Creating an engaging classroom and motivating students are top concerns for most educators. They are topics of blogs, PD sessions, books, and staff lunch tables. My question has always been what happens between those beautiful elementary years when students are curious and excited to learn and my high school classroom where compliance, apathy, and grade chasing rule the day?
I believe a few things are at play. One-we have “taught” students who is “good” at school and who isn’t. The current system values such a narrow band of learning that by high school, many students are disenfranchised and have a fixed mindset about what they can and cannot do. Two-our curriculum and assessments are often disengaged from any tangible, real application or skill students see as relevant.
There are likely many other factors, but I think we could address, system-wide, these two factors, dramatic changes would be seen. If students were taught and coached with growth mindset philosophies, given opportunities to have successful failure and learn through a variety of paths, by high school we might see more resilient, open-minded learners, ready for the challenging course work of the 21st century. We could foster the types of critical thinking we all say we want in our classes but are frustrated when it doesn’t happen. We could move from (re)teaching basics (which are important) and repetitive topics to deeper thinking, application, critical tasks in each content area. If we can change the way we assess students and report on those assessments, I think we will be one giant leap forward in changing our students’ perceptions and experiences in school.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a purist in many ways. I think all students should be exposed to some ideas like Shakespeare, economics, mathematics, and chemistry. I think self-direction and autonomy are great, but if you have parented a toddler, you know that kids like what is familiar. If left to their own devices, chicken nuggets would be the main stay of most toddlers’ diets. As parents, it is our obligation to expose our children to new experiences, even when they don’t like it or think they want it. Often, that one forced bite of something new (which they would not do willingly) becomes next week’s favorite food. Maybe it’s the 12th bite that gets them, or maybe they never acquire a taste for broccoli, but the point is we must push them beyond their comfort zone. Put them on the bike, promise to hold on, knowing we will break that promise for their own good.
I think education is the same. We should absolutely honor and encourage students’ interests and talents, but we also have an obligation to open new doors to them, introduce them to new skills and topics, even if they might not “willingly” choose them. I had no idea as a HS student that I would end up as a teacher. I took classes I liked and did well in because it made me feel good about myself and steered clear (when I could) of those that I didn’t like and struggled with because who likes that feeling? I think this is part of our disengagement problem, students and our system have created fixed mindsets and roles for students which have closed doors. We do not encourage curiosity and open-mindedness, risk-taking and exploration. Will anyone every TRULY need Shakespeare? (No, unless you are English teacher J). Does that mean reading his work is an archaic tradition which has no merit in today’s world? No. Yet, some students will approach it with the mindset “I won’t ever need this.” We need to change both the way we teach these concepts and the attitudes students bring to the content. We don’t know what kids will or won’t need in their future because the world is changing too rapidly. We need to foster a love of learning because we do know they will have to be able to keep up with rapid change. We need to foster critical thinking because in a world of too much information, they will need to be able to filter and sort through the rubbish to find the golden nuggets. We need to cultivate open-mindedness to look beyond the familiar and comfortable because that is where the true answers for our world’s problems are going to be found.