Leading Out

Leading Out attempts to be the voice of educators at heart, a series of reflections, opinions, articles, a collection of resources to help make more sense of this, the best time in history to be an educator.

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Learning: the missing link in Design

Despite the state of quasi global confusion that seems to be enveloping education, there is clear consensus that creativity and critical thinking are some of the new alphabetization skills in a world where, irreversibly, contents are infinitely and easily available, just a few keystrokes or screen touches away. If everything and everything can be found, going beyond factual knowledge in terms of interpreting knowledge and using it creatively is definitely a skill that can make a difference.

In that context, it makes sense that design as a preferred pedagogical embodiment of these traits has become ubiquitous in schools all over the world. The maker movement, design thinking and various other incarnations of design processes applied to the classroom are ever more present in schools as a way to make true on the implementation of critical thinking, and, more specifically, creativity. Makerspaces are being built in schools all over the world, and students can playfully be found tinkering with materials and assorted stuff on their way to morphing into finished become projects that are meaningfully displayed in schools to the pride of student creators.

And, even though design and the various protocols that target it within the classroom do, indeed, constitute a very valid way of exercising and implementing critical thinking, creativity and also collaboration, there is a missing link, one that, in my view, threatens the maker movement to become one more passing fad in the well populated graveyard of ephemeral educational trends. In order to truly make of design a real and meaningful embodiment of all that is good about the new learning paradigm, there needs to be an explicit link with the lifelong learning process and technology as the privileged catalyst to both source that knowledge as well as document the process.

In effect, if design seeks to replicate a future real life situation, designers need first to learn and research about the topic that underlies the design project, in ways that are systematic and rigorous, tapping into Internet sources whilst developing insights regarding the nature of the learning process in the context of an intrinsically dynamic redefinition of knowledge. All too often, with the well-intentioned goal of fostering creativity as an overarching goal, students are thrown immediately into the tinkering phase of design, playing around with the elements available but without previously engaging in a rigorous research process that essentially informs the design process. Many of the stages involved in these processes righty entail redesign and review, but, unfortunately, many times without supplementing the said iterations with an explicit charter to learn about the topic at stage and provide a solid knowledge foundation to the design.

Technology should be an integral part of the design process, not only as a natural catalyst to open up, literally, a whole world of learning, but also as a conduit for collaboration and a platform for documenting the design process. Being able to document all the stages in the design process in ways that make them accessible to all groups and participants provides for the cross feeding of ideas, so that the design iterations also benefit from incorporating ideas by other groups, as an essential trait of the so much desired communities of innovation.

In sum: design can truly become a valid and long sought after pedagogical manifestation of the principles of 21st Century Learning only if it is not implemented as a purely instrumental and procedural exercise of creativity, since doing so fails, essentially, to replicate the future scenario of facing a design problem. Learning is intrinsically linked to designing and there can be no meaningful exercising of creativity and critical thinking without a clear path towards utilizing technology to research and investigate the underlying themes, in an environment that incorporates technology as the medium to document, collaborate and crowdsource the creative process in a true community of innovation.

The perplexing events of 2016: it’s our fault this time.

 

As this year’s turn of events in the global political arena has left masses collectively scratching their heads, musing on how, at this age and time, there could be a resurgence of primeval nationalist forces to turn back history, this time, even when so often educators have had to unfairly shoulder the blame for many unrelated evils, sadly, it is us who are at fault.

How can it be, we might ask ourselves, that within the age of global interconnectedness, when the flat world has transformed every single area of activity and redefined the knowledge paradigm, when opportunities are infinite, that we, the first generation in history to have access to all accumulated human knowledge, would be impotent witnesses to the seemingly perplexing triumph of irrational appeals to the basest aspects of human nature?

Unfortunately, we cannot escape the fact that education, or lack thereof, is at the root of the problem. It is through our combined inability so far to capitalize on the unlimited possibilities of globalization and a new learning paradigm that we have allowed this to happen.

The two most prominent political manifestations of this retrograde trend, the Brexit phenomenon and the out of body collective shared experience of seeing Donald Trump elected to the highest office in the world, have happened largely due to our failure to educate people to use the Internet to validate facts and our halfhearted and misguided attempts at dealing with globalization in school curricula.

