September 21, 2020

What Environments Encourage Learning?

Betty Steinberg wrote a commentary, Schools Need a Culture Shift; Bringing Passion, Fun, and Collaboration Back to the Classroom, in the Nov 18, 2009 Education Week where she suggested too many students would describe school as follows:“It’s drudgery. We sit alone at our desks and silently answer lots of questions that our teachers tell us look like the ones we will see on the state tests. We’re not interested in what we’re doing. We hurry up to finish first, and if we’re done before the rest of our classmates, we get to sit quietly and take out a book or do other work. We follow the rules and speak out only when called upon. We leave for a break only when the teacher tells us it’s time to do so, or when the buzzer signals the end of the class. To get a good grade, we do what the teacher wants us to do. Our sole focus is to do well on the state tests. Quiet, discipline, and following the rules are valued.” (page 24)

I just read a tweet on Twitter from a parent that said: “From one week’s absence from Kindergarten, they sent home 20 worksheets for us to do. Torture.”

Thomas Newkirk in a Education Week (Oct 21 2009) commentary, Stress, Control, and the Deprofessionalizing of Teaching, discusses studies which illustrate that lower-status workers experience more stress because they have less control over their work. Workers with a sense of their own agency and control find the prerogative to act made their jobs less stressful.(page24)

Newark states, “When teachers lose control of decision making- when they prepare students for test they have no role in designing (and often no belief in), when they must abandon units they love because there is no longer time, when they must follow the plans designed by others, when they are locked into systems of instruction and evaluation they don’t create or even choose-they will not be relieved of stress. Their jobs are not made easier, they are made harder and more stressful. While some find a way to resist, others acquiesce, though they feel, as one teacher put it, that “the joy is being drained out of teaching.”(page 25)

Students, teachers, and parents with the above view of school will surely find little motivation for the effort and hard work of quality learning.

Several months ago I was preparing to help a school leadership team design a plan for increasing student achievement in a historically low performing school. The principal sent me the improvement plan that they had been required to complete for the state department of education. As I studied the over 25 page document, I realized there was not one statement about what the students should/could/would do. You could assume that the changes being recommended in curriculum, instruction, professional development, and leadership would produce changes for students, but it was never stated. No where did it say “Students will…”.

I am afraid that this lack of a description of learning environment and learner activity leaves an unclear expectation for teachers, administrators, parents and most importantly students.

I’m concerned that the same missing message may be present in Race to the Top ,

”We are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:

• Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;

• Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

• Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

• Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come.”

What do the writers, readers, and decision-makers awarding the funding imagine the students will be experiencing and doing that will take them to the top? If you could invite these possible reformers to your school or classroom, what would you want them to see? Are there reforms needed in your location?

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