Are your children growing their own plants?

“Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often, we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” – John W. Gardner

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Do you have a minute?

In school administration, a minute is code for have a seat, this is going to take a while. I will never forget my best “do you have a minute?” complaint. In the first year as head of my current school, a dad wanted to tell me about one of his son’s textbooks. He said, “You know, Adair, I was looking at my son’s social studies textbook and saw something alarming in one of the margins written by a former student.”

I’m starting to panic a little, wondering what profanity or inappropriate reference to something of a non-historical nature was inscribed in the history textbook at my new Christian school. He proceeded, “yeah, right there in the margin was written – Bon Jovi Rules. And here’s the thing, I’m pretty certain Bon Jovi has not ruled in a very long time. What is your plan for textbook replacement?”

After I stopped laughing (and regardless of the fact that I am still quite fond of Bon Jovi) I began replacing many of our textbooks so that our students would know things like there was no longer an East and West Germany.

While textbooks and teaching methods are both important components of the education process, I am reminded that investments in curriculum and instruction typically pay dividends in better teaching. I often wonder what is really at the core of helping our students learn. More importantly, what helps them learn what really matters?

If we sat down and calculated the amount of time we spend teaching in schools and how much time kids spend learning, I wonder what we would find. What do you think? 70% teaching and 30% learning? What percentage of time do kids spend learning after the school day, outside of homework, when they are plugged into their devices?

A problem with schools today is that they look way too similar to what schools looked like 50 years ago. Back then schools and libraries were the gatekeepers of knowledge. We had to send our children to school to learn facts and figures because the teachers had the books. Today knowledge is everywhere. Every time children are exploring an app they are inundated with information.

So how do we help children synthesize all of the information flooding their senses from the moment they wake up? We need to find ways to harness that time and work with it instead of against it. Some educators are calling this phenomenon the flipped classroom. Students learn outside of class and teachers help them synthesize and evaluate learning while they are in class.

Now, I am in no way making a case that lecturing and note taking are antiquated practices. At my school I teach AP Psychology and I make kids take notes daily during my lectures. I have to make sure they are mastering the concepts. After all, passing the AP test in May is not all about them – it’s about my teaching ability.

Just kidding, sort of, but this is my point. Too often I think we approach teaching from the standpoint of how effective we are at delivering content. You can glance through a list of workshop offerings at many education conferences and see a myriad of talks on tips and techniques for teaching stuff in creative ways.

A colleague of mine in the public schools referred to this as educatainment, and was ready to retire because of it. We need to focus less on how crafty we are in delivering content and more on how we help students work toward the top of both Bloom’s and Maslow’s hierarchies – evaluation and self-actualization (yes, I know he later added self-transcendence to the top, but self-actualization better emphasizes my point).

Evaluating the credibility of source information and finding meaning along the pursuit of knowledge should not be an occasional activity in class after kids finish standardized tests. As parents, we need to be monitoring our child’s academic journey to be aware of how much they are being handed cut flowers and how much they are learning to plant their own seeds. We’ve all heard the saying that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

In the same way, how much time do we spend in schools teaching kids to really think as opposed to teaching them what to think? The other day in my AP Psychology class I mentioned to the students that underlying psychology’s assumption about humanity, self is at the core and the source of self-fulfillment, while the paradox of faith is that God is the core and selflessness is the path to self-fulfillment. As we continue on our journey through the study of the mind, I hope they learn the lesson for themselves, because the most important answers are not usually listed among the multiple choice responses a through e.

I remember the first time I was flipping through channels and stumbled across the game show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? Admittedly I was mildly intrigued about how grown men would agree to go on national TV to compete against 10 year olds in tests of intellectual ability. I’m sure Jeff Foxworthy’s humor helped ratings, but I was just amazed that the show had 12.7 million viewers per episode ranking it 28th in the Nielsen ratings of American television. I thought to myself, “What is wrong with this picture?” At first glance, we might wonder if we were producing generations of adults who were not any smarter than average elementary aged children.

The TV show reminded me of something important. Just as fresh cut flowers will wither and die, facts fade away. What is left after we forget most of the stuff we memorized as kids? I think about skills such as perseverance, and what Angela Duckworth’s research proposed as an indicator of success – grit. As we sit around intellectualizing the problems of education, I am taken back to God’s word.

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote his letter to the Jewish Christians who had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world because of persecution. In their hostile surroundings, they were tempted to let intellectual agreement pass for faith. James writes, “Consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” James 1:2-3

We can’t really know the depth of our character until we see how we react under pressure. As a nation, we are facing an invisible giant. That giant is not threatening our welfare today, but I’m concerned about the future. I don’t want to see American schools turn out future generations of students who don’t know how to think, except for trying to find the easy way out to pass a test.

Last year at my school we discussed a learning method called constructive controversy. My history teacher asked students to research different topics and they had to defend an antagonistic position. He provided the structure and helped students learn to research source documents, develop a position, and defend it. Kids learned facts about topics that day, but the true gains were not found on standardized measures of achievement.

It’s that type of structure that allows students to plant their own seeds. Creating a fertile environment that facilitates meaningful learning gives students the opportunity and structure to grow as learners, instead of simply handing them the tricks to pass a test. Allowing a student to struggle throughout the process is not only healthy, it leads to perseverance and I believe will make them more successful adults.

Are your children being handed cut flowers in school or are they learning to grow their own plants?

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