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Volume V Issue I

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On My Mind

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


There is no doubt that education is a complex entity. It sometimes seems that the problems we face are insurmountable and bombarding us at an alarming rate. The standards movement, AYP, graduation rates, minority achievement, reluctant learners, teacher attrition, special education/inclusion, school budgets, school violence, parental issues, technology applications, the dropout rate, retention – these, as well as many other issues, plague educators and remain on our minds often without clear solutions or viable alternatives.

The topics we face often occur in the form of questions. These questions can come from many unforeseen sources. I find myself in recent months keeping track of questions that have captured my attention. Some have been posed by colleagues, while others have appeared in journal articles or newspaper stories. I believe that solutions or approaches to dealing with complicated questions cannot be found unless we confront them, discuss them, and debate them.

Below are some of the questions that are on my mind. My purpose in posing the questions is to encourage productive discourses on the topics. With each question I share a context for the question as well as some personal thoughts on each issue. I do not harbor any illusions that my ideas are the best or only way to respond to the questions.

Our world today has become interactive. Millions of individuals interact daily with one another through an ever-increasing number of technological advances. As you read the questions that follow, I encourage you to interact with me by offering your insights and opinions. With your permission, I will present your thinking to others through Just for the ASKing! I am hopeful that the dialogues that will occur will help all of us as we grapple with today’s educational issues. Read on, reflect, and interact.

Question: How did we come to think standards had to be boring?

Context: In a recent email, an assistant superintendent talked about what she had observed in her recent walk-throughs. She noted that too many of the lessons felt stilted and unexciting. She observed teacher-centered classrooms and students who were expected to “sit and git.” As she expressed it, “The teachers almost feel scared to be creative.” She commiserated with the teachers who felt compelled to “teach standards” and adhere to pacing guides and expressed her frustration as she was trying to figure out what her next steps should be.

Reflection: Although I have seen some classes that feel flat, I see many other standards-based classes that involve students in interesting learning experiences. Whereas I used to see many straight rows, I now often see classrooms where students are in groups of two or four. These teachers promote collaboration among the students and often present lessons that require the students to problem solve or divide up different tasks. This is proving to be true in classrooms from kindergarten all the way through high school.

When I interact with students, they can verbalize their understanding of what they are supposed to learn. As I analyze why these classrooms are more student-centered, I have concluded that the principals in these schools are stressing the importance of active learning and they are providing time at faculty meetings for teachers to talk about successful active learning experiences. I also see a pattern of teachers with high energy levels who are genuinely excited about the content they are teaching. Their excitement is contagious as they engage students in learning experiences that are relevant; in short, they go out of their way to make their lessons interesting to students.

Question: Why don’t we ask kids how they like to learn and honor it?

Context: In a recent edition of ASCD’s Education Update, Carol O’Connor wrote about the importance of meeting the needs of diverse learners. Her premise seems so sensible:
Ask students how they learn best. Some teachers plan detailed units and become frustrated when the students are disengaged or unsuccessful. Instead of taking a serious look at how their students learn, it is business as usual. The students are expected to adapt to the teacher’s style instead of the other way around. As Carol proposed, why don’t we plan lessons that match student needs and learning styles?

Reflection: Teachers should use a variety of data sources to make instructional decisions. Data are far more than the results of a teacher-made test or the score on a standardized test. Classrooms are full of data sources everyday. An essential question that every teacher should ask as part of the planning process is: Based on the data from the previous units, how do I refine the learning process for the next unit? Good teachers become comfortable with multiple sources of data to make instructional decisions. Some teachers administer learning inventories that reveal each student’s predominant learning style. Other sources of data occur on a regular basis as part of instruction. One such source is an exit card. With this summarizing technique, a teacher might ask students to jot down several examples of what they learned in the class, and also for feedback on the learning experience itself. The data can be used to plan upcoming units and lessons. Student journal entries can also serve as a viable data source and provide greater insights into how students learn best. When the teacher uses data from students to make future instructional decisions, the students realize that their opinions matter.

Question: Should rigor in learning be an “accident of geography?”

Context: This question was posed by John E. Deasy, the superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland, in a recent article in the Washington Post. In some districts, depending upon the make-up of the student population or the location of a particular school, rigor in the classroom can vary greatly. Schools with more affluent neighborhoods might find course offerings that are challenging and rigorous while schools with poorer students only offer curricula which are less complex, less challenging and from a student’s perspective “downright boring.”

Reflection: Dr. Deasy’s question deserves not just passing consideration but on-going and serious discourse. News reports are filled with stories of students who are receiving a second rate (or worse) education because of budgets, poverty, or sad to say, minimal expectations on the parts of educators. Some teachers erroneously reach the conclusion that a lack of student involvement is caused by disinterest or a lack of motivation when, in fact, it may be the quality of the lessons that are at the heart of minimal student engagement. All students deserve the right to a rich curriculum, and a rich curriculum includes engaging lessons, interesting discussions that impact student lives, and problem solving around real life issues. Recent statistics show that when students are exposed to rich curricula, including AP and IB course work, they rise to the occasion. I am distressed when I look into the eyes of students with low expectations who are required to complete packets of worksheets or participate in low level activities that are of little interest or challenge. These students long for more and they deserve better.

Question: Is early educational intervention for young children really that important?

