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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Can We Fix Education?

By Peter DeWitt — April 14, 2012 5 min read
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“I don’t know if we should resist change, but I do know we should insist on improvement.” Todd Whitaker

Recently there was a great article published by Joan Almon and Edward Miller called The Crisis in Education: A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure. The article focuses on the push down of curriculum to grades where it is not age appropriate for those students because they cannot academically and emotionally handle the work. All of this push down creates a situation where students are left with less play and end up with more stress.

As we watch politicians and policymakers move education in what seems to be a dysfunctional direction, there are countless teachers and administrators who have innovative ideas on the direction they would like to see education go.

Going to the Experts
On Twitter, I have an ever-evolving professional learning community. I went to a few of them for their perspective on how education needs to change. #echat founder Tom Whitby, Vancouver British Columbia Principal Chris Wejr, Principal and Google Certified Teacher Eric Sheninger, and educational leadership expert Todd Whitaker. The following are their thoughts.

#edchat brings together educators from around the world. Tom Whitby posts a poll every week that has four or five ideas chosen by educators who take part in #edchat. The idea that gets the most votes is the topic of the #edchat discussion. If you’re not taking part in #edchat, you’re missing out on great professional development opportunities.

“There is not just one area that we can fix to completely reform education. For real reform to take place we need to change the culture. Much of what we do today¸ as educators, was designed for another time. This is further complicated by short sighted political policies and a funding system that limits making education a priority in a financial sense.

The way most educators have been trained is for teaching in a previous century. Because the skills that are now required of people have changed the way we approach learning, and teaching must change as well in order to prepare kids with those needed skills. Many educators have not and cannot any longer keep up with all that they need to in order to remain relevant.

If we are to change the system we need to continually educate the educators. Professional development must become a significant priority. It must be part of the profession of education, and it needs to be a part of every teacher’s work week. If we want to change the way we teach our kids, we have to change the way we teach their teachers.”

Chris Wejr is an elementary principal in Vancouver British Columbia who recently spoke at the National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference in Seattle.

“Immediate change in education needs to focus primarily on the motivational and engagement needs of our students. The two realistic key starting points for me centre on curriculum and assessment. To build upon dialogue currently occurring in British Columbia, we need to create more “space” in the curriculum. By doing this, we allow both students and teachers the opportunity to dive deeper into an area of content or competency in which they are interested thereby increasing relevancy and engagement.

In addition, moving from an assessment mindset of “teaching and testing” to one of coaching will provide more of a learning, rather than memorizing and grade-getting, environment for students. In between the summative assessments (tests, quizzes, etc), push the focus to descriptive feedback and ongoing coaching dialogue that does not minimize learning to a number or letter. Without engagement, we cannot have real learning; by providing more space in the curriculum and focusing on descriptive feedback we can not only increase student motivation but also continually challenge our students to grow as learners.”

Eric Sheninger is an educational technology expert. He and his staff at New Milford High School progressively use technology in their educational practices. He is a nationally recognized educational presenter.

“Taking a cue from Ghandi, we need to be the change that we want to see in education. As educators we are faced with two choices, either fall in line with educational reforms dictated by individuals and special interest groups who do not and have not worked in schools, or carve out our own paths that are in the best interests of our students.

Change in education is often viewed as a long, difficult, drawn-out process with the end result not being sustainable. Yes, change can be difficult, but if we are to truly transform how we teach and students learn then we must be willing to work together while acknowledging that this process will be fraught with obstacles. As we have moved from change to transformation at New Milford High School, I have found the following elements to be integral to success of many of our current initiatives. They include the following:

1. Modeling
2. Empowering staff through autonomy.
3. Shift from buy-in to embracement
4. Flexibility
5. Support (resources, professional development)
6. Shared decision-making
7. Encouraging risk-raking
8. Eliminating the fear of failure.
9. Positive reinforcement.”

Nationally known leadership expert Todd Whitaker needs no introduction. His books, including his latest Shifting the Monkeys, and presentations are a favorite among educational leaders and teachers. His one liners can instantly make any educator change their thinking.

“We hear so much about ‘change’ in education - from every direction. Yet isn’t what we really need improvement? Rather than continually starting over perhaps it makes sense to build on the positives we have.

What if our goal was to have all of our schools be like our best schools? What if we strove to have all of our teachers become like our best teachers? This is so much more realistic and accomplishable then continuing to start from scratch. We have examples everywhere or excellence in our schools. We just need to replicate it, not reinvent it.”

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.