can have the most control, considering the imparting of knowledge. Subsequently, however, the teacher should also use the students' prior knowledge to enhance this part of the lesson. 

Tend, the second step, refers to making sure each student has a grasp on the essential questions of the lesson. Tending to the students as you send them off to try this great information you presented is when you can modify and adjust. This can also be done in the current model of schools. In this section, the teacher gathers information to determine which students will need which levels of support to facilitate the next step, tether.

Tether, to me, is the key. This is where teachers need to let go of most of the control and let the work (and student) speak to the way in which we facilitate. Dr. Goldberg asserts:
Many plants in a garden need to be tethered to a trellis, beam, or other plants to help them grow. The tethers are connections that can either help or hinder growth. As a gardener, you can’t just look at each individual plant on its own, but you need to step back and look at the whole. Is there enough space for each plant? Are some plants shading out others? Are plants connecting in ways that work (tomatoes and basil thriving together), or are some plants taking over others?

This is the personalization.  We, educators, have always used this model.  Recently one hot word for it is differentiation.  In this model though, using tethering as differentiation means giving each student everything he/she needs for that area of study.  Sometimes that is facilitating by stepping back or by linking two students with like interests, or finding experts and sources to utilize.  Luckily, I work in a suburban area that has smaller class sizes (for now) and an appreciation for learning styles and teaching styles (for now). We offer many services that cater to students' individual needs (for now).

Yet even we, the lucky districts, need guidance and support. We need coaching and mentorship. This will help to create that imperative growth mindset. This forges a new form of questioning. What else can I do to help this student learn to find his/her passion? How do I hook them into being vulnerable enough to dive in to a place of new and unfamiliar territory? How do I make my classroom, my garden, a safe place for all to flourish? How do I become vulnerable enough to let go of some of that control and be seen myself

Recently, at a special education meeting for a student of mine, a colleague referred to my classroom as a "soft place to fall." Wow, what a compliment. I will always remember to keep that feeling in my garden for the school year. That is, by the way, the only kind of gardening I do.

“It's not about what it is, it's about what it can become," Dr. Seuss, The Lorax.