Both the proponents of exiting the European Union in Great Britain and, most flagrantly, Donald Trump in the presidential race, based their respective campaigns in blatant mistruths and gross exaggerations, as well as blissfully dismissing their acts and statements of the past, which automatically should have invalidated their suitability to represent people. And yet, despite what should have been self-destructive lies and inaccuracies, both political movements have been able to simply ignore them and plough ahead with a straight face.

With their lingering and outdated obsession with spoon fed contents based curricula, schools have hopelessly failed to create autonomous learners, individuals who develop their own set of criteria and, lo and behold when it comes to one of those overused buzz phrases so common in education, critical thinking, to react in a thoughtful way to information that is presented. The fact that Trump and the pro exit British politicians have managed to get away with all kinds of unsubstantiated statements and misinformation is a reflection on the public’s inability to process information that is presented and discern truth from lies. The ageless old model where students are passive recipients of their education and conform to the teacher’s self-image of learning, most often assessed on an end of unit sit down closed book written test, has mass produced students who are largely unaware of their own responsibility about the lifelog learning process. If this were truly, as we grandly say, a knowledge society, Trump and Brexit would not have happened.

Even more disappointing is our ineffectiveness in harnessing globalization in schools. Actually, the writing was on the wall. It is not surprising that unscrupulous politicians were able to trigger off nationalistic fears against immigrants gobbling up the respective economies of the US and Britain when education’s approach at embracing globalization has been lukewarm, shortsighted and, if anything, reinforcing prejudicial stereotypes.

In my writing and speaking, I myself have long advocated the need to move away from the generalized misguided rhetoric on the need for our students to become global citizens lest outsourcing deprives them of the opportunity to secure a sizable income in the global economy and, thus, contribute to sustain their countries’ preeminent position in the world order. To start with, young people will never be motivated by the cursory goal of maintaining prosperity, both for the reason that rising to the top is far more motivating that staying there, and that they do not resonate with young people who will be moved by ideals and not the threat of losing out on semi-automated white collar jobs.

Many attempts at globalization have also been superficially stereotypical, advocating a model where culture is just represented by ethnic food and economic imbalances that lead to one-way service trips, well intentioned efforts that may backfire in reinforcing an asymmetric worldview where the powerful give and the impoverished receive.

To make matters even worse, policy makers have exacerbated global rankings (PISA) as a sort of world educational order where some of the most unforgiving environments to raise children (i.e. China and South Korea) are scarily hailed as the holy grail of education, and their heavily test based systems reincarnated in standardized tests, whilst many of these PISA winner countries are desperately looking to the West for the elusive creativity gen. This numeric comparison obsession has only further alienated the notion of foreign cultures.

Thomas Friedman’s flat world did give us, indeed, a leveled playground where we could learn from others, immerse ourselves in other cultures for the sake of global brotherhood, travel physically or virtually not only not losing but rather reinforcing our identity, finding, in the process, what is unique about our local community in the global world and celebrating diversity. We needed to have our students experience that globalization is not a zero sum identity game, that living other lives and having a broad worldview is not at ends with a strong sense of worth and a clear identity.

For years, we naively thought that we could just squander all these opportunities to reset our educational system for times that had decisively changed. Now, our errors have caught up with us and leave us wondering how it was that humanity as a whole seems to be on its way to receding back into darkness.

We can still make true on the promise of 21st Century Education and redo our schools into places that embrace the new paradigm and prepare our students to be fully fledged and cognizant citizens of the global world, autonomous learners who will not be duped by lies and evolve into higher order thinking and values rather than regress into the times that until not so long we ago we attributed to the fact that people, then, did not know any better. As a proud practicing member of this, the most noble of professions, I pray that, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “Tis not too late to seek a newer world”.

 

 

The Tragedy of not Speaking Up

Football (soccer in America) fans all over the world awoke on November 29 to the tragic news that the airplane carrying Atletico Chapecoense, the Brazilian protagonists of am improbable Cinderella story that saw a modest provincial team rise all the way to the final of the Copa Sudamericana (the equivalent of the Europa League), crash into a mountain shortly before their scheduled landing in Medellin, Colombia, killing 72 of the 77 passengers.

