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Education Opinion

Give Teachers Autonomy to Arrange Schools So Students Want to Learn

By Sam Chaltain — April 02, 2013 5 min read
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Guest Post by Kim Farris-Berg

The late educator Jack Frymier often said, “If the kids want to learn, we can’t stop ‘em. If they don’t, we can’t make ‘em.” Keep this idea in mind for a few minutes while you browse the headlines in your Twitter feed or think about the schools you are most familiar with. How often are schools’ objectives defined in terms of what the students seek to achieve?

In a 2010 white paper titled “Rethinking Student Motivation,” Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson put forth the idea that young people, at their core, seek to feel successful and have fun with their friends. Others have reported that young people seek a sense of belonging, relationship-building, and to be accepted and acknowledged for their individual backgrounds, cultures, learning styles, life and work goals, and more.

Christensen et al go on to suggest that school is one potential place for young people to get what they seek. But they could choose other places. So if young people can’t satisfy their objectives at school -- academically, socially, or via extracurricular activities -- then they will look elsewhere. They might quit school. Or they might stay, but divert their attention away from the learning activity.

We can’t have that. If the goal is for every student to learn adequately and graduate from high school, then we need the students to willingly participate.

Yet most schools are not set up to help every student meet his or her own needs every day. That’s because most policymakers and educators don’t often see their job as putting students in the position to meet their individual objectives better. Instead they see their job as delivering education to students. This has led to school designs that prioritize making delivery easier, such as age-grading and sequenced curriculum.

Even most efforts at improvement assume that the job of adults is to deliver education to students. Educators, for example, look for more compelling textbooks or start using media in lieu of textbooks or lower the class sizes (but keep instructing from the front of the room). Policymakers increasingly seek to control the delivery by standardizing curricula, providing pacing guides, and tying evaluations to singular measures of student performance. Typically there are no rewards and few opportunities for teachers to modify the order in which things are taught, or how much time is spent on what, so that varying students will choose to get engaged in the learning and take responsibility for their own success.

Is it possible that our over-reliance on the delivery framework has led us to spend our time and energy on solving the wrong problem? What would school look like if we didn’t assume that delivery had to look a certain way?

In Chapter 5 of the 10-part video series, A Year at Mission Hill, we learn that the teachers at this Boston pilot school do not assume a delivery framework. As teacher Jeanne Rachko put it, she and her colleagues don’t manipulate the students’ learning experience by telling them what to do and how to do it. They don’t try to batch-process learning. Instead they give students a variety of choices for learning content and students get to decide what learning experiences will help them meet their own objectives.

This can be a tough and inconvenient commitment. In Chapter 5 we see teacher Jenerra Williams looking frustrated, thoughtful and uncertain while seeking advice from her colleagues about how to introduce her students to proverbs from Ancient China. Williams was looking for several points of entry for her varying students, who might not all be at a point of readiness to take on the proverbs. She wanted to ensure that the right variety of learning approaches were offered so as not to put at risk students’ willingness to learn many other content areas via the Ancient China theme.

It might have been easier on Jenerra and the other Mission Hill teachers to choose delivery -- to say, “The pacing guide says to teach proverbs next. I need to deliver students this scripted lecture. Then I’ll follow-up with these worksheets and this craft. It’ll be the same thing for everyone, ready or not.” But that’s not the self-directed, differentiated, experiential learning approach that Jenerra and her colleagues have taken on.

These teachers have chosen a very different way to run their school. Student motivation, not delivery, is central.

As my colleagues and I reported in Trusting Teachers with School Success, teachers who call the shots (as Mission Hill’s teachers do) often seek to nurture students’ engagement and motivation via learning programs that put students in a position to be active learners. With authority to collectively make the decisions influencing whole school success, many teachers place a strong emphasis on helping each student figure out their sources of motivation, and how to tap into those sources in order to learn and graduate.

Teachers who call the shots also understand that that nurturing motivation means a change in how they work. They must move from “experts who impart information” to “unfinished learners.”

Stephanie Davis, a teacher at TAGOS Leadership Academy (7-12) in Janesville, Wisconsin, said: “I shifted from [a focus on] teaching to [a focus on] learning when I came here. I’m constantly learning new things and [broadening] what I consider to be my responsibility to help students learn. I’m not planning lectures and grading papers.” Notably, TAGOS stands for Tailoring Academics to Guide Our Students.

Patrick Yecha, a teacher who calls the shots with his colleagues at Phoenix High School in Kennewick, Washington, said something similar: “Everything is different about how students learn here. The bottom line being: I don’t teach them everything.”

What could happen if we put more teachers in the position to stop teaching students everything? If we opened the opportunity for teachers to arrange schools so the students want to learn?

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent consultant and Senior Associate with Education Evolving.

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.