Most people assume formal education is a process of individual development from being heavily assisted at the age of 5, moving on to only requiring guidance and eventually achieving full independence and confidence to tackle one’s own learning and growth. The sad truth is that most teachers of 18-year-olds will tell you that their students remain heavily dependent on constant guidance and support. I produced the following graphic to sum up the three aforementioned stages and I wonder which one best depicts the average teenager in your education system.
Whether, as a teacher, you are tackling a prescribed set of content, have the luxury of devising your own, or even better, are negotiating the tasks and content with your students, it is worth considering who is doing most of the work. You can’t develop a top footballer without allowing them to practice, try, fail, and try again. The same goes for what we want from our students. Most classrooms are so busy avoiding wrong answers they maintain and develop dependent learners who check with teacher before making any step forward.
Where do ‘good’ students come from?
The top students in any school, through family, sporting or performance experiences, are normally high achievers in spite of school and not because of it. They have arrived at the school having regularly experienced situations where their decision-making mattered, they were or remain responsible for for the success of activities, and the possibility of failure was common. This is exactly the conditions that the average school classroom avoids and thus does not develop the average student into a genuinely motivated, confident citizen. At school, I was very much an average student and can confirm that any motivation and responsible decision making was left until after university. I was kept safe from such matters by the education system I went through and spent my twenties working out how to perform effectively in teams and get projects completed on time.
“…But they get the grades”
Please don’t confuse success in exams and grade acquisition for genuine achievement. Many, if not most top grades around the world are achieved through targeted teacher coaching. Coaching only tuned for the specific prescribed challenges of the assessment at hand. This only results in what universities and employers report as school leavers lacking initiative, motivation and professional skills. This is not educational success by any stretch of the imagination. You will still get your grades if you devote time in early years to letting learners experience managing their own learning as a norm and not spoon feeding content to them. This will develop people who have their own coping mechanisms when it comes to exams later.
The Classroom is for developing people
The habits of many schools hand the responsibility of growing the person to extra-curricular activities and not the classroom where the students spend most of their time. The number of times I’ve heard the words ‘all-round education’ in discussion of sports or cultural events and at the same time the classroom is reduced to only a place in which information is passed from teacher to student. Many adults make the mistake of thinking “I went to school and turned out alright.” But when challenged they will conclude that any confidence or initiative they have has been developed post-school not during. This I feel is a massive missed opportunity that many non-high achievers miss out on.
It’s time to make the classroom as challenging as the sports field or theatre stage. Make the students more accountable for what takes place and whether or not it succeeds. Shift the responsibility from teacher to student for organising how the current challenges get tackled. It may go wrong initially by like football players, they’ll get better and better until they are ready to face their final school challenges independently.
Play safe and start early
This does not happen overnight. What I propose here is a vision for your school in 5 years time, not tomorrow. Don’t dismiss this because you can’t picture your more senior students handling the responsibility of devising their own plans for learning. If they haven’t had the prior practice they’re not going to take charge tomorrow. You have to build the expectations and competencies over a 5 year process. Rethink the learning environments that your school’s youngest learners experience and let the current students live out the teacher-directed education they were introduced to as much as they need to. Focus on what your school will offer the next intake and how it will develop them to tackle the content without it being spoon fed from day 1.