The usual horrific aftermath of the plane accident was compounded by the fact that Chapecoense were on their way to play the first leg of the said final, a high profile event for Latin American football. Very soon, and uncharacteristically, the cause of the accident was unequivocally established: the pilot of the chartered plane had stretched the range of the aircraft too far and ran out of fuel. As the particulars of the flawed trip emerged, horror gradually gave rise to indignation, as it became apparent that several warnings of haphazard management of the trip had been ignored, thus validating the well-known axiom that in most airplane accidents not one but several human errors are needed for such a tragedy to happen.

Without intending to engage in any investigative analysis, and solely for the sake of the ensuing educational considerations, the following is a list of some of the irregular circumstances that led to the fatal crash:

  • The company owning the plane was of Venezuelan origin operating out of Bolivia in order to circumvent stricter controls.
  • Despite what now appears to have been, at best, a substandard chartering operation, the company he chartered plane was apparently recommended by the Conmebol, the FIFA surrogate and similarly corrupt organization that handles football in Latin America. The same plane and company had been used by other teams, including, for example, the star studded Argentina National team and its global superstar Lionel Messi. Even though nothing has been proven yet, the obvious suspicion is that somebody at Conmebol must have been in connivance with the firm and benefited from their commercial success.
  • The firm charged substantially lower prices for chartered flights than the competition.
  • When filing the flight plan at Viru Viru airport in Bolivia, the controller in charge warned the pilot that the distance was beyond the airplane’s estimated range. When the pilot insisted that he would take care of it, they were allowed to proceed https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/06/colombia-plane-crash-bolivia-air-traffic-controller-brazil .
  • The pilot’s cursory estimations were thwarted when another aircraft who had declared an emergency obtained higher priority to land than him, and airport controllers told him to wait.
  • The pilot only declared the low fuel emergency, thus automatically clearing himself for first priority in landing, when it was too late. It is speculated that his delay in doing so was caused by the inevitable subsequent investigation into the flight that would have been prompted had he declared an emergency, thus tainting the company’s record and possibly alerting authorities as to the reckless flight plan attempted.

In sum, the company hired to carry the ill-fated Chapecoense football team was unfit on various counts, and there had been plenty of warnings that had been ignored.

Sadly, this is the most important educational lesson related to the tragedy, and the one lasting legacy that this small endearing team of football players can leave behind: how to reverse the global epidemic of not speaking up. Flight controllers, team managers from the various teams that chartered the plane, players themselves, now are regretful in retrospect for not having pointed out the blatant irregularities that were self-evident. And if, like in many other blunders of the past, they failed to stand up and become whistleblowers, perhaps the most unpopularly unsung hero role in history, it was undoubtedly through fear of disrupting the status quo and being singled out by the leadership, or going against the unspoken rules of compliance.

Whenever anybody asks me for advice, which I am usually reticent to dispense since at this point in my life I am a disbeliever in anything that is not gained through one’s own life experience, I always respond that the one thing that I can say with certainty is that speaking up pays off, even if it uncomfortable at the moment. I am as guilty as any person of opting for the easier road of remaining immersed in the crowd, but sometimes in my professional and personal life, even despite myself and almost as an out of body experience, I’ve stood up and spoken the unsaid. This sensation of standing up in a room and saying what everybody thinks but does not dare to voice even brings back painful sensations of fear, loneliness and inadequacy, but life has taught me that, beyond the initial discomfort, these few times that I brought myself to raise my hand have eventually paid off enormously.

There are multiple lessons to be leaerned from the very sad plight of Chapecoense. One is that we need to endeavor to speak up and be true to values that are far more important than even personal consequences within the state of affairs. We must dare incur in the wrath of the powers to be for the sake of the greater good. There are innumerable examples of acquiescing silences that have led to deep regrets.

