Change in education is an inevitable being. Policies change, practices change, textbooks, curriculums, standards, they all change. But what changes more than any of it is the students that we teach on a day to day basis. Students, at any age, are changing faster than has ever been seen before. A number of theories swarm the vast internet with answers to why the youth of today are progressing and at least attempting to mature faster and faster as the years go by. Social media hits some of the top reasons for this change. Television and movies is a close second. But whatever the reason, children of today are changing and therefore, education must change to meet them where they are. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed in 2001, did not see this kind of change occurring and failed to truly grasp what work would need to be done to meet students where they are in order to bridge their gap and bring them to where they need to be. In order to understand what changes we need to make as teachers, we first need to understand our students as learners, because together is the only way we will help these students succeed.
Many teachers will tell you that students are changing for both the better and the worse. In some ways, they are vastly more educated than their teachers are, most specifically when it comes to technology, how something should work and many times how it does work. But this technology can be a double edged sword. Because of technology and our world of immediate consequences or rewards, working hard on something over a long period of time can be difficult for many students. The instant gratification has created, many would believe, a student who is motivated by extrinsic versus intrinsic motivators. Many educators have found this to be a hard type of student to teach, and that technology and instant gratification has made educators turn into entertainers, trying to maintain students’ attention spans long enough to teach them what they need to learn. Not all teachers see technology as a bad part of education. According to Matt Richtel, there is a wide variety of responses about technology between older and younger teachers. In an article Matt wrote for the New York Times, Richtel describes the growing hot topic that is technology in education, and comes to some conclusions of his own. One is that technology is changing education, this much we must learn to accept. Two is that technology is not always a bad thing, and when incorporated appropriately, it can do great things. Thirdly, he states that students are becoming more and more reliant on finding a quick and easy answer to a question instead of taking the time to think about the answer that they found and evaluate it based on its merits. Richtel describes this problem as the “Wikipedia” problem, and although he is right, students can be guided in this thinking with a little bit of work (Richtel, 2012). What motivates students to want to do better in this and many areas however are other issues in and of themselves.
Daniel Pink received wide recognition after his book Drive became a top seller for both the education and the business world. In 2009 Pink gave a talk in England at the Ted Talk Global conference in which he discussed the idea of motivation and the way that education works today. Using scientific evidence, Pink discussed how what science knows is not related to what business does. Education is no better off, and through this lens of thinking, we can see that the way in which many teachers provide students with their work does not accomplish the goals they would like it to. Using grades as a motivator, or candy, or extra credit, simply does not allow them to work efficiently in the classroom. Telling them how to find the answer, telling them if you do this then you will get this, has become an obsolete way to teach. For my own classroom, this question of motivation has come up time and time again, and when I find myself at a loss, I turn back to this Ted Talk by Pink and reexamine my next task at hand to determine if there is a way to change my way of thinking, so that they, the students, get as much out of the activity as possible (Pink, 2009). Many times in order to reach this new learner, with this 21st century mind set, I provide students with rough parameters and tell them what I want them to get out of it. To many people, this seems like a crazy way to teach. It seems to make no sense to them because I just told my students what I want them to get out of an activity, is not the point for them to find it themselves? The answer of course is yes it is a tad crazy, and yes it is about them finding the purpose themselves, but in some ways they know themselves better than I know them and by providing them some transparency, they can guide themselves to an even deeper level of understanding than I could have ever hoped to create for them. This allows me to easily combine the many different types of curriculum I have learned throughout my time in education, and present it to students in a way that actually matters to them and meets them where they are. By giving them ownership of their learning, students are more able to find the right internal motivation in order to find success in their own curriculum.
This does not mean that students are left to fend for themselves, and that they are not helped when they need help. I maintain myself as an active member of the classroom, but students in a settling like this are even more capable to differentiate for themselves, and it is easy for me to differentiate for them. A common conversation that occurs in my classroom goes as follows:
Student: “Mrs. McBride, I think I'm done.”
Teacher: “Good, did you accomplish the goal?”
Teacher: “Well then maybe you should take a look at it one more time.”
The student then goes back and renegotiates their own learning and their own assignment because they know that they rushed the process. This type of learning activity works in good, or more categorically correct, effective curriculums where the teacher knows where they are going, where they are coming from, and what they want the students to gain as they go from point A to point B. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) defines an effective curriculum as one that “increases students' understanding about the world around them and prepares them to live in the 21st century” (Seif, 2014). To do this, the ASCD feels that teachers much engage in a curriculum that broadens students’ experiences and sharpens their understanding of the world around them through literature, historical events and ideas, and scientific inquiry. When a teacher has an effective curriculum to work with though, they can access each student no matter what their short comings may be. More and more, students lack the understanding of themselves as students, and when presented with a problem, they avoid instead of approach the issue head on. So what do students get from a lesson in my classroom? Besides this new sense of ownership that some have never been provided before and transparency in their education, they understand that the problems they face are not as insurmountable as they may seem.
Some of the issues that we tackle in my ninth grade Humanities classroom are curricular, writing essays and reading both primary and secondary sources. Each of these skills is important in its own way. Learning how to write is something that we will all need to do time and time and time again. Whether it is writing an email, writing to persuade, or writing to show understanding of a topic, students have lost and need to relearn this skill of how to write in an academic setting. Reading of course is also important in the world around us. Reading primary sources, learning to pick apart secondary sources for their true meaning, learning to find the right answer in the sea of wrong answers, as is apparent on the internet, is a skill that my students learn through work throughout the year. But more than these types of skills, ninth graders also need to learn that high school can be hard, and that people are not always nice about it. I teach in a very different scenario than most people and my students come from sheltered homes and backgrounds. Rarely do I have students who cannot go home and receive support as they do their homework. Rarely do I have students who cannot get tutoring or financial help when they need it from their parents. Instead, these students, whose lives have to this point come very easily, are experiencing for the first time in their lives challenges on a daily basis and for that, I am often thanked. Students leaving my classroom learn to think for themselves, to seek out the right answer even if what is right to them is not right to their friend. They learn to be independent thinkers, and they learn to ask for help when they need it. This kind of change in a student's way of thinking can be paramount in them finding success in college and beyond. Much of my father, who is not an educator, resonates in my classroom. Life lessons that I have learned from him are something that I pass on to them, because those kind of life lessons, ones that are surrounded by the idea of grit, are lessons I have faith their parents have said one hundred times over but hearing it from someone new can make all the difference in the world. I help them find themselves just a little bit more clearly so that they can find their way through their own education in a new and meaningful way and so that they can be partners with their teachers as they learn and grow into the adults they very soon will be.
In order to meet students where they are, teachers have to first understand their own limitations. We have to understand where we are lacking, and be prepared to rely on our strengths to overcome our weaknesses. Some educators create amazingly rich curriculum, but lack the creative element to make it accessible to students who come from all walks of life. Some educators have this creativity, but lack the structure to make it sound and to provide them points along the way that make sense for themselves, and for their students. Some educators have lost touch with their students, and need to work on their own understanding of today’s youth in order to really meet them where they are. Whatever it is that we need to work on, we need to continue to change for the better in order to provide our students with the type of education that can prepare them for a new way of learning and looking at the world, so that they can solve the problems of tomorrow that that we are not even aware of yet.
Pink, D. (2009). Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation. TedGlobal 2009. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation#t-510049
Richtel, M. (2002). Technology changing how students learn, teachers say. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/education/technology-is-changing-how-students-learn-teachers-say.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Seif, E. (2014). Curriculum renewal: A case study. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/curriculum-handbook/403/chapters/Defining-the-Effective-Curriculum.aspx