Why our kids have lost faith in school (Part 3)

Well-intended initiatives that fail (over and over … again)

Anxiety in school

The extent of stress, anxiety and depression among students has reached alarming levels.

It goes without saying that schools have to be environments that foster the well-being of our children.  Thankfully, in most schools, this holds true: teachers tend to take their role of ensuring the wellbeing, safety and health of their students ‘in loco parentis’ very seriously.  In my experience of ensuring my own students’ wellbeing, ‘prevention’ has proven to be better than ‘cure’.  I refer particularly to the widely-prevalent bullying-prevention programs, which often try to mitigate the damage of bullying after the fact.  Far more effective are the numerous preventative approaches which are intrinsically tied to the core of education, and serve as invaluable components of it: physical education and training, health and career courses, driver safety programs, and service initiatives, to name but a few.

The rationale of such preventative programs are to provide students, teachers and  parents with the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to be able to make healthy and safe choices. Such initiatives provides opportunities to:

  • think critically about a variety of health and safety issues;
  • acquire strategies to facilitate sound decision-making and goal-setting;
  • develop pro-active attitudes in ensuring personal and communal health;
  • allow students to become knowledgeable of their personal skills, abilities and interests, and of how these can relate to a variety of contexts; in school and beyond;
  • acquire the skills necessary to develop and maintain healthy relationships; and
  • become aware of the sources of assistance that are available to students, teachers and parents on education, health, and safety issues.

A broad-based education therefore endeavours to allow teachers to assist students and parents in identifying possibilities/issues (intellectual, human, social, health- and safety-related), to maintain and reinforce healthy habits, and to develop the necessary management skills to deal with complex, ongoing change.

Unfortunately, we seem to fail in achieving a number of these goals, mainly due to the fact that preventative programs often lack dynamism and  can be tedious, are boring and one-dimensional, or sometimes don’t even exist at all.  Essentially, in being ineffective, they fail to serve those entrusted into our care.

“How do you know this?”, you may ask.  Well, I ask and students tell me …

The importance of asking students for their honest responses, enabling them to do so safely and discreetly, cannot be over emphasised.  In fact, the very first points raised by the National Institute of Mental Health in helping children and adolescents deal with trauma is “listen to them” and “Accept/do not argue about their feelings”.

Unfortunately, very few schools (none that I know of) actually survey their constituents on these issues; nor do they conduct a longitudinal study of any nature to determine whether preventative programs actually have the desired effect.  Over the past 20 years, I have made a point to talk to students and parents about these issues, both conversationally and in surveys (even if lacking in scientific approach and data).  I have found, on the whole, that the main concerns from the students’ perspective are: a lack of activity (P.E. excluded); the lack of effective threat assessment; and measures to ensure personal safety, including ergonomics of daily functioning (e.g. ‘The chairs make my back hurt.’) and the necessities of mental health and well-being.  More importantly, students seem to feel that the situation is not improving.

While our focus on personalisation is justified, it is important that we remain aware of the ‘other’ concerns that students are facing.  Even more importantly, we should begin to devise plans of action that actually address the issues with a degree of success.

The first example that probably comes to mind would be bullying prevention (so-called ‘anti-bullying’) programs, which requires various ongoing and engaging initiatives to be successful.  Trying to anti-bully after the fact does only limited good; let us instead build physical and social skills into various classes, and develop a personal environment in which teachers actually listen to what their students say, and act upon it.  A community that works like this will probably not need an anti-bullying program; for a community that works like this roots out the anxieties, distrust and imbalances from which bullying springs in the first place.  Indeed, dynamic preventive programs on the whole (and programs that address anxiety and ergonomics in particular) need and deserve much more attention than we have yet given them, so that we can better ensure the wellbeing, health and safety of our students.

Why our kids have lost faith in school (Part 2)

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”, it seems.

Fresco student

Boy reciting (Pompeii)

So, this is the education revolution? You could be excused for not noticing anything but a mild westerly breeze blowing in your face. If you are a student in a mainstream education, you might not have noticed anything at all, in fact.

The point I am trying to emphasise is that very little has come of the epiphany that occurred since Sir Ken Robinson’s ground-breaking TED presentation in February 2006. ‘Personalisation’ has become a generic catch phrase for anything that encompasses a variety of initiatives, from a wide range of options and elective courses offered by schools and districts with deep pockets, to students using their own electronic device (BYOD) in a formalised classroom setting. As laudable as these initiatives may be, they have, in actual fact, very little to do with personalisation. Allow me to explain …

Schools, like shopping malls, are expanding rapidly; state-of-the-art classrooms, art-and-media studios, and sports facilities abound. The only limit seems to be the extent of the capital campaign that the school’s community can muster … Those that have, get more, and those that don’t, well … they just don’t. Despite their struggles, these very communities often offer the highest level of personalisation. Continuing on with the analogy of an expanding shopping mall, clients may love the options and choice available to them (what I call ‘customisation’); but may long for the personalised level of service that the corner-store owner offered, before it was demolished to make place for the consumerist expanse.