Spaceflight embodies probably better than other activity the heightened drama and triumph that are symmetrically intrinsic to human nature. Contrary to popular belief in terms of the inevitability of inherent risk associated with flying out to space, most astronaut deaths in the program were the consequence of human errors and mismanagement. Mike Mullane, in “Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut”, refers to the death of his friends aboard the Shuttle Challenger in 1996:

“As I listened to Hebrew prayers being said for my friends, guilt rose in my soul. Every astronaut shared in the blame for this tragedy. We had gone along with things we knew were wrong—flying without an escape system and carrying passengers. The fact that our silence had been motivated by fear for our careers now seemed a flimsy excuse. There were eleven children who would never again see a parent.”[1]

Schools also abound in excuses that catalyze silence. Bullying, bad teaching, and, sadly, even abuse, have been eternally underreported in the school environment for fear of speaking up. Teachers have endured misery from both their administrators and the system for the sake of job security. We need to be role models in allowing students to speak up, in encouraging to stand up and say the hard truths, to name those unspoken but glaringly evident elephants in the room.

But, in order to do so, every leader must create conditions for this to happen, so that whomever blows a whistle feels safe in doing so, in the understanding that issues such as safety and the education of our children are more important than the organization, individuals, hierarchies and even convenience. It is our responsibility as leaders to deal with these hard truths when they come out, and ensure that those who raise red flags are actually rewarded.

Astronaut Mullane continued to say:

“We were terrified of saying anything that might jeopardize our place in line to space. We were not like normal men and women who worried about the financial aspects of losing a job, of not being able to make the mortgage payment or pay the kids’ tuition. We feared losing a dream, of losing the very thing that made us us. When it came to our careers, we were risk averse in the extreme. Effective leaders would have done everything possible to eradicate that fear. George Abbey, the JSC director, and the NASA administrator all should have been frequent visitors to the astronaut office, actively polling our concerns, and each visit should have started with these or similarly empowering words: “There is nothing you can say to me that will jeopardize your place in the mission line. Nothing! If you think I’m doing something crazy, I want to hear it.””

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is that leaders nurture an environment of openness, where saying the hard truths is not only accepted and innocuous in terms of personal consequences, but also encouraged. Fostering such an environment conducive to transparent honesty for the sake of upholding the greater good at stake is the flip side of the coin when we ask people to speak up.

Sadly, the tragic deaths of the players and with them the collective dreams of thousands of people in Chapecó cannot be undone, but it is up to us educators to try to make some sense of this otherwise senseless tragedy to extract some powerful life lessons for our students. This is worth much more than anything we do regarding skills and contents.

 

 

[1] Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane

The New Notion of Success

 

We all want to be successful. Whether at a personal or professional endeavor, a life goal, even when we lightheartedly engage in some pastime activity like sports, we want to succeed in a competition or in improving our performance. Success has been, and will always be, a driver for life.

And school is no exception. Every school wants to be a successful school that graduates successful students. Success has been a goal in itself since the beginning of times, and a much sought after reward for our efforts. But success, thankfully, is no longer such a clearly defined concept.

Not so long ago, success was equated to gaining wealth, power, and all the associated traits of being a winner. Success and winning were synonymous, and schools had a clear cut explicit goal to mass produce students that conformed, inasmuch as possible, to that winner stereotype. Now the world has changed, and the very uncertainty that is almost intrinsic to the present and the ever more unpredictable future can become a much welcome liberating factor when it comes to markers for success, and a moral imperative to change schooling as we know it.

In effect, in our quest to drive our students towards the worldly and standard definition of success, schools were inadvertently and gradually transformed into single-minded pedagogies that focused on the much vilified one size fits all academic model summarily embodied by the sit-down written test as the dominant species in assessment. As an outpouring of talks (most notably Sir Ken Robinson’s series of talks on TED) and books on the matter readily attest, there were far too many students who endured rather than enjoyed school. To this very day, student engagement in the traditional pedagogy is inextricably linked to their ability to conform to the standardized expectations, equal, though not equitable, for all students.

We now know that schools must change, since the very definition and essence of success has changed. This more humane approach of success, as stories emerge of people that are fulfilled and happy by transcending the superficial prism of success as just winning, calls out for our schools to go beyond winning competitions, staging the best performances and scoring high on internationally benchmarked exams. Our successful students of today and the future are not the ones who do everything right, but rather those who can find solace and a sense of realization through their efforts, who nurture a solid sense of wellbeing through a heightened awareness of the multiple dimensions of finding purpose and meaning, which include, but are not limited to, doing well in their profession or occupation of choice.

