Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Re -imagining schools to tap student talents.

I read a quote the other day that said, ‘Every student is an expert in their own life. They therefore are an invaluable resource for providing evidence about their own learning.’

The thing is, who is listening?

The trouble is in our schools the only students who succeed are those who home backgrounds, or cultures, are aligned with achieving success in traditional academic learning. The remaining students leave with their potential talents unrecognized. This situation is understandable as secondary schools were originally established to cater for the academic students; the remainder being absorbed, in earlier times, into the workforce.

Times have changed. All students are now obliged to say at school until they are sixteen and, even if they leave, there are fewer positions available without school qualifications. The trouble is schools haven’t changed to accommodate these less academic students. In the UK such students are in the ‘three D s’: disappeared, disaffected and disappointed. These 'categories' cover up to 40% of all students.

This is a tragedy in the making. Things need to change. As Einstein said, ‘it is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely extinguished the holy spirit of curiosity.’ By ‘modern methods’ he was referring to mass standardized ‘one size fits all’ schooling based on the assembly line.

When one considers the number of successful entrepreneurs who failed school it becomes obvious that schools are unable to build on the full range of native talents. Such individuals were not seen as ‘customers’ at their school with idiosyncratic needs and many felt inadequate throughout their school days.

Imagine, though, if schools were to systematically assess the particular capabilities of every learner and then set about to enhance each student’s capabilities while, at the same time, exposing them to experiences that might uncover hidden interests. To achieve this schools would need to expose their students to a diverse range of adults to act as role models and not just expose students to narrow academic subject bound teaching. During such experience the possibility that a students might have, what some call a ‘crystallizing experience’ that would then become the central purpose of their lives.

If we want our students to be clever, secure , inventive , independent and focused the trick would be to unconditionally accept each learner as he or she is and then giving thoughtful support to help each student be a better person. This means learning with students as well as teaching.

This, perhaps, is what is meant by ‘personalized learning’ and ought to be the focus for school in the 21st Century? Certainly the vision of mass education has failed the masses.

Everybody who leaves school needs to feel capable at something – feelings of failure are corrosive. The failure is that of the school. Those who have some say in education, at any level, ought to question why so many entrepreneurs were not encouraged by schooling and, more importantly why so many students still leave with little to show for their time but a destructive disaffection with learning. How many good people have we lost?

A ‘personalized school’ would need to meet each incoming student at least half way by adapting its curricula and methods to reflect any particular combination of abilities. Schools, according to Howard Gardner (of ‘multiple intelligences’ fame), would need teachers expert in assessing students needs to identify the talents they bring with them; teachers who are expert in brokering courses to suit the needs of their students (while ensuring core requirements are still being covered); and teachers who have expertise in making use of community expertise to match students needs.

The success of each school would be seen by the demonstrations, performances, portfolios and exhibitions created by learners. The process is obviously important but, as the entrepreneurs, scientists, sportspeople and artists know, so is creating, or making, or achieving, something worthwhile.

Such examples, resulting from talent development represents effort, perseverance, dedication and positive learning values no matter what field of endeavor. And student success ought to be judged against each individual’s previous personal best.

School at the very least ought to remove obstacles that block the development of personal talents. The biggest obstacles to achieving success for all learners are the current school structures and the assumptions and beliefs of the teachers themselves.

We can no longer accept a school system that fails so many of its students and rely on those who escaped to become entrepreneurs capable of thinking of new ways of doing things.

Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has written that, ‘We change when it hurts too much not to change’ and that, ‘change is inevitable’.

Better to be leading change than to be forced to follow!

Now is the time for fresh thinking in education.


Anonymous said...

Secondary schools would have to make a 180 degree shift to put into action the ideas you outline. Up until now, when they feel the 'hurt' from dissaffected students, they push them out and we all pay the price. If they dedicated themselves to helping their most difficult students all would benefit. 'Personalised learning' is the approach for the new century but our secondary schools look to the past, to some mythical 'golden age', for their inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Interview a selection of teachers(primary or secondary), ask them what they think their job is about. I doubt many would begin by emphasising the importance of the learner's voice and perspective in their own learning.

Bruce said...

You are so right. Reminds me of when it was the fashion to have chimps perform afternoon tea parties at the zoo - the keepers knew which ones learnt the tricks easiest but knew nothing about real chimp life ( or talents). Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Great Site - one small (albeit picky) consideration:
On the page: , you overlooked a misuse of "there" in place of "their." The oversight appears in the quote: "'The most potent force for change …is the growing recognition of millions of adults that there own impoverishment came from a large measure, from their schooling."

As educators, one of our foremost considerations is for appropriate modeling. That said, these typos/oversights have become one of my "pet peeves" as a school administrator.

Otherwise, thanks for the thought-provoking content. Our school is beginning an "envisioning" exercise in anticipation of changes coming in 2008-2009.

Anonymous said...

Have just caught up on your last few blogs up here in the sunny north Bruce.Of course I agree with all of your views -always have done - however after reading the Listener article Feb 9-15 I am reminded yet again of the power of the establishment.In this case the Education Forum. Sorry old son it will be years before the kids in this country get a real education so please keep beating the drum.

Bruce said...

Just read the article you refer to - basis of my next blog! If you give me your e-mail address I could send you a draft for your comments?

Bruce said...

Thanks Mark for alerting me to the error. You will appreciate that I do know the difference beween the use of the words you mentioned. I hate such errors but always try not to let them divert me from the message. Thanks, though, for bringing my attention to the quote. I note I spelt the word right and wrong in the same sentence - it's really the fault of the silly English language!