What, and whom, do we serve? The students are our clients, and it would be useful to ask them a few questions:

  1. Does your teacher know you?
  2. Are you able to use your personal strengths to achieve the goals in any given course, or are you expected to do ‘the same’ as everyone else?
  3. Do you have a choice as to which content you would like to study in depth in any given course?
  4. Are you relying on tutors to help you get through your academic program?
  5. How many students should be in your classroom in order for your teacher to provide you with the personal attention you deserve?

In the midst of escalating levels of stress and pressures among our learners (the topic of the final post in this series), we do not seem to realise that ‘small is everything’ when it comes to education. Ask any teacher in any academic program whether he would rather teach 24 students or 12.

While we all may concur on the value of ‘personalisation’, it would be hugely beneficial if we could actually agree on what the concept actually means. Does it mean that we can just offer more courses along the same old lines; or does it mean something else entirely, something smaller and more … personal?

Why our kids have lost faith in school (Part 1)

A road less travelled: the realities of education that we are not yet facing

I have been pondering on this blog post for a number of months now; not due to the uncertainty of ‘what’ to say; but rather ‘what not’ to say. The raison d’être of this blog has always been to serve as a sounding board for innovative initiatives in learning and teaching, and the last thing I want is to alienate our dedicated contributors and followers. While restraint might be the best policy; many will agree that “enough is enough”.

Facilitating the ultimate success of our students (as all teachers strive to do), the collective patience is being stretched beyond reasonable limits. How much longer are students, teachers and parents to endure the political platitudes of certain senior administrators and educational glitterati who claim that, after all has been said and done, ‘our system’ (emphasis on ‘system’) is not flawed after all? They proudly proclaim that, apart from a few minor adjustments to alleviate pedagogical constraints such as report cards or “to provide more fun”(!), the current approach to education is actually one of the best in the world. How do we know this? Well, because they tell us so … Ironically, such claims are often based on the results of the exact standardised testing that bears the brunt of their criticism. In all fairness, it is hard to quantify ‘engagement’ and ‘love of learning’, but still …

The one notion that all seem to agree upon is that ‘personalisation’ lies at the very heart of successful learning. Given the vast extremities between current mainstream systems of education and authentic learning, there can be very few grey areas … minor adjustments will not suffice (and superficial changes in curriculum are just downright insulting). As teachers have been stating for what seems to be ages, the fundamental issues revolve around student/teacher ratios and subsequent imbalances. Over the coming weeks and months, my goal is to look at a number of those issues.

As you may have noticed, I am going to wade in beyond ankle deep …Personalisation

Making it real

As we were at the point of founding a new independent school that embraces experiential learning, discussions on ‘authentic education’ abounded in our home. My daughter (then in grade 8 at a local public school) was a silent observer of these intense pedagogical deliberations, but she clearly had insightful contributions to make! Betsie articulated her thoughts to me in writing at that time and, as the school started taking shape, her comments continued to resonate in my thinking. Two years later, as Alcuin College is nearing its ultimate target enrolment, her views are more poignant than ever. While I clearly should have done so long ago, I am happy to share them with you now.
edteach3r

“The opinion of how a school, or even learning, can be improved has been discussed by adults for many long hours; but, instead, they ought to just ask the kids.

Robotics_082013As a student, most of my favourite subjects are when my hands and my mind can work together with different mediums or materials, and when I am in an interesting environment. Examples of these are woodshop, sewing and art. For me, it is not the product that comes from these courses, but rather the process and hard work that is involved. I suppose you could call me a kinesthetic learner. Others learn differently. They may prefer to learn by listening or writing things down. Schools that don’t have woodshop or sewing (or that lessen the time for art) are missing the point of education. Art (this also applies to other courses such as woodshop or sewing) is not only for people who want to become artists; it is also for those kids who dislike working with their hands or dread every art class. Art is not so much about how your project or painting ends up, but about your attitude towards the subject and the things that you learned in the course; whether it was through problem-solving when difficulties arise, or even how you socialised with your peers and made new friends.

I believe that we can improve many classes where we typically sit at our desks and listen and write. I would like to get out of my desk and participate in activities that would help me understand the topic and subject we are studying. For example, if a class is learning about the law and how a court of law usually works, why not act it out? Kids can do most of the research and will be having fun while learning more intensely than they would have from any textbook. Another way that some teachers of younger grades keep children interested is a change of environment. Changing the posters or artwork frequently, or adapting the class environment to suit different activities keep the students wondering what the class will look like the next day, making them more excited about going to class.

I don’t think these things are hard to achieve, so I don’t always understand why classes sometimes are so boring. Make no mistake, I love my school and my teachers, but I think learning could be even better if the schools just became more ‘real’.” Betsie49

Dialogue: Challenges and Change in Education

I have the great privilege to work with a forward-thinking organization, Action Canada.  A leadership program for young Canadians, Action Canada explores topics of national interest and investigates ways to make improvements for Canada’s future.  This year, their theme is:  … Continue reading

On the British Proposal of bringing the Armed Services into the School-system

In their article of 9 July in The Telegraph, the British shadow ministers for education and defence put forward the idea that the military (especially its veterans and reservists) ought to have a stronger role in the British education system. While this … Continue reading