This is a challenge that educators embrace wholeheartedly. It resonates deeply with our innermost convictions about what education truly is, the quest to awaken the essence of our humanity through the development of every dimension of our persons. Redefining success also implies having the courage to gauge our own success, our self-esteem, not by our titles and accolades, but rather in how our students can transit through school with a healthy sense of worth, acquired through multiple interactions, activities and opportunities that school needs to present them with, so that they can find their passions and pursue them unabashedly and without restrictions.

It also entails that we do not succumb to the allure of brandishing our triumphs as emblematic instances of what defines us. If we want to make true on our quest to model, for our students, that we value the struggle and the effort over the result, so that those who strive to succeed eventually will do so by virtue of determination, grit and perseverance, we need to rewrite our own success narrative to recognize progress and efforts as much as winning.

Father Gregory Boyle is a priest who works with youth at risk in the gang-infested neighborhoods of Los Angeles. In his heart-wrenching memoir “Tattoos from the Heart” he reflects on the all too many funerals he has presided over, a testimony perhaps of the futility of his own work, and asks himself whether he is, ultimately, successful in the face of so many failures:

“Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa’s take: “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.””

I believe that in Mother Theresa’s call to faithfulness lies the essence of what we should do at school. We can measure our success through the fidelity to our values, the consistency with which we try to enact our principles, the efforts we make to do as we say, how our actions match our intentions.

Education’s Round Trip

They say that every journey is a round trip and, in many a way, education is not proving to be the exception. The story of formal schooling is long and complex, but we can trace its evolution to the well intentioned goal of normalizing the learning process and ensure that all children acquired a certain level of knowledge, deemed acceptable to continue higher studies and/or become functional citizens in society.

To literally make a very long story short, and allowing for some gross oversimplifications of a long and non-sequential process, during hundreds of thousands of years children learned by play and exploration, with attempts to congregate them, as tutors or teachers became available, in a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages and abilities competed for the attention of the occasional adult who endeavored to provide them all with whatever learning materials could be mustered to suit their developmental stage.

As large cities grew hand in hand with the industrial age, this teacher-intensive personalization model ceded to the needs of the rapidly expanding industrial process which required a certain set of skills and knowledge so that workers could feed factories and industries with increasing labor demands. The extrapolation of this concept led to the well-known push for standardization and accountability, and the explicit notion that all students should learn to the same standards and be evaluated by the same benchmarked assessments.

International exams and even an international system of general assessments (PISA tests) that rank nations represented the pinnacle of a schooling system that unwittingly became almost globally autistic in its blind and futile pursuit of objectivity.

It is then when the education trip started its way back. Unbeknownst to educational thinkers and advocates of the global accountability system, the advent and exponential expansion of the Internet created a flat world with infinitely cross-linked access to everything, thus resulting in the possibility of seamless personalization. Miniaturization and rapid advances in technology ensured ubiquitous customization, since every person holding a smartphone can now see reality through their own personalized technology augmented viewpoint.

This alluring possibility of infinite choice awakened a welcome trend to raise educators out of their standardization-driven stupor to call out for a more personalized system of education, one that caters for each child’s needs, learning potential and abilities, and acts, ultimately, as a catalyst to help them stretch to their full potential. Games, simulations, adaptive software, play based learning, projects based learning and neuroscience findings applied to a new pedagogy are just some of the new incarnations of what great teachers have been doing since ages immemorial: try to get children excited, engaged and enthused about learning, with a focus on what each and every one of them needs.

If anything, the vastly overblown and yet unrealized promise of 21st Century Learning remains powerfully latent: take advantage of the infinite internet playground, of being the first generation to have access to all accumulated human knowledge and make education what it should never have stopped being, a true awakening of the potential in each child. Learning will take new forms, but the essence imbued in its joyful experience remains eternal.

Our privileged generation is faced with this fascinating and tantalizing challenge of coming back full circle in this round trip and rediscover schooling with our new, tech augmented pair of eyes to finally provide our students with this once in history opportunity to make learning the true core of our society, the cornerstone of a better future for those students we serve. Whatever we do in our schools at this most promising and yet uncertain and unsettling time, regardless of our pedagogy and assessments and what contents, skills, and knowledge make up our curriculum, as in the beginnings of our most noble profession, first and foremost we need to inspire our students with the desire to learn, now and for life.

