Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dare We Ask...Make School Fun? Make Learning Meaningful to Students? Ahhh....Yes Please!

I've often asked teachers in our classes "when does school cease to be fun?" Years ago the answer was grades six or seven,  but now it's usually more like second or third. Why is that? Why does school have to be drudgery? Thinking back on my own high school experience in the seventies it was the same-classes were boring and little if any meaning could be put to why we were studying this material. 

Today's brain-based research is clear, if students don't understand why they are learning something or if what is being learned has no meaning, then that information will be dumped within seconds and learning will not occur.

So it begs the question...why are our schools still doing this to students? Why are they attempting to cram knowledge down students throats with the thought that this will come in handy later on in life or they need this subject to pass a test or get into college when it is known that it doesn't work?

Certainly high-stakes testing plays into this. Teachers and administrators feeling the pressure and subjecting students to greater coverage of material-usually with little or no depth or meaning- and drilling the students to death. All of this, well-intentioned, only leading more students to dislike coming to school even more.

A few years ago I had a discussion with some high school administrators about boosting their attendance rates-they had fallen under the state level for certain sub-groups and were searching for answers on how to get those kids to come to school more regularly. Their plan was to amp up the penalties for being absent or late-in other words make things more punitive. I chimed in and said why don't they make the school a place where students wanted to be, so they would come. There was silence in the room, and they looked at me as if I had two heads. My sense was this idea was preposterous to them-never crossed their minds, and  that avenue was shut down immediately.

The time has come, actually long-overdue, for a complete paradigm shift in our educational system. As I've said many times in this space, we are no longer training our students to be productive workers in factories and on farms as we were when our public educational system was put in place generations ago. The factory system of education is outdated-yet it is still in wide use. Don't believe me? Take a walk around almost any high school today and see how many classrooms have the teacher-as the font of knowledge-standing in front of the room disseminating that knowledge in lecture form (5-10% retention at best) to students sitting in rows (dubbed the graveyard set-up by one of our students) in the hope that this knowledge (being taught because someone has deemed it important-not the students of course) is going into the students' heads (see Paulo Freire). Phew....long sentence-guess I had to get that out! (But all too true...unfortunately).

But I do have hope-that amazing human trait that keeps us going, that we can shift the paradigm to one that engages and energizes students, helps them to make meaning out of what they are learning so they can actually learn it, and makes them love coming to school (dare I say make school fun?). We can do this, and integrating the arts is one way coupled with creative use of technology (reading power point slides to students doesn't count folks),  safe classrooms where students feel physically and emotionally safe, a heightened sense of empathy on everyone's part, as well as a number of other brain-based, creative ways to help students learn better. 

Think about it when you are planning your lessons for the fall. How can you get your students engaged in what is happening in your classroom and energized and happy to be there? Flip things around and put yourself in the students' position: how does it feel to be a student sitting in your class? Take a positive risk and strike out on a new path that will forge new neural pathways in your students' brains and get those dendrites multiplying at a fantastic rate. The time is now!

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