Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Loud and Clear--Lessons from The King's Speech

                Recently I watched the critically-acclaimed film The King’s Speech. I’m not a huge movie fan and certainly not a reliable critic, but I have to say that this film deserves all the praise.  It’s amazing.
                In case anyone doesn’t know the basic story, here’s a recap. Prince Albert, Duke of York (“Bertie”) has a severe stammer. It’s the dawn of radio broadcasting as a political tool, and the film opens with his inability to deliver a speech across the empire. Having tried multiple approaches to overcoming the stammer, the Prince begins to see Lionel Logue, a speech therapist found by his wife Elizabeth. In short order his father dies, his brother both ascends to and abdicates the throne, leading to Bertie being ordained as King George VI. Meanwhile, war is declared against Hitler’s Germany. The film climaxes with the king’s speech about this event. (If you want to know more of the basics or delve more into the film and the history, here are the official site and the Wikipedia page.)
                The main plot and various sub-plots reveal insights into most complicated human relationships. Leadership, marriage, family, therapist-patient, politics, social class—certainly I’m missing some others. Naturally, I had on my education lenses. Without spoiling anything, I want to highlight how the film reaffirms some essential truths about education:

·         Meet the Student Where He or She Is—Lionel has treated many patients and experienced a great deal of success. But he doesn’t assume what has worked for any other patient will work for Bertie. Instead, he studies his patiently carefully and asks numerous probing questions. He learns exactly how to help Bertie with specific sounds and in particular situations; in one scene he literally becomes a conductor attuned to every nuance of Bertie’s speaking. It’s emotional and intellectual empathy.
·         See the Possibilities—One of my favorite quotations is by Bengali artist Rabindranath Tagore: “Every child that is born is proof that God has not yet given up on human beings.” Keeping this idea in mind stresses what each child may be able to become. Lionel sees the greatness ready to burst out of Bertie. He helps Bertie believes it’s there.
·         It’s Always about More than the Subject—Lionel determines quite early that the problem is not a physical one, meaning that Bertie has all the basics in place. In other words, he can learn the subject. Other factors are in play. And what enables the men to work together is not just Lionel’s expertise, but also the relationship that develops between them.
·         Create a Safe Place—The entire situation is unnerving for Bertie, and from the beginning Lionel seems a threat because of how he breaches standard royal etiquette. Yet he gradually makes Bertie feel safe with him, enabling the breakthroughs necessary for him to progress in his treatment. Almost always emotions rule over the rational.
·         Motivation is Major—Bertie has pressures and the related motivation that few of us could imagine. It’s an extreme response to the age-old student question, “When am I ever going to use this?” It also reminds us that students learn best when they see some relevance, and they want meaningful opportunities to use the skills they are developing.
·         Resilience is Huge—Unless a person develops the tenacity and grit and determination to overcome challenges, he or she will suffer from limitations, particularly in difficult situations. In many ways, failure of some sort is necessary for learning and growth to occur. Great teachers know to frustrate students in just the right way, then help them build themselves back up. We aren’t really helping kids if we are always clearing the path for them and/or picking them up when they stumble. If we do, how do they learn to persevere?
·         It’s about Who You Are and What You Give—Lionel is not a doctor or even a licensed therapist. Yet his personal gifts and his generosity with them make him a master teacher. Bertie’s heart and courage override his shortcomings. It’s like the strengths finder concept.

As I ponder this list, I’m reminded of Parker Palmer’s oft-quoted line, “You teach who you are.” It also suggests that learning in many ways means finding out who you are…and what you can become.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Growing Conversation, Growing Courage

I love serendipity. In several places recently, I’ve seen references to Seymour Sarason’s seminal book And What Do You Mean by Learning?  (I haven’t read it, although I should have. So many books, so little time…) In particular, while looking at a presentation by education reformer Will Richardson, I saw this quotation from the book: “Productive learning is the learning process which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive.” The passage encapsulates many of the thoughts swirling through my mind since our evening on Race to Nowhere.
It also links well to many of the points made that night. To help us gauge the overall tenor of reaction, we gave the audience two index cards. One was for them to make note of something they could change in their own lives. This card went home. On the other card we asked for something directly related to school. As we read through the comments, we saw four general categories emerge:

·         Teaching Children How to Learn—Most said there is too much focus on grades and competition, with some references to all-around perfectionism.
·         Support System for Children—People want more conversation and awareness regarding the stress students may feel.
·         Whole Child—This category was a bit of a catch-all, with topics ranging from play to creativity to individual passion.
·         Outside Work—Most the responses simply called for less, and even no, homework.

