Here we are at the end of the fall trimester of 2014 at Proctor Academy, a small school in rural New Hampshire, my home for nearly half my life, and I feel more confused, less sure of my role as a teacher and more opened up to new ideas, than ever before. It is a bit scary, but more than that it is exhilarating. Twenty-five years in the classroom, and today I have no idea how to do the job anymore. It is time to question everything.
For example, yesterday I had to write an “Exam” for my Climate Science class. The trouble is, the course has not been about learning and memorizing the facts, about which later the kids can be “examined.” It’s not that kids have not learned stuff; they have. There is a core of concepts and material with which I hope they all are familiar. However different kids have taken away different things from the course, depending on their previous background (what neuronal circuits they already had, that are ready for new attachments). Also students have found different sub-topics to be most enticing to pursue.
Kids learning different things was the first problem with trying to write a traditional exam. The next problem was that the class itself has not focused on learning-facts-then-being-tested-on-them. Much of the work we have done in the course has been small group oriented, somewhat hands on, doing experiments or activities. We have only had three actual “tests” all term, which in themselves have felt quite awkward to be honest. The rest of the “assessments” (work that has earned credit) have been write-ups for our activities, or study guides in which students are often encouraged to draw sketches as ways to learn and explain the concepts beyond words. What am I supposed to do, have them draw pictures for the exam? How am I supposed to “grade” that sort of thing? It seems unfair to me to test students in some way that we have not practiced during the course.
When students come to my chemistry class saying “I was so lost about the reading last night!” I always say to them. “That’s good! Being confused is the perfect starting place for learning something new!”
Now I must follow my own advice!
Here’s the problem. I’ve been teaching the answers for 25 years. I have a lot of practice in explaining stuff and teaching basic skills. However, now I’m realizing that might not be the best thing for the future of education. The world today’s students will be entering is going to be entirely different from the one we grew up in.
Starting this blog this fall has been a huge growth enhancer. It has been like putting my brain on steroids. There are two big effects of blogging I’ve noticed. The first is that one is forced to clarify one’s thoughts in order to articulate them. Sometimes I find out exactly what I believe in the process of writing.
Second, one finds new contacts and friends in this on-line world. One of these influential people for me is Mike Crowley at the International School in Brussels Belgium. He is Head of the Middle School there and from what I read on his blog, he is quite an amazing educator. (Go there and read ALL his essays. They are far better than mine!) His essays have had a profound impact on me. In one of his latest pieces he posted this video. It is a must watch.
This weekend I was asked to do a presentation to our school’s Board of Trustees. I was somewhat terrified, peripheral vision closed in and my sense of time was warped. (Fifteen minutes went by in a heartbeat.) Apparently it went OK, according to people who were there, although I remember very little. If I got across to these nice folks, and they are indeed extraordinarily kind and warm people, my terror being self-induced, I hope it is the idea that education is ready and ripe for a revolution. I’m not at all sure what that will look like, but I’m fairly certain that the way we adults were educated is not going to serve this next generation well at all. It’s no longer about sitting in rows and learning facts, later to be spit back on tests and exams. It’s no longer about knowing a set of answers.
It might be something about working together as the social primates we are. It might be something about developing students’ neuronal circuitry. It might have something to do with how all brains respond to stimuli and learn from there.
It might be something about exploring the questions?