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(c) 2009 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2009 Christiana Lambert

My years of supporting my kids’ schools and working on academic accountability committees are long gone, but I’ve seen the effects of some of our educational failings for this generation. Too much standardization and test-taking passes for providing a rigorous education. I worry that our current systems reward passive thinking and even lead to disengagement for those who might want to think more deeply.

For years I’ve been saying that in order to create rigorous educational systems that we have to get the students engaged. The factory model of grading students well if they can parrot what teachers say or if they do well on multiple choice tests does not encourage critical thinking. What it does encourage is shallow learning at the best and group think at the worst.

The question students need to ask is what does this information mean? And then to think about how what that information means may vary for many reasons. What does it mean in these times? In previous times? To me? To others who are not like me? Education isn’t really about giving people answers but about giving them the tools to ask the questions and to do something with what they know and understand.

It’s too easy to dismiss today’s students as pawns or lazy thinkers—and if they have bought into learning only what’s going to be on the test and what a specific teacher wants them to think about what they are learning, then, yes, that is true.

But today’s students also have access to an infinite amount of external information. If they do not feel right about something they have been taught, they can do their own research and reach out to others to try to discover what might seem truer to them.

Is that dangerous? Oh yes. But is that any more dangerous than not even questioning what one particular person or group wants them to believe?

We need students who can break through the spins that are coming from media outlets, politicians, researchers, community and world leaders, business people, the so-called man on the streets, educators, and even parents—really, from anyone who is trying to convince them of something because “they” say so. Our students need to be taught to strip away the bias and read and listen and think for themselves. Peer pressure is not just something that happens in high school—and yet the consequences from peer pressure in the real world are even more devastating for the whole of society.

Go ahead and try to teach patriotism by stripping away access to knowledge of the events that made past citizens fight to get this great country back on track. But don’t be surprised if those who choose to think deeply consider themselves just as patriotic as those who would tell them to believe blindly.

This is not a political party thing. This is not a generational thing. When kids have learned to think for themselves, don’t be surprised at what happens when they put those thinking skills into action. I have been worried that we have taught out the thinking skills—so glad to see thoughtful engagement in practice anyway. These kids—and consequently our country’s future—may just be all right after all.

Reference: Jefferson County (Colorado) students protesting curriculum proposal.

(c) 2010 Scott Lange

What types of educational reform will help public schools in the United States? I asked myself that question throughout my own children’s thirteen years of public education, as a parent, as a member of accountability boards, as a participant on a strategic planning team, and as a community member. Future reforms won’t directly affect my own kids’ schooling, but I’m still a citizen of this country—and I think so many of the discussions on educational reforms are missing the point.

For example, take the 20 September 2010 issue of TIME. The title on the school-bus-emblazoned front cover reads: “What Makes a School Great.” Below you’ll find teasers for articles on teachers and the difficulty finding them. Inside, an article by Amanda Ripley, “A Call to Action for Public Schools,” talks about the movie Waiting for “Superman” and the current state of education.

The results from the August 2010 TIME poll in the associated sidebar demonstrate what I think is missing in the debate. “What will improve student performance the most?” More-involved parents. More-effective teachers. Student rewards. More time on test prep. Longer school day.

I know many involved parents and effective teachers, but it’s not enough to work harder. Reform is needed system-wide—it’s not just about the who, but the how. The category answers didn’t include anything about providing a relevant education. And that’s what I believe matters the most—and why I wrote the following piece a couple years ago.

Public School Graduate Thinking Outside the Boxes 2010

RIGOROUS STANDARDS

As jobs are outsourced to China and India—and who knows what other soon-to-be emerging markets—we worry how to create an educational system that prepares our own kids well enough so they can maintain at least the same standard of living we enjoy now. Rigorous academic standards. More math, science, languages. Increased homework. Renewed work ethic. “Clean your plate—there are starving children in India,” grandmothers and parents across the United States admonished children in the 50s and 60s. Times have changed. In his book, The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman states he advises his own daughters to finish their homework because people in China and India are starving for their jobs.

It’s easy to think students should do their work because teachers have assigned it. Students, however, are not so different from those long past their school days. One of the most important things I learned while studying at the University of Colorado/Denver Business School didn’t come from a textbook or a planned lecture on the topic for the evening: motivating employees.

As the professor explained techniques, a young man raised his hand. “Why do we have to work so hard to motivate employees? They get paid to do their jobs—that should be motivation enough.”

The professor paused before diving into a heated exchange with my fellow student that began with something like “Just because they should do something, doesn’t mean they will.” She launched into other factors such as company culture, management styles, and job design. In other words, provide the workers with meaningful work and reward them for what you ask them to do and you’ll be surprised at how engaged they become.

Today’s students, raised in a fast-paced, digital, global world, have access to seemingly infinite information which most can locate within split seconds. In order to compete with the world outside the classroom, schools must be relevant to what happens beyond their walls while providing opportunities for passionate learning and face-to-face relationships. The attitude of what happens in school, stays in school is a thing of the past because students know they are connected, in some way, to everything on this planet—and beyond.

We can no longer follow a 20th Century factory model if we want our students to excel not only as 21st Century learners, but also as 21st Century workers. Producing a quality buggy whip could not save the jobs of even the most dutiful and hardworking buggy whip makers in the early 1900s as automobiles stormed the marketplace. If we equate rigorous standards with requiring students to take detailed lecture notes, fill out worksheets, and ace standardized tests, we are no better than those buggy whip factory owners who refused to see their market was disappearing.

The 21st Century Literacy Summit (2002) strove to define the skills necessary to grow our young people into competitive working adults. Skills identified as necessary for success in our ever-changing world economy are digital-age literacy, effective communication, high productivity, and inventive thinking. Unless schools provide all students with relevant learning experiences, few will develop those inventive thinking skills further detailed as adaptability/managing complexity, self-direction, curiosity, creativity, risk taking and higher-order thinking, and sound reasoning.

Partial Mural From Littleton High School (CO) Painted by Lan Cantrell & Christiana Lambert

The United States has been known as a powerful global leader because of its resources—and its workers’ creative approaches to resolving needs and providing products around the world. Someone in another country might figure out a better way to make a product, but often the core innovative idea started here first. Not only do we provide education to all our children, but also many schools offer learning through music, arts, sports, and club activities, reaching students who might otherwise disengage from education. If the phrase rigorous standards assumes we can focus only on reading, writing, math, and science, then our students lose multiple opportunities to make connections between the various disciplines and the real world—and to develop passion.

Sure, we want to maintain high standards so we don’t starve as a nation, but passion matters for achieving quality, productivity, and innovation. People who care about what they learn or the work they do often forget they are working.

Imagine a world made-up of countries like that.

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