Monday, April 18, 2011

How do we create life long learners?

Written by Graduate Student Thomas McCarthy

How do we motivate today’s students, specifically inner city students from lower income families, to become more engaged in school and become lifelong learners? Five years ago while in school to become a science teacher, I thought I had a good idea of how to do that. Now that I have spent the last five years in the classroom I feel more confused than ever.

My experience thus far as a teacher has been very different than I imagined it might be. I work at a city of Buffalo middle school and often feel more like a disciplinarian than a science instructor. With all that teachers must contend with throughout the day it is not often enough that my coworkers and I wonder if our students are becoming lifelong learners. We know some will be, but we also know those students usually have a strong family unit guiding them at home. Teachers also have to balance budget cuts with increased responsibilities (I now teach Science and Health to almost 300 different students during six classes a day) with little help from most parents. There is also the fact that many students today actually believe that they are not creative, talented, or smart and therefore have no desire to learn, in class or after graduation. This unfortunately is not just my experience in Buffalo; research shows that creativity may be imbued with social class based assumptions such as resilience, self-reliance, persistence, and control over one’s environment (Craft, 2003). In other words, the lower the socioeconomic situation of the student, the less self confidence the student will likely have, at least academically.

When I graduated from high school in the late nineteen-eighties, teaching concepts like inquiry, creativity in the classroom, mastery learning, and metacognitive learning strategies were nowhere to be found. Back then, and still today in some places, teachers stood in front of a room full of students and lectured. The students took notes, asked the occasional question and waited for the bell to ring. Then it was on to the next class in this assembly line type of learning.

Today things are different and are constantly evolving. A good teacher will try to establish a community of learning, in which the contribution of students’ ideas and questions are encouraged. Today’s teachers are aware that students bring many ideas to the classroom, and they give recognition to this. Master teachers work with an open-endedness, they start with something very open and everything evolves. They don’t know where they are going (Denmead, 2010). I believe that one strength of many of today’s teachers is their ability to engage their students in expressing ideas derived from personal experience. The student then starts thinking at a higher level and is more interested in the subject being discussed. Research shows that students value an open learning experience such as practical sessions, discussions, and projects, and in turn feel more prepared for real life and employment problem solving (Williamson, 2001). This then leads to an appreciation of knowledge and is the foundation of lifelong learning. No problem, sounds pretty easy, right?

As a middle school science teacher I have all four of the sciences to introduce to my students, biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics. I just don’t have enough time in most days for lessons taught in an open-ended environment. I have every minute planned and hopefully there won’t be many distractions. Teachers of some other subjects are allowed more freedom during a lesson, in fact, that freedom is necessary. Creative practitioners that contributed to a study of the topic noted the importance of uninhibitedness, of not being restricted, and of being like a child (Denmead, 2010). But according to, science in the United States is falling far behind the rest of the world. Science teachers feel the sense of urgency to get students to perform right now.

Danmead (2010) suggests a possible explanation for observed pedagogical differences between teachers of subjects like Science or Math and teachers, or creative practitioners, of subjects like Art may be that the latter can position themselves as provocateurs while the former intervenes from the sidelines of the creative partnership to enforce order and discipline. This is especially true for me, a middle school teacher with lower income students. One of the most frustrating aspects of my current job is not getting through the material as deeply and efficiently with some classes as others due to disciplinary issues.

I understand this is not the most effective way to create lifelong learners, but honestly, my salary is based on how my students perform on assessments. Teacher tenure is becoming a thing of the past and I have a family to support. Teachers are left complying pedagogically to external mandates that emphasis role performance toward measurable and predictable outcomes (Ball, 2003). This is not just the opinions of a couple of bitter teachers. This is the state of teaching in America. As educators, our jobs depend on students scoring high on the assessments (whether or not administrators will admit it), so that is where most of our efforts go.

I realize this is not the situation for every teacher in every school. Location makes an incredible difference in teaching and learning. My wife is a high school science teacher in a very affluent suburb of Buffalo. Her day is about as different from mine as you can imagine. Student expectations are different. As a result the outcomes on assessments are different as well, and for me? It only seems to be getting worse. The presence of an excellence gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is demonstrated on both state and national assessments of student performance, and the gaps between academic scores of more advantaged students and less advantaged groups has increased over the last six to seven years (Marshall et al., 2011). The resources available to students are important, but they are also unevenly distributed from school to school.

The most important resource, and possibly the most unevenly distributed resource in my opinion, is the stability and support provided at home. I have read research that says explicit instruction, where specific skills are taught, is the most effective method for teaching critical thinking skills (Halpern and Marin, 2001). But in the same paper Halpern and Marin (2001) also say that the students that participated in the study also attended classes after their regular school day or on Saturday, so they were likely different from the lower achieving students who did not choose to participate. The students who participated in the study most likely have a strong and stable home life that encourages the pursuit of knowledge and lifelong learning. I believe the importance of support and encouragement from home cannot be underestimated.

I believe that by engaging students in open ended activities, a teacher can activate the student's natural curiosity about things. This can lead to the students desire to explore and investigate rather than just "sit and take notes". The student becomes a participant rather than an observer. I also realize that sometimes this approach is just not realistic. It all depends on the school and the type of motivation for learning that the students have. Having teacher expectations that are achievable is vital to producing students who desire to become contributing members of society. Overcrowding classrooms tremendously hinders the teacher’s ability to recognizing which students need additional help and which students are exceptionally talented and creative. In school context, teacher’s role in recognizing gifted and creative students is crucial (Kousoulas and Mega, 2009). Personally, I have a total of almost three hundred students that I am responsible for. It is virtually impossible for me to know much about most of them. Unless I taught them last year and already have some knowledge of their lives, I’m just doing my best to have them score high (or just pass in many cases) and move on to the next grade. It’s a form of assembly line learning all over again.

Long after my students are out of my classroom I want them to be able to contribute to society. It is my opinion that not enough people try to make a difference. It feels to me like large portions of the population are sheep just following the crowd. It seems many people just accept things the way they are, and this happens for many reasons. Mostly it's just easier to not change, change is difficult. Ignorance is another big reason, I feel like many people just have no idea what's going on in the world. To have an impact, a person must know the facts. I want my students to want to be informed, to want to become lifelong learners, and I want them to know how to apply their knowledge to make their lives better. I want them to become and to continue to be informed decision makers.

What needs to happen to ensure our students want this for themselves? I believe it starts at home. A teacher can only do so much. We only see the students for small portion of the day. A parent’s job is to be a parent and lead by example. It is one thing for a child to be told that it’s important to become a lifelong learner by a teacher in a school. It has much more of an impact if they are shown how to become an informed decision maker by someone they love.

No comments: