Learning isn’t simply an activity to help us get a job and earn a living in life. We are creatures who have adapted to change through knowledge over the course of our history. The human brain has been studied heavily, and it has been shown that as we learn, our brain actually changes. Literally changes. It can change shape, move location of processes, create new connections, and can even compensate for damage. Your brain is made to directly adapt to your experiences in life.
Growing up as children, we learn quickly. I, like everyone else, have had experiences where we learn to NEVER do something again. Who knew that a hamster could be so smart that if it shoved wood chips under the wheel, climbed up, and pushed the top of the cage off it could escape out of a bedroom, down 12 stairs and end up downstairs in the basement late at night? Lesson learned: put a book on top of the hamster’s cage! Or how about having a great idea to film a creative video with a lit match that ends up burning your finger and getting dropped onto a rug on the floor? Lesson learned: be more wary about using matches as a prop, even if it will make a great video. Although these are small humorous examples, the adaptation in the brain to apply what we learn in situations happens daily in both big and small situations.
Our brain sets us up to survive by finding mistakes and ensuring we don’t continue to make them. When we know better, it strives to to make us do better. So the question I feel is begging to be asked is: In a very old profession, the education profession, we know better on many topics but why aren’t more of us working to do better? Right now, our students need an education more than any other time in history. We are living right in the middle of a transformative era. We will depend on our nation’s children to lead us through continued challenging times. And to do that, I believe we have several issues to address.
Teachers are leaving the profession. In some places in our country, they are leaving in droves. Take a look at a report published this month that states 90% of the teacher vacancies in our country are from teachers leaving the profession (and 2/3 of those are leaving for a reason other than retirement). 90%! This is a staggering statistic, and it’s not new information, folks.
So why are teachers leaving, and more importantly, what can we do about it? The most cited reasons for teacher attrition have been testing/accountability, lack of support, dissatisfaction with career, and dissatisfaction with working conditions. One of the main issues here is we need better educational programs to prepare our teachers for today’s students. Honestly, higher ed needs to step it up. For the most part, the preparatory coursework that preservice teachers receive is not up-to-date nor is there a trained readiness for standards and curriculum work, technology, or the issues that our students are currently facing. In addition, administratively at the school and district level, we need to provide increased support to help teachers navigate the course of a very difficult, but very rewarding, profession. When it becomes the real deal, teachers are often left on their own to figure it out and are lucky if they have someone to check in with every few days.
I know universities and districts who have come a long way in both of these efforts, but we need more. We know better, we must do better. For an example of what is being done here in the Madison area, check out the Dane County New Teacher Project.
Students are disengaged. That statement might be shocking, but it’s true. I first came across some statistics last year when we read an article as a staff called “9 Elephants in the Classroom.” In the article, there is a link to a Gallup poll with these statistics:
I then started to research this idea that many students are disengaged and I stumbled upon this report from last year that showed 39,000 high school students in Connecticut either dropped out or were disengaged. That’s 22% of the state’s high school enrollment!
We have known for quite some time that our current students and their needs do not fit into our educational system that has been around for the most part since the Industrial Revolution. This has been met with a lot of head nodding from the educational community…even after an extremely popular video came out called “I Just Sued the School System.” But as we nod our heads, what are we doing in our practice to change this? It isn’t about “kids these days.” These kids are the students we are challenged to teach every day in our classrooms. We must reach them. We know better, we must do better.
It’s time to change teaching and learning. It’s time to engage our students. We need to make sure that they are ready to leave us and go out in the world to make a difference. For examples of how we can engage students, check out The Institute’s Personalized Learning, Jon Bergmann’s Flipped Learning (also see my website on Flipped PD), The Buck Institute PBL, and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.
The Racial Achievement Gap
After 50 years, the racial achievement gap between white and black students hasn’t narrowed. The numbers below show, aside from the South, how little progress has been made between 1965 and 2013 in both reading and math. This is highly disappointing to those schools and teachers who have the best intentions to close the achievement gap in many schools around the country.
So even with schools and teachers who have made efforts to close the racial achievement gap, why has there been so little progress? In reading the book Despite the Best Intentions, my eyes have been opened to how complex this issue is. One can truly believe in their heart they want to help students of color achieve, but when trying to putting that into practice, it often doesn’t happen. I won’t steal the book’s thunder, but it does share several different reasons why this happens. There are deep rooted ideologies that we often hold and act upon without knowing it.
So if we know better, how can we begin to really do better? I highly suggest educators read relevant books and attend PD to begin the process of understanding. But even more so, we need to make a personal promise that we will work toward equity in education. Like so many things in our lives, it is incredibly important to surround yourself with people who are different than you, ones who think different, look different, believe different. It is very challenging for us to see beyond ourselves and our culture if we continue to always surround ourselves with it. And that isn’t often a comfortable situation for us. One of the first things I was told as a leader was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. That’s how we change. In order to fully reverse these ingrained ideologies, it will take time, patience, and trust. We have to talk about it. We have to listen. It has to always be on our minds. The kids need us. We know better, we must do better.
I hold hope that our profession, the education profession, will allow the learning process to take over. We have made mistakes, we have done the best we can with what we know, we have put our hearts and souls into teaching the children of our country. But we have more work to do. We have a family of colleagues to support. We have a very different world to prepare our students for. We have wrongs that need to be made right. This will be hard work. But I am confident that in a profession of inspiring educators and one that prides itself on learning, now that we know better, we will do better…together.