(The following is a draft excerpt from my new book From Master Teacher to Master Learner, which will be published by Solution Tree Press in June, 2015. Feedback welcomed!)
When we talk about transformation in schools, we too often forget what we know about good learning. Transformation is not about more technology, personalized learning, or flipped classrooms. It’s instead about rethinking our roles as teachers and the purposes of our classrooms. It’s first and foremost about creating the conditions under which our students can learn powerfully, productively, and freely, especially since so few of those conditions currently exist. And remember, we don’t need research to tell us this. We know this from our own experience as learners.
There is no question that in many cases, the very nature of schools works against these conditions. Schools in general are highly structured, committed to the curriculum, and are rooted in long-held narratives about what classrooms, teaching, and learning are supposed to look and feel like. We put kids in rows with the teacher at the front for the reason that, in the story of schools, teachers deliver the curriculum. We hand out As, Bs, Cs, and Fs because, well, the job of the teacher is to assess, to be the ultimate arbiter (aside from the state tests) of what a student has learned. And for those of you reading this who may want to argue that the narrative of teachers in classrooms is changing, answer these questions: Are you writing lesson plans? Are you marking papers and turning in grades? For the vast majority of teachers, the answer to both is still “yes.”
We had limited options in the old, scarce world in which we conceived the ideas of schools and school teachers. Due to time constraints (which we’re still under, by the way) we had to decide what should and shouldn’t be in the curriculum. (Remember, curriculum is just a guess, nothing more, at what we think every single child needs to know and be able to do to be successful in his or her life.) We opted for breadth over depth when it came to curriculum decisions. (How many of you have ever felt overwhelmed by the amount of material that you had to cover in your courses?) And because we chose breadth, we created the most efficient method to make sure we got through it all: age groupings, standardized assignments and assessments, clear scope and sequence, and more, most of which the teacher orchestrates.
Now, however, we find ourselves in a world of near ubiquitous, 24/7 access, with knowledge, information, experts, and tools at our fingertips. The limitations of scarcity that existed when schools were created are rapidly disappearing. This shift drives the need for transformation in schools and the need to rethink our roles in classrooms.
As mentioned before, transformation has little to do with giving every student a mobile Internet device. It has everything to do with changing the narrative of classrooms in response to these new affordances. In the abundant world in which we now find ourselves, transformation in schools must be about empowering learners to organize their own learning and about delving deeply into the subjects that interest them, to live on a “perpetual learning curve.” Those are the skills they need to be successful learners in their adult lives. The emphasis shifts from knowing to learning.
This is easier to write about than it is to enact. School structures and traditions almost exclusively aim at supporting the knowledge acquisition aspect of schooling. State and federal policies support it as well, not to mention standardized assessments. We must rethink almost every part of the architecture to effect systemwide change, from assessments to curriculum to aspirations for higher education and more.
And it would take a bit of courage. You see, achieving the traditional outcomes of schooling and preparing students for the modern world of learning are not mutually exclusive. Teachers who choose to let students pursue their own interests and go deeply into the things they care about within the context of the school-mandated curriculum report a shocking result: the kids are OK. In fact, they’re better than OK. They still pass the test, they still get into college, and importantly, they sustain high levels of engagement for learning. It’s just messier and, in many cases, uncomfortable at the outset.
If I’ve made a compelling enough argument that only students who are self-organized, persistent, patient learners can fully take advantage of the abundance at their fingertips, then it isn’t a stretch to suggest that teacher roles must change dramatically. Teachers must move their own practice in transformative ways toward a focus on learning, not knowing. That’s not to say that the need for knowing isn’t still important. (Though there’s a strong argument that there’s way too much curriculum to know.) But it does suggest that to best help our students become powerful learners in the modern world, they need teachers who are master learners as well.
(Used with permission. From From Master Teacher to Master Learner by Will Richardson. Copyright 2015 by Solution Tree Press, 555 North Morton Street, Bloomington, IN 47404, 800.733.6786, solution-tree.com. All rights reserved.)
Image credit: K.W. Barrett