Education rant: Some things I have been thinking about

Be warned: The soapbox is out today! Read at your own risk!

If you want to embrace a First Nations way of learning math, have the math emerge from experiences (games, real-life problems, baking…) Too often, the experiences and real-life problems come after the algorithm. Switch it around.

Talk about language with students. Talk about words. Talk about phrases. Talk about expressions and idioms. Wonder and puzzle over the craziness and incredible nature of
of language. This will help students read and write.

Pre-assess. Please. And then honour the knowledge students already possess. Stop making students repeat learning. All this does is test their compliance and, quite frankly, it is a wonder there isn’t more misbehaviour if students have to repeat learning. It is annoying to adults and it is annoying to kids.

Be explicit and be flexible. It is a balance and we switch the two around too often. We are wishy washy and over-flexible when students are craving clarity and we are inflexible when students could benefit from creative choice. Help students get to their destination by being explicit on the non-negotiable steps for success and then step back and let students make choices when they are ready to do so. The only way to know when to do each is by listening and watching carefully. Students give lots of clues if we are willing to notice.

Talk to your students about their lives outside of school. Find out who has supports and who doesn’t. Ask how much homework students have and respect their personal lives. Don’t ask more of them outside of school than their circumstances can accommodate. Set them up for success; never failure.

Treat families like equals. Be cautious of the language you use. Is there a tone that communicates superiority? Do you dictate how families will spend their valuable time? Do you invite conversations? Remember, parents want to know their children will be okay. They want to know that you care. They will more likely walk alongside you if it feels like the invitation exists.

Students are smart. They know a lot. Take time to honour their knowledge. Assume their intelligence and it will show itself.

Please talk about learning as if it is fun. Talk about it like it is accessible. Don’t scare students into learning. Don’t talk about “big tests” and “huge assignments.” This makes learning sound scary. Some students experience tremendous anxiety when we talk about things in this way. They lose their confidence. Learning is fun. School is interesting. If it isn’t, then try a different approach. Fear and learning do not go hand-in-hand.

Don’t say students can’t read. This statement is an over-simplification and is unhelpful on top of it. Students can read. They can read signs. They can read people and situations. They can read body language. They usually possess a myriad of reading skills that need to be acknowledged. Call it what it is: they are experiencing challenge in reading the school texts we want them to read in the way we want them to read them. We have to dig much deeper into their strategies or “habits of mind,” in order to help students improve their reading. Also, please don’t say: Students learn to read in grades K-3 and then they read to learn. This isn’t true and it sets students and teachers up for disappointment. Humans become better readers their whole lives and reading instruction needs to continue throughout school.

Learning strategies (not instructional strategies…also important but different) are the destination. Content is the vehicle. How students get to the content, interact with it, digest it and respond or engage with it is the important thing. I am not saying content isn’t important because you can’t get to the destination without it. But the transferable strategies are what students will apply over and over. When students experience difficulty, it is because they did not apply effective strategies. When we offer feedback to students about how to grow, it should be connected to the strategies they need to apply to get there. Examples of strategies are: make predictions, activating prior knowledge, determining the main idea, organizing ideas…I blogged about these earlier.

Math is complex and abstract. It is also challenging to teach if we are depending on our knowledge based on how we were taught. Math represents idea and information and concepts that require deep understanding. If you feel like math is just algorithms, take a class or have a conversation with someone who deeply understands math. I suspect that many people feel like I felt a few years ago-I needed to learn more about math because I don’t think I ever really understood it, even though I did well in school.

Languages are important. So are art, and music and drama and dance. While we’re at it, so are physical education, science, social and health. It drives me crazy when we talk about only two subjects. In fact, subjects are silly in that they compartmentalize learning that is, in fact, holistic. Learning is wondrously connected. It is amazingly complex and multi-faceted. And humans are just as complex and what makes us wonderful is our individuality and our diversity. All learning makes us who we are and all subjects are vital to our humanity. I am not human if my life isn’t filled with the arts, languages, movement and wellness…and math and communication, of course!

Please give learning an authentic purpose whenever you can. Revising, creativity and effort are so much more likely when people are working for a meaningful purpose. When students want to do well and work hard, you know you have found the sweet spot.

Assessment isn’t a bad word. However, assessment should be part of the learning cycle. If assessment just means “report card,” then reconsider. Assessment is something we are always doing, from pre-assessment to formative assessment, through feedback and relearning, to observation and demonstrations of learning. Assessment is essential to learning and has nothing to do with ranking and sorting students. Assessment should be based on clear outcome criteria. It is from our constant assessment that we make decisions about our instruction and how to invite even more learning. Assessment should be optimistic and hold the promise of success. We have to believe that all students can and will learn.

Which leads to…all students can and will learn. If you find yourself saying, “She just isn’t ever going to learn much,” or, “He will never be able to…,” ask yourself how you know this to be true. What evidence do you have? Where can the student grow? How will you be part of that growth? Acceptance of failure leads to failure. And talking about inevitable failure diminishes our work and our role. Even worse, it diminishes the student.

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