November 14, 2011

Working ourselves out of a job

This post was last updated on November 15th, 2011 at 11:07 am

Out of all the discussions around the purpose of school and the goal of education, no one argues that the idea of developing "life long learners" is critical. Some use the phrase in mission statements, others emphasize it less but I don't know anyone who doesn't value that concept. 

Yet we do very little to achieve that goal. 

One of my favorite moments over the past several years was having a teacher write me about some of the changes she was making in her classroom. She described a shift of handing the reigns of learning over to students and moving from doing everything to as she put it:

Talk about engaged learning. I could be sitting at the back quilting!! They are helping each other, going above and beyond any expectations I have.

Of course she didn't sit at that back of the room quilting, but it does illustrate that her role as teacher at the front, in control of the learning had shifted. There are many new roles she will now have to embrace. I think there are some similarities for all types of classrooms but in particular I've been wondering how the gradual release of responsibility should look in our K-12 schools. In many cases, students have more freedom and control of learning in our Kindergarten classes than in our Grade 12 classrooms. That's both odd and disturbing. 

As parents, I would hope that our goal is to help increase independence and self sufficiency as our children get older. When they're 3 we hold their hand as we cross the street, talk to them about traffic, how to look both ways, etc. At 5-6 we might stand at a safe distance and watch them practice and cross the street on less busy sections. Hopefully by the time they are 8-10 they can do this on their own. We repeat this gradual release of responsibility in many facets of parenting. Certainly this varies depending on your parenting style, beliefs and disposition, but in general, all parents are trying to get their kids to be relatively independent adults by the time they reach 18ish. 

Yet our schools can't seem to get this for the most part. Instead of giving students more control and independence in many ways we decrease it. Sure in our high schools we offer electives but beyond that, there's very little intention about helping students become these life long learners we talk about. Part of this issue is the antiquated structure of high schools. At least in K-8 environments, teachers have the ability to reduce the impact of time which allows for the potential of project based learning, which at its core and at its best is student driven. I'm still amazed at the "rigor" around assignment choice at the high school level. Too often there is little room for choice or option. We even take away their cell phones in order to maintain control. I'm astonished at the unwillingness to even engage students in a process of decision making. Couldn't we at the very least have a conversation with students? Students leave high school without being true independent learners. As Stephen Downes says:

We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us, and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves. It is time, in other words, that we change out attitude toward learning and the educational system in general.

We're not having enough conversations around this idea. Partly because I don't think enough educators even believe this. Our institutions, our jobs have been designed to maintain that status quo. The status quo for schools is, "come here, listen to us, mind your own business, do what we tell you and we'll give you a diploma". That's the current deal. It's largely our structure that maintains this but what we often see as our best results are continuing to feed this system.

I see many of these same students enter university. These are the best students, the ones who were most compliant (that's another issue but related) and high achievers. Many of these students are still highly dependent on a teacher to learn. Too many still don't own their learning. Besides a lack of choice, we've made them dependent on grades as well. if we truly believe in life long learning we have to be much more diligent in emphasizing learning for learning's sake, not for a grade. My experience tells me there is very little that happens in school that makes this message clear. Just like parenting, we all go through the anxiety of allowing our children to choose, allowing them to fail and allowing them to feel success and discovery on their own. 

As a parent of four, I know I'll always be a parent. In that respect, I'm not really working myself out of a job.  But my role has to change somewhat. My influence changes as does the relationship. Instead of helping them cross the street, I'm advising them on buying a car. 

So what should and could and are we doing to develop life long, independent learners? What does gradual release of responsibility look like in our K-12 schools? Maybe we are doing something about it, I'm just not seeing it.

Photo: by shareski