I recently read a social media post that asked the following question: What kind of education reform would be most beneficial to the U.S. right now?
Now, that’s a very good question. In fact, it may be the most important question to be considered by anyone who is invested in the future of our system of education and, indeed, the viable futures of the students occupying our classrooms.
A key respondent to this query is a candidate in the 2020 national presidential election. While I don’t necessarily agree with this individual’s platform or proposals, I was partially satisfied by the suggested solutions, as mainstream as they may be. Included were the topics of teacher pay, the inequity of current funding models, our blind focus of college prep for all students, needed investments in career and technical education and our reliance, if not a preoccupation, on standardized testing as the only recognized measure of student achievement. I find no argument with any of these suggestions. In fact, they echo many of the topics I explore in my book, The Education Kids Deserve (2018), and topics I have highlighted in weekly posts to my website bearing the same name. It is actually heartening to hear some thoughtful and reasoned approaches - ideas that appear to be in stark contrast to the naive and ill-informed platforms of the current education secretary.
The aspiring political candidate wrote this. “One thing that would help is if we taught things that our kids would find more useful and engaging - financial literacy, managing technology, positive psychology and relationships. Drama, sports and the arts all have been demonstrated to have very positive impacts.”
BINGO! Now we’re getting somewhere! This perspective advocates relevancy. It supports the study of 21st century ideas, not outdated 20th century topics that figure prominently in our current curriculum design, in the preparation of children to live productive and useful lives in an ever changing world. And, the arts and other enterprises that focus on creativity and risk-taking are cited as holding promise. (Has this candidate read my book? I’d like to think so, based on the parallels in our thinking. But, somehow, I doubt it.)
I went on to review other posted perspectives. Many echoed the same themes. Others pursued both sides of the “local control” argument, the separation of church and state as it impacts public education, and, indeed, the notion of abolishing “public” and implementing a fully privatized system. It should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me, and my work, that I would have more than a few thoughts on each of these topics. However, I will spare the readers of this post my soapbox rants on these issues, at least for now.
I want to pull on a different thread.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of the suggestions put forward, even if I may disagree with some of them. However, I am struck by something as I reviewed the various responses to the question. It has to do with who authored them. Every single response, regardless of the writer’s background or pedigree, was penned by an adult. This particular on-line dialogue lacked the voices of students - those participants in this enterprise called teaching and learning that it is intended to serve and promote. And, I don’t believe this a unique circumstance. From my experience and observation, it happens frequently that the voices of students are absent or overlooked. Even the politician missed the boat of opportunity in the suggestion that we should teach things “that our kids would find more useful and engaging.” Several sample topics were offered. But, were they accurate? Do they really reflect the interests of kids? Were these subjects that students had communicated an interest in studying, or were they merely assumptions that are based on an adult perspective? I’d love to be wrong, but my money is on the latter.
I know I’m sounding like a broken record. I have posted on the topic of student voice several times on my website. (Please see Are We Relevant? Ask! (1/14/19), Asking is Hard (1/21/19), Lean In and Listen (6/10/19), Twenty Years and Waiting (6/17/19), Learning from Children (8/5/19). But, sometimes one must experience the same record repeatedly before the melody finds a place in one’s memory. So, I’m taking another run at it for three fundamental reasons: 1) it’s important, 2) it holds the potential to be transformative, and 3) kids deserve the opportunity.
If given the chance, kids will tell us a great deal about what is working for them in school, and what is not. But, here’e the operative condition: if given the chance. American children are raised in a society with the expectation of compliance. Messages like “do as you’re told” and “children should be seen but not heard” and, simply, “because I said so” permeate their upbringing. Here’s another one: “don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.” These are powerful directives that govern the development of one’s willingness to speak up, or demand to be heard. Nowhere are these expectations more deeply rooted than in the traditions of public education. Schools, traditionally, adhere to a hierarchical expectation of compliant behavior that we eagerly mistake (sadly) for engagement or respect. This is an environment where students learn from masters. Students transcribe the wisdom of their teachers so that it may be transferred to their own personal arsenal. How, within this context, does a student find the gall, the courage, to speak up and offer his or her perspective? And, some might ask, “why should they?”
Because kids have a lot to say when we invite them to the conversation and we listen.
There are two additional operative conditions imbedded in the above statement. The first is “when we invite them.” I believe we have an obligation, as educators and as role models of appropriate civil discourse, to create opportunities for students to offer their experience, to safely suggest constructive feedback and, occasionally, to tell us what we would rather not hear. In truth, the traditional hierarchical system is a broken model. What is needed today is a partnership model where collaboration and discourse occur frequently and are valued by all, regardless of one’s age or experience.
The second condition is that "we listen." Kids are savy. They can see right through a ploy of soliciting feedback as simply the fulfillment of some obligatory expectation. Like all of us, they long to not only have the opportunity of honest expression, they engage in dialogue with the expectation of being heard, with the hope that what they offer may hold some sway and may result in useful and productive outcomes.
"Teaching and learning" suggests a partnership, a partnership that can only function to its full potential when both sides of the equation honor and value the perspectives of the other.
Kids have a lot to tell us. If an example is needed, consider Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old climate change advocate who was just nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. The very least we can do is listen.