Sir Ken Robinson, the GPS and Educational Change

by Gabriel Rshaid (gabriel.rshaid@sanandres.esc.edu.ar)

March of 2009 was both the beginning and the end of an era in my life.  As I do every year, I attended the ASCD Annual Conference, an 8,000+ gathering of educators from all over the world, that year taking place in Orlando. There are always hundreds of sessions to choose from, but we were all looking forward to hearing Sir Ken Robinson, who would be delivering one of the keynotes. Sir Ken had only recently acquired rock star educational status, after his TED talks became a viral phenomenon that had, for example, all kinds of people from outside the world of education sending emails to people they knew in schools urging them to watch him online.

And Sir Ken did not disappoint. Playing on the unique atmosphere that seems to be generated whenever thousands of likeminded people congregate together, he delivered one of his trademark speeches, alternately having me and my friends from work roaring with laughter and on the verge of tears, as he moved with that unique wit and charm of his from a hilarious and educationally self-deprecating joke to some profoundly touching truth about the need to completely rethink our school system so as to better serve our students to uncover and rise up to their full potential. It was our strongest emotional experience ever in a conference, and to this day I remember how we felt moved and inspired when leaving the massive lecture hall.

I say it was the beginning of an era for me because never before anyone could verbalize with such expressive strength what we all knew: that we had it all wrong and, unwittingly, school systems had deprived many of a chance to blossom and damaged their all too fragile child self-esteem irreparably. In a way, Sir Ken’s ability to resonate with so many unspeakably traumatic school experiences, was able to capture the general public’s imagination and he became a beacon for many of us who tried to do things differently. He was the voice that allowed us to unapologetically work towards a more inclusive, less rigid and structured school.

And, even if in a more trivial dimension, it was also the end of an era for me. We rented a car so that we could do some sightseeing in the big playground that is Orlando and I remember vividly that I refused to rent a GPS. Despite being a technophile, I prided myself in my sense of orientation, so, for the last time ever, I just relied on the venerable street map of Orlando that I had brought with me in my backpack and managed to drive around by looking up stuff on the map. In my next road trip a couple of months later, because I was at an unfamiliar place and landed late at night, I acquiesced to the GPS and never had a paper map again.

A few weeks ago, March of 2014, I heard Sir Ken live again at the same ASCD Annual Conference, this time in LA. He was his same enthralling self, and enraptured an audience of thousands of educators who gave him a well-deserved standing ovation. Some of the jokes are new, and his inimitable gift as an orator ensure that one can listen to him forever, but the message was the same, and the sense of urgency undiminished. The need to completely reform our school systems is as current now as it was in 2009, and, despite some well-intentioned efforts by some leading schools who are making true on some of these principles, the educational landscape remains largely unchanged. The No Child Left Behind debate of the recent past is now about Common Core implementation and assessments, and, overall, changes in school systems have, if anything, only been cosmetic.

However, my traveler habits could not be more different. Now I always carry a GPS with me in my backpack, just in case I don’t get a good data signal for Google Maps in my smartphone. I would never think of not using a GPS, and the mere idea of reading a map and following street signs seems to me laughably anachronistic.

It dawned upon me that this story of Sir Ken and the GPS was an apt, albeit if somewhat sad, metaphor about educational change. Despite the overwhelming popular support and consensus that Sir Ken’s ideas are right and a learning revolution is needed, in five years advances in making them happen have been almost imperceptible. In that same period, developments in technology and connectivity have been breathtaking and unstoppable, literally changing our lives. We can rationalize why this is so, and we educators are very good at finding explanations for everything, but we need to understand, for once and all, that unless we tackle educational reform with boldness and vision, the gap between real life and what happens in our schools will inevitably grow into a chasm, so much so that we will miss out on this once in the history of humanity opportunity to become a generation of joyful lifelong learners.

The Best of Times

by Gabriel Rshaid (gabriel.rshaid@sanandres.esc.edu.ar)

 

As the years go by, we find ourselves amidst a world that becomes increasingly complex. The fast paced changes, technological innovations that defy our very perceptions and the almost schizophrenic rhythm of contemporary life all conspire to present us with a challenge that is simultaneously both fascinating and tantalizing: how to educate our students for a future that is as uncertain and unsettling as promising in its understated hint of a new enlightenment.

