We educators care deeply about our students. We care about their well-being, potential and achievement. Three articles I recently read struck a chord. The content and practice implications get to the core of transforming education to better serve learners. There are numerous front-burner priorities for educators. They distract us from being able to focus on creating robust, engaging learning environments while personalizing learning for students. It’s hard to balance generating that kind of ecosystem while striving to help students perform well on tests. Today’s educators are building the airplane in the air. I believe with focused, tactical strategies, calling on current research and best practices, we can chart this course.
The first piece comes from Richard A. Friedman, “A Natural Fix for ADHD”, in the NY Times, October 31, 2014, (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/opinion/sunday/a-natural-fix-for-adhd.html?_r=1). Friedman notes, “…a social factor that…. may be driving the “epidemic” of A.D.H.D. ..is… the increasingly stark contrast between the regimented and demanding school environment and the highly stimulating digital world, where young people spend their time outside school. Digital life, with its vivid gaming and exciting social media, is a world of immediate gratification where practically any desire or fantasy can be realized in the blink of an eye. By comparison, school would seem even duller to a novelty-seeking kid living in the early 21st century than in previous decades, and the comparatively boring school environment might accentuate students’ inattentive behavior, making their teachers more likely to see it and driving up the number of diagnoses.”
A description of how brain sensors play into ADHD (for adults and children) showed how when the person is highly engaged in an activity of interest and meaning, they display unrelenting focus – and can do so for hours. The implication for education is clear. If we orchestrate environments that are highly personalized and engaging for each learner, regardless of an ADHD diagnosis, they can drive their own learning, though not necessarily in a linear way.
The Canadian Education Association authored, “What Did You Do in School Today” in 2009 (http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/default/files/cea-2009-wdydist.pdf). They examined students’ engagement from three perspectives: social, academic and intellectual. This infographic shows their findings (http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea-2011-wdydist-infographic.pdf).
The authors say, “…..intellectual engagement varies even more dramatically with school type. In elementary schools, 62% of students were classified as intellectually engaged. For middle schools, the level of engagement is only 44%, falling even further to 35% and 30% in middle-secondary and secondary schools, respectively.” The report cites that linear learning (such as what is laid out by stringent use of lock-step textbooks, chapter and verse) mightily contributes to students’ disengagement. Learners (all of us) follow unique learning paths and strategies which are not, by nature, linear!
One CEA study finding comports with Friedman’s statement, “….. (results)…show that there is a large group of students who have strong skills but do not feel challenged in their classes. These students are less likely to be engaged than their peers with similar skills who do feel challenged. Most noteworthy, the odds of high-skill/low-challenge students being engaged were less than three-quarters of the odds for their high-skill/high-challenge counterparts.”
The CEA study goes on to say, “The dimensions of engagement, whether considered alone or together, draw attention to the importance of students’ experiences in school; the connections among those experiences; and the classroom and school practices that contribute to healthy human development, motivation to achieve, sense of confidence, pride in success at school, and other positive outcomes.”
A third related piece was written by a veteran teacher. Grant Wiggins posted it on his blog site (https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/a-veteran-teacher-turned-coach-shadows-2-students-for-2-days-a-sobering-lesson-learned/). The post provides a firsthand account of two days in the lives of two high school students being shadowed by the teacher. Students were followed in traditional content area courses. The findings, though not surprising, are staggering.
Students didn’t speak much, sat the majority of the time, had little to no autonomy and did not believe they made contributions in their settings. Very little student time was spent choosing or directing their own learning. They spent the time, in the shadower’s words, “..passively absorbing information”.) A more depressing observation was the fact that the teacher felt he/she was a nuisance. There were questions that weren’t asked because of a lack of comfort interacting with the teacher. The shadower perceived that teachers began to lose patience when asked the same questions by different students. The impact was learner shutdown.
The latter strikes at the heart of one of the CEA report findings. The senses of efficacy and connection in the school setting makes a huge difference in students’ engagement and, hence, achievement. Learners must have confidence, pride and connection in the school setting in order to engage.
Aside from the new ADHD research that Friedman reports, nothing above is new under the education sun. What gave me pause was reading each of these over the course of just a few weeks and how they all point to what we have known a long, long time. The traditional education practice doesn’t and hasn’t worked for each individual learner. Reform efforts aim to change belief and practices to increase student achievement.
The power of students using personal, portable technologies for learning creates incredible engagement possibilities Where 1:1 programs are effectively implemented, we know that student motivation, problem-solving and achievement happen (Project RED 2010; Project RED Signature Districts, “Every Child Every Day”, Edwards, 2011). Friedman well characterizes how today’s students power down when they enter school after being powered up since they left. It’s not about school being entertaining as much as about learners developing self-motivation to follow their unique path through platforms native to their lives outside of school.
Teachers and principals benefit from ongoing, embedded professional development to hone their skills in creating personalized learning. This can be achieved through setting robust professional learning community agendas that focus on student behaviors leading to engagement, mastery and achievement. Personalization (“Make Learning Personal”, Bray & McClaskey, 2014) is different from differentiation and individualization (http://image.slidesharecdn.com/pdi-v32-140702084602-phpapp01/95/personalization-v-differentiation-v-individualization-v3-1-638.jpg?cb=1404404939).
Bray and McClaskey provide a picture of personalization, “….(It) involves assessment AS learning, FOR learning, and a minimal OF learning. This is where teachers develop capacity so learners become independent learners who set goals, monitor progress, and reflect on learning. Assessments are based on mastery.”
Well-used technologies provide students the avenue of self-direction, being able to work at their own pace, any place and any time. Providing flexible learning environments (blended, flipped, seat time vs anytime/anywhere learning) in tandem with meaningful use of tech tools can go a long way toward the transformation. Using tech tools that allow for peer and teacher collaborations, will create an ongoing connectedness and feedback loop. This aids in the learning knowing he/she is cared for, heard, applauded and/or redirected. Teachers and principals who work on developing effective technology implementation, aligned with curriculum standards, aimed at personalization, will witness the authentic transformation of education.