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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

Would Your Students Come to School If They Didn’t Have to?

By Peter DeWitt — July 27, 2014 3 min read
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Some students wake up in the morning, and they cannot wait to get to school. It may be due to a great teacher who sets up their classroom in creative ways with lamps, ball chairs, and tables instead of desks. They put students at the center of learning, and seldom do worksheets appear in front of students. It’s not about achievement, but about growth, and those teachers know that growth may look different for each student...and they thrive on those differences.

Other students get out of bed, and they cannot wait to see their friends. School is not a place where they love to go because of the learning. Those students love to go to school because they get to see their friends. They text and Instagram all night, and talk with their friends all day. School is merely the place that they go to meet up.

And then we have students who do well when it comes to school, but they do not have friends to meet up with when they get there. They are the ones who learn no matter the situation, but they eat alone and walk through the hallways by themselves hoping that someone will talk with them.

Yes, there are many students who fit these profiles, and you can probably think of many students who are somewhere in between. The question to ask is...“Would Your Students Come to School if They Didn’t Have to?”

It was a question posed by Sarah Martin, the School Leader at Stonefields School (Auckland, New Zealand) at the Visible Learning International Conference in Carlsbad, California a couple of weeks ago. Sarah is quiet and unassuming, but her keynote provided important messages about what learning should look like, and as quiet as Sarah is from time to time, she knows exactly what she is doing when it comes to learning...she puts the students at the center of it.

As the model Visible Learning School, Stonefields’ staff have the goal to make sure all students are assessment capable. That does not mean that they are good at taking state assessments. Assessment capable means that students know where they are in the learning process, know how to approach learning in different ways, and understand where they are going to next.

In these days of accountability and constant reforms where state education departments claim to have laser-like focus by creating new mandates and getting teachers and leaders to comply to their changes, schools like Stonefields actually do understand what learning means, and they are the ones with the consistent laser-like focus that will create change in education.

Too often, and I include myself in that statement, learning in the classroom is based on achievement. Students take spelling tests on Fridays and get a sticker on top with a score on 100 or less. That is an example of achievement, and it’s why students do not always apply that learning when Monday comes around. Their focus was on getting a score on a spelling test, and not on the idea that spelling those words correctly on the test is part of the process for spelling those words correctly in everyday language.

It seems that people forget that the reason that our students come to school, no matter what age, is to learn and to grow. That does not mean we can’t focus on academic learning and social-emotional skills., because those areas are the reasons students should come to school. Social-emotional learning is important for those students who feel alone in the hallway, and will help them not just find friends, but find the right friends. Academic learning is what we should do to make sure that students exceed their own expectations as well as ours.

Systems expert, Michael Fullan talks, and writes, a great about using the right drivers. Over the years, state education departments have forced schools to get caught up in the wrong drivers. They set up mandates and resources that focus more on achievement than growth. They have made our schools more about testing and accountability than about learning. They need to stop that. I’m really not sure how else to put it.

But this isn’t just about what state education departments are making schools do, it’s also about what teachers and schools have done before state education departments have tried to grab the reigns and take control. We really need to take Sarah’s question to heart.

Would your students come to school if they didn’t have to?

Some schools seem to focus on scripts and worksheets (death by ditto) than any high quality learning. If students were not expected to be at school, by their teachers, parents or the state, would they want to show up to yours? Is learning and student engagement at the center of your school?

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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.