Does Schooling Support Student Understanding?
Millions of students struggle with schooling (Below the Surface: Solving the Hidden Graduation Rate Crisis, 2015, Alliance for Excellent Education). Classrooms were designed in the 1950’s and many schools have left the furniture in the same location for over sixty years! Schools have purchased programs, added personnel to support a wide range of learners, increased the number of tests students take annually, and designed curriculum aligned to standards. According to Tony Wagner, “What has not changed is the daily reality of teaching and learning for the overwhelming majority of students in America” (Reinventing America's Schools).
Students enter pre-school and kindergarten full of questions, ideas, curiosity, and imagination. By the time students reach middle school, many of them are bored and do not enjoy school. Schooling teaches students to memorize and recall the correct answer, learn because ‘this will be on the test,’ and avoid risk taking because failure means a lower grade. Successful students are rewarded with As and Bs and unsuccessful students are told to try harder or given the same assignment a second time. Schooling is a system designed to move students from one grade to the next. Once students earn enough high school credits, they are rewarded with a high school diploma. Schooling focuses on teaching, while a Culture of Learning focuses on the whole child and student understanding.
This week, I am visiting schools in Auckland, New Zealand. The schools are demonstrating how schooling can be different. The first school we visited was Stonefields School. The principal asked the staff to answer the question, "What is learning?" Once the staff had defined learning and described what it looks like, the next question was "How do we cause learning?" If learning is the goal of schooling, then adults should address the inputs and the barriers to learning.
At Stonefields School, the staff identified The Big Five:
1. The PIT
It is ok to be in "The PIT" --- where learners struggle. What do learners do when they are stuck?
2. Learning Strategies
3. Learner Agency
5. Real (Authentic/Engaging/Relevant)
Every teacher is focused on the BIG Five, along with the Graduate Learner Outcomes. In the United States, each teacher or teacher team usually identifies learner outcomes and they vary from one teacher to the next, within the same school. Teachers often create learning goals that focus on content, rather than student interests and a learning pathway for each child. When teachers are focused on supporting each student reach the school's goals, then it is more likely that students will have a clear understanding of the learning target.
Grant Wiggins wrote, “Transfer is the bottom-line goal of all learning, not scripted behavior. Transfer means that a learner can draw upon and apply from all of what was learned, as the situation warrants, not just do one move at a time in response to a prompt.” How do teachers at Stonefields School teach for transfer?
7 Lessons Learned From Stonefields School:
1. Learning is the goal, not content or coverage of material.
2. Each student is an individual, so teachers do not assign the same assignment to all students.
3. Learning does not take place on the same day for all students in a classroom, so students have learning pathways and muttiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding.
4. Formative assessment is the cornerstone of personalized learning.
5. Feedback is critically important. Timely and specific feedback support student understanding.
6. You have to create an environment where teachers and students feel comfortable to fail.
7. Productive struggle is part of the learning process and it teaches students to persevere.
How will your school staff transform teaching and learning? Schmoker (2005) wrote, “It starts with a group of teachers who meet regularly as a team to identify essential learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals, share strategies, and then create lessons to improve upon those levels.” What does learning look like in your school? What are the existing barriers to student understanding? “The courage to address tough topics comes from a deep commitment. No deep commitment, no hard dialogue” (Muhammad, 2015). Students are depending on educators to have the hard dialogue.
About the Author
Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (Arkansas). He is participating in "A Learning Journey: Global Perspectives to Ignite Innovation in Education" with two principals and two teacher leaders from Fayetteville Public Schools, along with other educators from Northwest Arkansas. The trip is sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation and the Office of Innovation in Education.
This is a study tour of New Zealand's educational system and selected innovative schools. Efforts will then turn to transforming ideas learned during the study tour into action. The group is focused on learning how to create the conditions to generate, enhance, and scale dynamic innovative approaches to education.