These are all so complicated and intertwined that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Indeed, the key first step may be parsing exactly what questions need to be asked—ones that cut at the issue. Also, the same human elements that have plotted the sort of course depicted in the film drive our current concern about it: love for our children and worry about their future.
                The Sarason quotation above provides a solid benchmark by which we can ponder some of the issues captured in the four categories. Let’s take the issue of homework. First, it’s difficult to assess homework load because it’s very individualized. I’ve talked to students in the same classes and heard widely varying answers about how long their homework took. It depends on their grasp of the material, work habits, efficiency, perfectionism, drive, et cetera. Second, I know some schools have tried to ease the stress by incorporating plans such as no-homework days or weekends. Students at those schools reported this simply increased the load on other days. Some of this occurs because over the past twenty-five years or so, schools have responded to familial calls for schools to include more and more in their programs without removing anything, all in a more competitive culture.
                I’m not opposed to homework. But we need to reconsider it in terms of the quotation and the issues raised by the film. Here are just some of the questions we need to explore:

·         At what age should homework begin?
·         What is an appropriate/reasonable amount at each age?
·         Is the homework being given simply for the sake of giving homework?
·         How does this homework extend student learning?

The answers to these questions intersect with thoughts on the other categories. The right sort of homework, for instance, will help children learn how to learn. That’s part of their overall development in many ways. Humans are learning creatures, and the better we are at it, the more we will thrive in any area. I often say that most of what serves me well now came from my soccer experience rather than school. Speaking of which, rethinking homework also can allow room for out-of-school activities. Of course, families must do their part in not over-scheduling kids with too many demanding commitments. All together, perhaps kids then won’t be so tired—one of the main impediments to effective, joyful learning.
                Untangling this knot will be a long, hard process requiring two things. One, conversation. Two, courage. Both are growing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Better than This?

            This past Friday I witnessed education at its best. At St. John’s the middle school took part in a special ceremony called Whistleblowers for Peace. It was the culmination of several months work by a group of ten students, who had been inspired by a speaker from Falling Whistles whom they had heard at an SMU TedX for Kids event. Falling Whistles is an organization whose mission is to end the long, violent war in Congo.
            First, a bit about the ceremony. We held it in our chapel. It began with an African hymn, after which I gave brief remarks about service and responsibility to others. We had more hymns, a Bible reading, and some prayers. Yves Muya, a young man whose family fled the war and lived in a refugee camp for over a year, spoke to the students. He emphasized the importance of having dreams and never letting go of them. He urged, “Even when it seems you can’t dream any more, then dream some more.” This warm, exuberant young man embodies that idea, as he came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship despite the ordeals of his youth. Now he is an aspiring documentarian. Then the students presented Yves with a beautiful montage of St. John’s images and announced they had raised $5200 for Falling Whistles. Several of the students who worked on the project shared their thoughts—through original poems, poignant passages from memoirs, and personal reflections.  A priest then blessed the whistles. Then, behind two student playing African drums, everyone walked in absolute silence from the chapel to the field, where they were directed to form two circles, one inside the other and facing each other. On a signal, they all blew their whistles. It was an amazingly powerful occasion, particularly because of the solemnity displayed by the students.
            What makes this even more wonderful, from an educator’s perspective, is that the entire thing was student driven. From the moment they heard that speaker, they determined to do something. Over the past few months they have planned, organized, educated, marketed, raised the money, coordinated the ceremony—they did it all. They formed a collaborative team that tapped into the respective strengths of each member. Through the process they learned a great deal about themselves, how to get things done, and saw real purpose to what they’ve learning. Their words resonated with a beauty and passion far beyond typical school writings. The students’ words and actions illustrated how they have internalized the larger, more eternal life lessons of a St. John’s education. In the meantime, they also lifted us as a community, reminding us of ideals and possibilities, in a sense challenging their peers to determine how they are going to create a better world. The other students' support of the effort and comportment during the ceremony shows they are hearing that message. It fills one with great hope.
            Their faculty sponsors also deserve special mention for how they worked with these students. Rather than jump in and try to control, they encouraged and guided; they facilitated and suggested. At no point did the students have to cede ownership of the project. In some ways the teachers learned as much as the students, as they ended up embracing the cause themselves. It was a wonderful example of the traditional roles morphing as they all learned together.
            Recently I wrote a bit about the idea of capstone learning experiences—those culminating projects that pull together many aspects of a student’s education. Think about what happened in particular case. These students confronted the world in a powerful way. In doing so they faced a meaningful problem and asked important questions. They reflected in a way that enabled them to develop and to become part of the solution. In that process they gained new knowledge and understandings while honing multiple skills. They shared their growth for the betterment of others near and far. What more could we ask of education that that?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Never Mind Lions and Tigers

