In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t have any personal connection with Alfie Kohn, though I have admired his advocacy for years. I appreciate his willingness to address the difficult questions as they pertain to public education, and I respect his diligent determination to, as I term it, “poke the bear.” He advances important topics of discussion that must be considered if we hold any hope of improving our system of American public education in the 21st century for the benefit of 21st century kids.
I was drawn to Mr. Kohn’s February 3, 2021 post on Twitter.
“Teachers who listen to kids’ conversations, observe their projects, and read their writing don't need to use tests. But this assumes kids have a chance to converse, design projects, and write. If they just listen to lectures and do worksheets, there’s not much authentic learning to be assessed.”
Taken, in its entirety, this statement is powerful. Allow me to dissect it into three manageable bites for the purpose of this article.
“Teachers who listen to kids’ conversations, observe their projects, and read their writing don't need to use tests.”
Stop. Read that again. “Teachers who listen to kids’ conversations, observe their projects, and read their writing don't need to use tests.”
That, my readers, represents the essence of what I have been advocating since my retirement in 2017 and the publication of my book, The Education Kids Deserve a year later, and my ongoing weekly rants (130+) since. That simple statement encapsulates three foundational elements of my message.
We need to listen to kids. They know what works for them and, if given the opportunity, they will convey what holds meaning for them. They can be brutally honest if they trust that they are protected from repercussion for their candor. And, as students converse with each other, they will create a significant foundation of appreciation and understanding that will benefit the adults in the room if they care enough, or take the time, to listen. Children need to be considered as partners in their education, not merely idle consumers.
Typically, teachers dictate projects with the expectation that students will dutifully comply: regardless of whether the kids find the activity to be meaningful or relevant. Students can, and should, take an active role in designing the specific projects or activities that will best guide and influence their learning. With diligence, teachers can readily align these aspirational projects to the standards of the state, district or the jurisdiction where they are accountable. Sure, it requires a measure of creativity and a huge dose of courage, but the resulting outcomes are well worth the effort.
“Read their writing” encapsulates the epitome of the personalized educational experience kids require. Reading what students write provides clear evidence of a) the student’s pattern of thought, b) their appreciation, understanding and/or application of the key concepts being taught, 3) their grasp and utilization of their emerging literacy skills, and 4) who they are. There isn’t a standardized test in the world that can accomplish these outcomes more efficiently or effectively over the assessment of a teacher who has a relationship with her student and who seizes the opportunity to “read their writing.”
Now we must consider the second component of Alfie’s statement: “But this assumes kids have a chance to converse, design projects, and write.” This, sadly, reflects the ongoing cultural tension of instruction in our public schools. Classrooms still tend to be teacher dominated. The teacher defines the activities or subjects of inquiry that will be used to approach the learning target. Opportunities for students to engage in meaningful, “hands-off” dialogue are rare, as this requires a relinquishment of adult control if they are to be truly authentic. And write? You’ve got to be kidding. Teachers assign essay topics, and student’s writing will be scored against a sterile rubric of expectations, often with little room for personal or creative expression.
And, here’s the final component of Alfie Kohn’s assessment. It’s brutal.
“If they (students) just listen to lectures and do worksheets, there’s not much authentic learning to be assessed.”
Let that sink in. Allow that statement to be measured against the personal experience of readers to this post. Think back. What did “learning” look like for you. I know lectures and worksheets fairly describes my experience. But, for me, that was over five decades ago. Certainly, things must be different now.
But, here’s the sad truth. They’re not.
Teaching continues to be a one way enterprise; one where “wisdom” speaks and supplicants are expected to comply. However, compliance must never be confused as learning. If complaint behaviors, and the ability to memorize and regurgitate random facts remain the dominant definition of “learning” (as measured on standardized tests), we find ourselves in a sad and desperate place.
Now is the moment to act.
In 2015, the World Economic Forum released a report on the future of education that outlined sixteen specific 21st century skills that they deemed essential, breaking them into three categories. I should note that there is a great deal of consensus on the importance of these skills within the business community and other creditable organizations. These skills are:
Foundational Literacies: how students apply core skills to everyday tasks.
Information technology literacy
Cultural and civic literacy
Competencies: how students approach complex challenges.
Critical thinking and problem-solving
Character Qualities: how students approach and navigate their
Persistence and grit
Social and cultural awareness
That was six years ago. How are we doing in our quest to reinvent the educational experience of kids to adequately prepare them to thrive in our rapidly changing world? I’ll be kind and suggest that the results are mixed.
We do a decent job with most of the foundational literacies. After all, these have been the focus of our instructional system for decades: teaching kids to read, write and be comfortable with mathematics and even a bit of science. The past year has certainly relied on developing some facility with information technology. Financial literacy may be a stretch but, we have a long way to go before we can claim cultural and civic competence. We need first to teach the unvarnished truth of our national and cultural history before we can give this goal an honest “thumbs-up.” (A topic for other articles, including the one I posted a few weeks ago titled “What Do We Tell the Children?”)
With regard to the competencies and character qualities advocated by the World Trade Organization, we have a long, long way to go.
Our school systems fail to recognize curiosity as a tool for meaningful learning.
We diminish creativity, rather than encourage it in our mainstream instructional approaches.
While I will acknowledge some limited progress in the area of collaboration, we are still coming up short in the meaningful development of persistence, adaptability and cultural awareness.
We have a looming opportunity to re-open our schools for in-person learning. Along side this opportunity is the challenge to “build back better,” a mantra of our newly seated national
administration. But, will we?
Will a return to our traditional practices be sufficient, or will our systems demonstrate the fortitude to blaze a new and more relevant path?
Will we re-emerge as “better,” or will the comfort, familiarity and convenience of the status-quo prevail?
Will our educational system demonstrate the insight and the courage to forge a more relevant experience for our kids? Or will impersonal, standardized sufficiency continue to be considered
The pandemic that we are collectively enduring is a once in a lifetime occurrence. Thankfully, it appears that we may be turning a corner on this horrific experience. Likewise, our response to it,
as we reestablish foundational institutions like schools, moving forward, represents a singular opportunity.
An opportunity that cannot, and must not, be squandered.