Context: The importance of early childhood education is a topic that is being debated in school districts and state legislatures across the country. The question is: Should free public education be extended to include prekindergarten schooling for 3- and 4-year olds? Some individuals feel that educating very young children will only impose another fiscal burden on the public while others see early intervention as a critical step to take in order for all children to have an equal chance at future educational success. In a June 2007 Kappan article, Marc Tucker writes, “As long as our low-income students entering kindergarten continue to have vocabularies half as large as those of the other kindergartners, we will never make it, because those students will never be able to catch up with their peers.”  

Reflection: In my visits to schools I have become acutely aware of the complexity of the job of a kindergarten teacher. As 5-year olds enter school, some do so fully able to read while others may never have held a book before. Issues of language and poverty abound. As the well-intentioned kindergarten teacher struggles to meet the many and diverse needs of her students, she may conclude that selected students may require another year in the kindergarten environment in order to demonstrate the necessary skills for the next grade. When students are ill-prepared for school, early “failure” can lead to frustration, disengagement, and disruptive behavior. I have read that some officials look to third grade reading scores to predict how many prison cells they will need for the future. In order to give all students an equal footing, pre-kindergarten schooling holds much promise. It makes sense to spend public funds on our young children instead of allocating monies to build bigger prisons for the future.

Question: What can be done to stem the school dropout rate?

Context: An alarming statistic from the U. S. Department of Education estimates that 5,000 students drop out of school every day. Predictions about what will happen to these individuals are even more alarming. Real possibilities include a life on welfare, possible incarceration and significantly less earnings over a lifetime than those who graduate from high school. At the top of the list of reasons students give for dropping out is lack of interest and boredom. Additional reasons include attendance problems, inadequate academic preparation, peer group influence, repeated failures/retentions, and limited or no support or direction from home.

Reflection: In our ever-expanding global economy, we owe it to our young people to seek solutions to the staggering dropout rate. When interviewed about why they chose to leave school, many students say that they could have worked harder if teachers had demanded more. They often regret their lack of effort and conclude that they could have graduated if they had worked harder. They also cite individual teachers who went out of their way to be supportive but these teachers seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Other students felt that they had little or no connection to the school environment. They felt that they were trapped in an environment with limited support and their false sense of pride did not allow them to reach out for the help they required.

Some schools have successfully reduced their dropout rate by putting in place some practices that are logical and creative. Studies have concluded that students will be more likely to buy into what the school has to offer when the adults in the school environment show a genuine and consistent concern for individual students. In short, relationships matter. Once students truly believe that the adults in their lives want them to succeed and care about them as people, and not simply in an academic context, they begin to see themselves as more capable and start putting forth more effort.

Statistics also reveal that ninth grade is a critical point of intervention for many students. It is at this juncture that many students experience failure and begin to lose motivation. Some schools have implemented special programs that provide extensive support for their freshmen students, often by placing these students on teams with lower pupil/teacher ratios, consistent and constant academic support, and environments where students must go to great lengths to fail. As they work with their students, the teachers offer a combination of skill building with lessons that include more problem solving and real-world connections.

The students we work with today will be the work force of the future. Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to reach out to them, to encourage them, and to teach them the importance of having a strong work ethic?

Question: Why is it important for all educators to be tuned in to the technological world of our students?

Context: As Marc Prensky wrote in an Educational Leadership article, “Our students are no longer “little versions of us,’ as they have been in the past. In fact, they are so different from us that we can no longer use either our 20th century knowledge or our training as a guide to what is best for them educationally.”

As we continue to advance into the digital age, it is critical for us to become more and more aware of how our students live their lives and process information. They prefer to write with a keyboard rather than with a pencil or pen; they prefer to read from an electronic screen rather than from a book or magazine; our students communicate with cell phones, text messages and social websites. Because of the digital age in which they live, they prefer to move from activity to activity rather than to listen to a long lecture.

Reflection: Prensky coined the term digital native to describe the current generation of students who have grown up with technological applications that are part of their everyday lives. Digital immigrants are those who were born before the recent technology explosion. Digital immigrants, like other immigrants, often struggle to adjust to the new conditions in their lives. In some cases, they resist the technological advances that are unfolding at an unprecedented rate. The more informed I become the more strongly I feel that we need to move into our students’ world. A tour around websites on the Internet unveils a plethora of teaching and learning approaches that would be exciting to today’s students, would capture their attention, and would engage them in sustained and realistic learning applications. During recent visits to classes, I saw a five-year old kindergartner using a SmartBoard to do her spelling words; in a government class, a teacher presented two podcasts with opposing points of view and engaged his students in a lively debate during which they had to take a stand on the issue under discussion. At a middle school, I saw a teacher explain to her students how they could access a podcast she had created to help them review for an upcoming standardized test. These learning applications seem to be the exception rather than the rule. It is time for all educators to move along the technological continuum by adding new skills and knowledge to their instructional repertoires. Our kids deserve it.

Hopefully the questions I have posed will provide much food for thought. If we are serious about our profession, it is important for us to seek answers to the questions that confront us. Through interactive discourse, we just might find the solutions we are seeking. Send your reflections, comments, and questions to me at BruceOliver@justaskpublications.com



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “On My Mind.” Just for the ASKing! January 2008. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2008 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.