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.

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:  Does Canada have the education systems it needs to meet the economic and societal challenges of the future?

Today, at the Wosk Centre, Action Canada presented a Public Dialogue on Challenges and Change in Canada’s Education Systems.  The task forces brought together panels of experts to spark conversation on three topics:

  • Standardized Testing in Canada
  • Teaching Questions Not Answers
  • Who Cares About Young Caregivers?

Fortunately, I was able to take part in the second session:  Teaching Questions Not Answers.

This particular task force explored the subject of adapting Canada’s education system for the 21st century.  At the end of September, the Fellows had come to St Alcuin College, a liberal arts K-12 school offering a 21st century skills-based program.  They were especially interested to experience firsthand our unique learning environment, and how that was different from mainstream education.  After speaking to the faculty and students about what it meant to be living the learning revolution, one Fellow observed that at St Alcuin, changing education was a movement.  We can attest that education reform is a movement that requires intense energy, as stated today by Mr Rod Allen, Superintendent of the Ministry of Education’s Learning Division.

It was not a surprise to hear that the panellists were espousing the principles upon which we are founded at St Alcuin:  highly personalized education, community partnerships and an emergent curriculum.  One question posed to the panel was why it was not easy to implement this educational reform in schools across Canada.  One of the panellists, Dr. Roland Case, executive director and co-founder of The Critical Thinking Consortium, identified five “winning conditions” for educational reform.  As I understood them, they are:

  1. Students are engaged in their learning.  Instruction is not transmission from the teacher.
  2. There is sustained inquiry for learning.  This is a regular practice.
  3. Students have self-regulated control of tools.  They don’t just produce the action when required by a teacher, but know how and when to use the skill.
  4. Assessment is timely and supportive.
  5. Learning is digitally enhanced.

At St Alcuin College, in keeping with our studies in Big History, we recognize that these are the five ‘Goldilocks conditions’ to educational change.  These are our guiding principles in our daily teaching.

Thank you to Action Canada and the Fellows for bringing us together to discuss Canada’s education systems and the challenges to change.  It is a subject that so many are passionate about, and it is this passion that continually drives us to create these ‘Goldilocks conditions’ at St Alcuin College.

On Pedagogy

I have known some teachers who, without realising it, saw their classroom as an accident of location. There is a classroom, in which there happens to be one knowledgeable adult amid a group of ignorant children. It almost goes without saying that these classes were as much of a burden to the students as they were to the teacher, and in them I learned precious little. By contrast, I have also known some teachers who consciously view their classroom as a place of relationships, in which there is a teacher in the midst of a group of students. These classes were a delight, and I carry much from those classes with me in my mind and in my heart to this very day.[pullquote]So essential is this deep thought and tender care to the teaching profession that it has its own name, that of pedagogy[/pullquote]

That which separates these two extremes of a poor experience and a very good one is this: the first teacher acts as though ‘teacher’ were merely his job (or, worse, his burden); the second acts as though each relationship between him and a student is significant and important. The former does his work grudgingly; the latter, with much thought and care. So essential is this deep thought and tender care to the teaching profession that it has its own name, that of pedagogy.

As a student of language, I cannot help but go in search of the root of this word. It is, in fact, the Ancient Greek word for education, and is formed from the two root words παίς, (pais, a child) and ἄγειν (agein, to lead); thus, it may be said that one who practices pedagogy is one who leads children. Similarly, the word ‘education’ comes to us from the Latin verb educare (to raise a child), which is itself from the verb educere, to lead forth. So a good education involves being led … but whither? The answer is sweeping in its implications, for he is being led into adulthood, and into the future.

Marcus Cornelius Fronto (tutor to Marcus Aurelius)

In his classroom, a teacher demonstrates love for his students and for his field; a teacher demonstrates thoughtfulness in reading as well as in writing; a teacher demonstrates honesty in academics, and in life generally. In short, in a world that has the technology we have, and in a world that relies as much on skills (as opposed to knowledge) as ours does, it becomes imperative that the teacher be more than a mere transmitter of information. It is crucial that the teacher model how a scholar and a human being thinks and behaves. For it is becoming increasingly clear that all of the planet’s resources are finite, and that there is no way that the cutting-apart of our home will cease nor that poverty and violence will be acted against unless the academics, activists, politicians and citizens of the time to come are filled with passion and compassion, with thoughtfulness and honesty.

This, then, is the great and noble work of the teacher: to lead, with deep thought and tender care, the young ones entrusted to him into the future with the skills and moral resources they need, that they may play their part in the betterment of the human race and of the little planet they inhabit.

Outward Bound Canada and Blyth Education: Sustainability for the 21st Century

Outward Bound (OB) has established itself as a pioneer in raising our collective consciousness about the world, developing self-awareness and leadership, and offering challenging programs of adventure and endurance. [pullquote]Time is not on our side, both personally and environmentally; we need … Continue reading

Sir Ken Robinson: Making progressive education mainstream

At TEDx London, Sir Ken Robinson concluded the day’s conference with a poignant reminder: “The reason why today’s conversation is so important is that we are living in revolutionary times; that’s why we need a revolution in education”.

He identifies two major drivers of change, population growth and technology, both of which are changing exponentially …

“And that rate of change is going to accelerate; it’s not going to decrease …”

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Welcome to the iGeneration (Part 2): The Simple Revolution

Allowing students to achieve identified learning outcomes in a manner most suitable to them, while providing them with the opportunities to determine when, how and with what they choose to learn, are probably the most fundamental issues in establishing a meaningful and authentic learning experience.  It should come as no surprise that these concepts flow quite naturally from the three components of an authentic learning experience …

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Breaking the Fourth Wall

In a theatre, the stage is closed on three sides by curtains or walls and is open on the final side, the side which faces the audience. This open side is referred to by players as the fourth wall: although it cannot be seen, there is a barrier preventing the audience from believing in and engaging with the play and its story and characters. Success in the theatre depends on ‘breaking the fourth wall’ …

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A better way of learning …

Research clearly indicates that students learn best when the interaction in the classroom setting shifts, purposefully, from ‘teacher-the-sage lectures’ to one of ‘collaboration and independent practice’.  This is not surprising, as anyone who has ever sat through a boring lecture will tell you!

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