In that respect, transcending pedagogy and technique, and regardless of terms and buzzwords that only add false sophistication to a simple and profound truth, the goal of education has always been to try to help children rise up to their full potential. From the ancient masters to the modern day technology-enriched environments, the education we would all want for our own children is one that allows them to find success, meaning and happiness.

Like any order of activity, education has evolved throughout time in developing a set of tools and techniques that have progressively nudged teachers towards a set of collective expectations regarding the way the ancestral art of teaching should be conducted in schools. With the sudden (in historical terms) advent of the Internet, which completely redefined the basic tenet of limited knowledge towards being the first generation in history to have access to all accumulated human learning, all of us educators have been forced to re-examine profoundly they way we do things. The new knowledge paradigm has shaken us out of our mechanical reverie of building up layer upon layer of pedagogical constructs and theories.

At this point, when the trend for a global, interconnected, collaborative world of open knowledge is irreversible, there is wide consensus in most school systems, irrespective of age level and geographic location, that as we reassess our practice through this renewed prism, we are finding some substantial disconnects with our stated and well-intentioned purpose of getting the best out of our students.

Even though all generalizations are unfair and the truly great teachers have always found a way to beat the incumbent bureaucracies and system wide constraints, we now need to come to terms with the painful realization that our industrial-age education has unintentionally somewhat cheated our students out of their true destiny and identity.

Authors, thinkers and educators alike now understand that:

  • An obsession with standards has resulted in a one-size fits all pedagogy that has paid little or no attention to individual learning styles and multiple abilities.
  • An exacerbated focus on fixed outcomes for academic success has led to an environment that has privileged testing over learning, thus implicitly conveying the message that results and not the process are all that matters.
  • Thinking of ourselves as indispensable to learning, we have, in the words of the author Parker Palmer “forced students to be passive stenographers of the teacher’s store of knowledge, leaving the teacher with more sense of selfhood and the vulnerable students with less.”
  • In the name of accountability, a self-fulfilled prophecy of rewards and punishments has identified students’ sense of worth with their numeric marks, stigmatizing mistakes, resulting in so many students who would much rather be labeled as lazy than as failures.
  • Trying to conform to univocally utilitarian societal expectations, we have expected all of our children to fit the same mold and have standardized our curriculum to relegate art, sports, music and drama to elective or extracurricular status.
  •  An eminently judgmental stance has resulted in irreparable damage to the most precious and valuable of character traits in many of our children: their fragile sense esteem.
  • We have been so preoccupied with perfecting our teaching that we almost forgot that we are all learners at heart.

Fortunately, this still young information age has provided us with a harsh wakeup call that is driving us to reassess our priorities and our methods. The new paradigm of infinitely abundant knowledge has become a blissful catalyst to help us rediscover why we still choose to be educators:

  • We now understand that each and every child has the right to learn and that our job, in the immortal words of Michelangelo, is just to peel off the layers, to “carve out the angel in the stone and set it free”.
  • We finally have accepted that assessment should provide valuable feedback for the learning process and help all students achieve success.
  • We realize that we need to slowly step away from center stage and provide our students with the skills and, more importantly, with the motivation to learn for life, which they will be able to do.
  • We are trying to view all that happens in school as valuable and meaningful learning opportunities, in and out of the classroom.
  • We are so much more aware that life is collaborative and interconnected and no longer isolated and individual, and that our pedagogy must evolve so that collaborative work is the norm and not the exception.
  • We welcome the latest neuroscience research that, amongst other findings, confirms our deep belief in that intelligence and other hitherto considered fixed talents can, indeed, be grown.
  • We are slowly learning to accept and embrace change as the quintessential driver for learning, and, as such, gradually losing our fear in the process.
  • We are also willing to accept the ultimate challenge, that although we have a job as teachers, our most important role is to inspire.

Even as we struggle with the extent and magnitude of the change needed, we are overjoyed at that this, the best time in history to be educators, has given us a much needed breath of fresh air and rekindled our passion for this most noble of professions, a call that we now embrace with renewed optimism and deeper motivation.

 

How About Teacher Appreciation Year? by Doug Reeves

Sorry to be a spoilsport about Teacher Appreciation Day, but it only makes sense for people who thought that a call and flowers on Mother’s Day exempts them for paying attention to Mom for the rest of the year. I saw all the saccharine expressions of appreciation for teachers last week and thought, “Is that really the best we can do for the professionals to whom we entrust our children?”

