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How Can We Expand Our Capacity to Teach and Improve Learning?

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Learning is a complicated process. No one knows that better than those who teach. But our system functions in ways that run counter to what years of study about learning have revealed to us.  Learning requires thinking and thinking requires time for inquiry, experimentation and reflection whether we are children or adults. Time is a scare commodity in the world of education and it is the thing we need the most. It is not only in secondary classrooms that the clock and bells interfere with what teachers know.  Even in elementary schools, the clock creates the boundaries that challenge what teachers know about learning.  Here is why we need control over time and school day design.

Twelve years ago, at the Stanford Schools of Education, Linda Darling-Hammond, Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt, and Jim Rosso designed what was then called a 'Telecourse for Teacher Education and Professional Development.'  In "Episode #1", they provide an excellent summary of the development of learning theories beginning with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle up to the work of Seymour Papert. In it, they reported:

Today, teachers utilize a variety of classroom practices that are based on all of these ideas about learning. Contemporary learning theory recognizes the role that both experience and reflection play in the development of ideas and skills. Researchers and practitioners appreciate that reinforcement and practice play a role in the development of skills, and so do cognitive intent, effort, and reasoning. They acknowledge the importance of developmental stages; they also recognize that development can also be encouraged through social interaction and the structuring of experiences within the learners' zone of proximal development or readiness sphere. Modern learning theories incorporate the role of culture and other influences on experience in views of how people construct their understandings and develop their abilities.

"Today's teachers utilize a variety of classroom practices that are based on..." the theories developed beginning with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  Yes!  That is what teachers do.  They understand the role of experience and reflection, capture the learning theories developed over centuries, and create the necessary environment in which his or her students can learn. They do this in curriculum writing and lesson planning, committee meetings, and parent meetings, in hallways and extra-curricular activities. It results in an interactive process combining centuries of learning theory, information, skills, opportunities for rehearsal, with monitoring, assessment, reinforcement, and, ultimately, success.

The Washington Post reported the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered in 2012, showed scores for the 15 year old US students were "flat while their counterparts elsewhere -- particularly in Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian provinces or countries -- soared ahead."  The report said US teenagers "scored slightly above average in reading, their scores were average in science and below average in math, compared to 64 other countries and economies that participated."  The article reported that this particular pattern has "not changed much" since the first administration of the test in 2000.

The NY Times reported that the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) revealed incremental growth, on average, in ELA and math as measured in grades 4 and 8 while the gap for minorities and students in poverty has remained similar.

This country, with the Statue of Liberty as our beacon, continues to be a welcoming destination for immigrants. So while our immigrant population continues to grow and our child poverty rate has increased to 21.6%, perhaps that means the "flat" scores really weren't flat. 

We maintained a performance rate while the populations we are serving continued to change.  With dedication and hard work, our teachers and leaders successfully maintained the bar while the players changed.  That is remarkable and deserves some acknowledgment.  Instead, what we hear is education is failing our students, they are neither college nor career ready, and our nation's students fall far behind students in other countries. 

We maintain that we are not failing, but we are failing some of our students and that is the problem. We may be arriving at a tipping point.  Teachers have worked harder within the same system that has been in place for many decades.  There comes a point where harder won't help.  Too many factors exist now for a 'work harder' mentality to be successful. But how do we work smarter within the conflicting message system of local communities that seem overall happy with us to the larger stage which says we are failing our students?  From where does the motivation and energy come when all we are told is we must get better?  Are we good enough and how long can we be given to reach everyone?

Let's first acknowledge that the scores, (even though they have become reviled standardized ones) do reveal we have done a remarkable job of holding our numbers steady while our world has changed.  We can step back and look at the teaching practices that have developed under the current system and question our current structure.   

Each of our schools and districts lie in different socio-economic areas, with different numbers of students living in poverty, of English language learners (ELL's) and immigrant populations and numbers of classified students.  Some challenges are the same and many are different and influenced by a myriad of factors.  But instead of struggling to work harder and push the mandates to offer better education in a crumbling structure, why not take hold of what is possible?  Simply adding time to the school day and not returning to what we know about how learning takes place is an invitation to fail at another tinkering.  Rather than looking for solutions, let's revisit the problems.  They need to be identified by us before we can become part of the solution. If we do not see the problem, of course, we will reject anyone's solution. Is the problem poverty, or structure or financial...or is it all of these along with a highly regulated and heavily bureaucratic system?

The vision of our schools, moving forward has to include wide use of technology, a deep understanding of the populations who are coming to school, an agreement about the bars set for success, and flexibility for how each of our systems will achieve success.  We must be our own cheerleaders.  The press and the politicians are not, and have rarely recognized the work done in schools...only what needs to be done.  It barely makes sense to continue without serious attention being paid to how to teach. Before the confidence in their own knowledge about teaching reaches the breaking point, let's invite the voices of our professional teachers to participate with solutions.  Perhaps if we do that, when our politicians attempt to 'improve' our educational systems, we will be ready with an answer...what we need in order to make this happen. 

In NYC, the Mayor elect, Bill DeBlasio is advocating for Universal pre-K for all 4 year olds. We applaud this effort.  But, how will the rest of the system need to prepare for  the impact of a Universal Pre-K program?  We change parts and even if they are the right parts to change unless we plan for the ripple that changes the whole system the end results will not be everything for which we hope. Leading in these times most certainly demands the capacity for strategizing and planning for 'what happens next.'

Our students need new ways of engagement, and there are teachers who know how to do that.  Those teachers need environments that allow opportunity and support for them as they move beyond what we have known for centuries into what we will create for this one.  Our schools need leaders who are not distracted from what is important and can shoulder the demands from all sides while protecting what is right for their school or district.  Everyone is working hard.  We need to be working together, making the time to ask and answer "What can we do to expand our capacity to teach and make learning better?"  This week, whether we are joining AFT to "reclaim the promise" or jumping into the "Hour of Code" effort, the time has come for us to enter our profession anew.

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