School Climate & Safety Opinion

Develop Lifelong Learners in One Step

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 25, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Among the most common phrases being used in classrooms, hallways, and mission statements these days often focuses on this one:

Preparing Students To Be Lifelong Learners

How are schools preparing children to become lifelong learners? In the early years, teachers try to model a love of reading and writing. They try to bring that joy into the classroom with activities that will engage and motivate young learners. In the higher grades, motivation and engagement remain on teachers’ minds and in their lesson plan efforts. Discussions between teachers and leaders include the subjects of motivation and engagement.

Often the attention is on the student. What do they need to become more engaged and motivated? What is preventing them from being more engaged and motivated? It is always a good thing to pay attention to what each individual child needs, their life situation and their learning and social emotional needs. Yet do we socialize students from the very beginning to be confident lifelong learners? We might not.

What Messages Are We Really Sending?
Report cards begin arriving usually before the first snow falls in the very first year of school. In many schools today, at least in the early years, report cards provide a narrative description of the students’ learning behaviors, accomplishments, progress and concerns. But as the years go on, more evidence backing those comments are needed and expected. What has traditionally provided that evidence are grades. According to Cathy Vatterott in her book Rethinking Grading, there are three central beliefs about grading that have dominated the philosophy behind grading. They are:

  • Good teachers give bad grades,
  • Not everyone deserves and A and
  • Grades motivate learners (p. 15-16).

The tide is shifting and fewer and fewer educators believe these ideals. Grades are often not an authentic reflection of learning. The way we currently use grades contributes to other problems in education. If changing grading practices could precipitate broader changes in teaching and learning, it’s possible that our mediocre academic standing in the world could be greatly improved. Now is the time for change (p.18).

Likely more educators support the idea that changing the way we grade could change the achievement of our students. It is time to move from using grades to sort and rank, to something more expansive, noting progress along the way to a continuously moving horizon, and not to an annual destination. One certain factor will be grabbing the attention of the learners and recognizing them as effective learners from their very first day...and carrying it on throughout their school career.

This is neither something that requires a series of professional development sessions, nor even the reading of a book. It doesn’t take much time. Each individual teacher can do it differently. It only requires a conversation between the leadership and the faculty...and that the leader continue to remind the faculty at meetings with feedback and discussion, through walk through conversations, and sometimes even with notes and memos as reminders. Consider this one step.

One of the stated concerns of 5 year olds as they enter the school building for the first time is that they are there because they know little and that they will be learning “Kindergarten.” The adults, too, communicate this way of thinking as students grow through the grades. After completing Kindergarten, students are promoted to the first grade, after completing algebra, students are moved on to geometry, after completing 9th grade English they are moved on to 10th grade English and so on. In each move from one grade or subject to another, there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that a student is beginning again. In the paradigm in which the teacher remains the “sage on the stage,” it is a natural feeling for the learner to feel like the empty vessel waiting for the knowledge to be released to them in segments by the teacher. The design makes it so. But as the design for teaching and learning continues to shift in this century, by encouraging teachers to become “guides on the side,” an opportunity for engagement and motivation arises.

At the beginning of the school year, and as each new skill or piece of information is learned, make it clear to the learner that what they already know makes them ready to add this to their developing knowledge, abilities, and independence as learners.

  • For students who have developed metacognitive abilities, adding questions like, “What might you already know that will help you learn this new...?” way of writing, vocabulary word, way of thinking about numbers....
  • For others not yet adept at their metacognitive skills, showing them what you know they already know in an illustration, either for the class or individually, will not only help them see they are prepared and have knowledge on which to build, but will also model the essential reflective skill of metacognition.

Change the Culture by Beginning With The Teacher
Modeling this for teachers is the first step in guaranteeing the practice becomes part of the sustained practice of the building and/or district. So much has changed for teachers...reading across the curriculum, data driven instruction, the type of communication that is held with parents, curriculum standards, even their evaluation system. Part of the frustration that has been experienced is the feeling of loss of known practice and a lack of understanding or familiarity with the new ones. Most new practices are not totally new. Finding first what we know and are certain of in new practices always provides a sound foundation for learning what is new. So for the leaders, modeling the practice that we want for the students is key.

None of this is extra work. In fact, we are certain that if it is practiced by leaders and teachers, engagement and motivation will rise in both arenas. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset, is central to this idea.

The way we think about things, either from a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, affects student motivation and achievement. What we are adding here is to think about the value of inviting the learner into our own growth mindset about their ability by:

  • showing them the way as we reflect on what they know and are able to do...whether adult or student
  • understanding that our confidence is based upon our belief in them, based upon what we know about them, and our ability to offer the path to fill the gaps, introduce new thinking, and lead them forward as learners

Having students becoming lifelong learners rests in our hands. It is not a demand or a wish. If we, as systems, continue to demonstrate to learners that they are learning because of what they already know AND what is familiar and what is new AND that we know and believe that they can and will master the learning because of what we are confident they already know and are able to do...motivation and engagement will follow. What follows is the confidence that each learner knows how to learn...and that can become a life-long confidence.

Vatterott, C. (2015). Rethinking Grading. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.