The evidence on low morale of teachers is discouraging. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania has cataloged an impressive array of research documenting that, while money is certainly important, low pay is not the primary factor driving teacher dissatisfaction (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/). Teachers didn’t enter their profession in the hope of riches, although it’s a scandal that so few of them can afford to send their own children to college. But as Ingersoll points out, it is the intangible elements of teaching that provide both exceptional rewards and excruciating discouragement. Making a difference in the lives of children can be motivating – at least until teachers no longer have the ability to do just that.

So here is my modest suggestion: Let’s ditch Teacher Appreciation Day in favor of Teacher Appreciation Year. Here are three ways to make that happen: time, professionalism, and respect.

Time: While schools have piled on the demands for teachers, increasing the quantity of standards, curricular units, and assessments, the amount of time allocated to the school day remains stagnant. School administrators can’t immediately fix that long-term problem, but here is what they can do: cancel a meeting, refuse to accept the next six “strategic initiatives” that come your way, and take over a class for a couple of hours to allow teachers the time to reflect and collaborate on their work.

Professionalism: Part of the fury that is behind contemporary teacher dissatisfaction is the operating assumption of so many professional development presentations – that the people in the audience, particularly those with decades of experience, are incompetent. What would your next professional development session look like if the platform typically occupied by external experts was shared with a panel of new and experienced educators? We talk a good game about critical thinking as an essential 21st Century skill, but we too rarely model this skill in the course of professional learning. While critical thinking does not necessarily entail criticism, it does mean that there is an intellectually and emotionally safe environment for teachers to question assumptions and challenge conclusions before new initiatives are implemented.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin had it right, and the lack of respect perceived by teachers is at the core of Ingersoll’s findings for more than a decade. Respect does not mean a free for all or a retreat to the days in which teachers engaged, in Rick DuFour excellent turn of phrase, in “private practice.” But respect absolutely requires that people responsible for implementing policies and practices have some say about the design and execution of those practices.
So – before we are tempted to think that a once-a-year Starbucks card is good for Teacher Appreciation Day, let’s do Teacher Appreciation Year, with Time, Professionalism, and Respect.

Ascending the Heights!

I am the superintendent of a suburban school district with 31,000 K-12 students. Several weeks ago I learned of one of our high school teachers who had gone to extraordinary lengths to reach one struggling student. This student, who at one point was in jeopardy of not graduating high school, is now back on track and eager for graduation. No doubt, many caring teachers were instrumental in her renewed commitment to school. I had an opportunity to meet and talk with this young woman. She excitedly described her enthusiasm for school and attributed her recent success to her teachers. When I asked about her future goals, she told me that she plans to attend Bowling Green University for a bachelor’s degree and then the University of Miami for her master’s degree in marine biology. I was deeply touched by this student’s transformation and the fact that it was caring teachers who inspired the change.

Of the many ways that teachers impact students, their capacity to inspire them is perhaps the most far-reaching. There’s simply no way to measure it! Teachers have the uncanny capacity to recognize the talent and potential in students. Frequently, the students themselves fail to recognize their own ability. But, insightful teachers see it and daily go about encouraging and developing those gifts.

Last year, a high school principal introduced me to the school’s math Sterling Scholar. This student told me that she wasn’t always good at math, but her junior high math teacher helped her see her own potential. High school math teachers continued nurturing her talents. This young woman inspired me when I asked, “Why do you now enjoy mathematics so much?” After a moment’s reflection, she thoughtfully responded, “Math gives me the hope that every problem has a solution.” No doubt, she will contribute much to the world.

In a letter to his wife, Abigail, dated July 7, 1776, just three days after America had determined its course of independence, John Adams wrote the following: “Children have capacities equal to anything. There is a vigor in their understanding and a spirit and fire in the temper of every one of them, which is capable of ascending the heights of art, science, trade, war, or politics.” Teachers play a unique role in seeing that “spirit and fire” in children and inspiring them as they ascend “the heights” toward achieving their potential. Of our many responsibilities as educators, none is more sublime than assisting children to “ascend the heights!”