You may be familiar with the practice of drawing dragons and other fierce creatures on maps to represent uncharted areas. The first known instance is a 13th century map with a dragon, asp, and basilisk in what we now call Southeast Africa. This practice slowly became more common, with all sorts of monsters. It really took off as a cartographic tool in the Victorian Era, for some reason, when people had stopped believing in dragons. Currently, “Here be dragons” prompts a long list of cultural references on Wikipedia. Where There Be Dragons is a successful study abroad program that focuses on developing nations. (Ironically, though, the phrase itself never actually appeared on any known maps.)
Geographically, I wonder if any unexplored and unmapped territories exist. If there are, they’re small and incredibly remote. With satellite imagery, not only have we tracked everywhere, but we can zoom in and visit virtually on Google Earth. GPS systems keep us from getting lost (at least most of the time, but I digress). A new app even helps you navigate the inside of large public areas, such as major airports.
All this provides a degree of comfort, of security. It’s nice to know where you are and to have a path laid out that will lead you where you want to go.
But as Seth Godin challenges in his most recent  manifesto, Poke the Box:
Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them (Kindle edition, loc 425)…
There is no guarantee, though. There are no maps. They’ve all been taken, and their value is not what it used to be, because your competitors have maps, too.
The opportunity lies in pursuing your curiosity instead. Curiosity is not allergic to failure. Curiosity drives us to the haunted house because the thrills lie in what we don’t expect, not in what’s safe. (location 482)

Godin is writing about the business world, but his words suggest some relevant questions for educators. Are we training kids to wait for maps they can follow? Or do we help them develop the courage and inquisitiveness to enter the haunted house? Do we allow them to explore in new directions and thus draw original maps? Pondering these questions and the metaphor of maps brings to mind a post by Shelly Blake-Plock at TeachPaperless on why teachers should be like travel agents.
                The world continues to shift in massive ways. Consider just the geo-political upheaval of the past few months. The maps need to be redrawn, at least metaphorically. As we do so, we may not indicate where there be dragons. But we better consider trying to chart the black swans.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Academically On Course

            The authors of Academically Adrift  paint a dismal picture of higher education. The essential image is sadly predictable: too few students engaged regularly in the sort of complex reasoning and critical analysis that will help prepare them for democratic citizenship and economic productivity, let alone a meaningful life of the mind. Mounds of data from various studies reveal college students scarcely improve their higher-order thinking skills, although they begin woefully low in these areas.
            Enough blame exists for just about everyone to swallow a few mouthfuls. The authors do not let educational institutions off the hook. They cite many problems, including the lack of priority on instruction; the decreasing number of full-time professors; their focus on tenure and research; the massively increased number of administrators; and an economic drive to admit as many students as possible, whether prepared or not.
            Tied to that final point, more students see college simply as a necessary investment for a return, usually in the form of employment. A greater percentage of high school students assume they will attend college, although they do not tie it to any particular ambition or plan. The authors point out:

Many students come to college not only poorly prepared by prior schooling for highly demanding academic tasks that ideally lie in front of them, but—more troubling still—they enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment. (Kindle edition, loc 141)

Over the years, the number of hours that students they spend studying has been cut in half. Graduation rates also have plummeted; and of those who do graduate, many are now taking 5-6 years.
            I don’t question either general argument. As for the people involved in higher education, shame on them, for they should know better. As for the students, I feel sorry for them. In many ways, they have been victimized by a backwards system.
            The overwhelming majority of students in America have proceeded through an educational assembly line with various checks along the way in the form of standardized tests. Before they can leave the plant, quality control comes in the form of one final test—the exit exam. Of course, along the way they have spent countless hours on practice problems, pre-tests, test review, tests in other classes that will be just like the big test. Ultimately, I’m not sure this really proves anything other than how well a student has learned to take a very limited form of assessment—a type of test with little resemblance to anything he or she will ever encounter in real life.
            Here are the real questions we need to ask a student about to graduate. What can you do with what you’ve learned? How can you show me that you’ve synthesized and internalized all the key elements of your education?
            For that reason, I’m very excited about our eighth graders’ service learning projects. They are a wonderful capstone experience. Working in small groups, students have researched various societal issues, brainstormed solutions, presented their cases, and chosen an area on which to focus. They spend most of the final trimester engaged in actual service based on their plans. Some have joined the Falling Whistles project for peace in Congo. Some are working to encourage literacy. Some are working with senior citizens. Some are combating child obesity. At the end of the project, students will present again for their peers, teachers, and families, along with preparing a final report. By showing how both their minds and spirits have flourished, the students will embody the rich and truly holistic education they have gained throughout their time at St. John’s. To invoke a Quaker ideal, they are letting their lives speak.
            It also means that St. John’s students are anything but academically adrift. Indeed, they graduate ready to navigate high school and life with confidence and purpose.