In my last education post I proposed a new movement in education: The Never Give Up, Even-after-Failure Option.
Honestly, I don’t want to use the word “failure” in my option. Failure has negative connotations; telling children and parents that a child will fail at something will make everyone involved uncomfortable. Here is my shortened proposal: The Never-Give-Up Initiative. It is based on learning readiness and mastery of skills. Creating this type of atmosphere in a classroom will result in a child learning at his or her speed, not failing while other students succeed. Instead of saying to a child, “You failed,” we will be saying, “Try again. I know you can do it.” There will be no need for a grading system with this initiative because students will master a skill or subject before they move on; there will be no A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, or F’s, just mastery. They may make mistakes or not understand something, but they will have as many opportunities as they need to correct those mistakes and master the subject.
I used Never Give Up, Even-after-Failure Option to make a point. Making mistakes is a part of life, but only in school do we call it failure. We are also doing a disservice to our students by not requiring mastery at every level. A child who receives a D- in a subject didn’t learn much. He or she now has to go to the next level without understanding that subject very well. We are now definitely setting him or her up for a lifetime of failure. Instead of just barely passing the subject, it would be so much better to say, “This is wrong. Let’s figure out why you got it wrong, so you can get it right.” We have tried to mass-produce educated children, and it’s not working. It really hasn’t been working for a long time.
My “Frist” School Memory
I am the first-generation born in this country from Macedonian immigrants. My parents were born and raised in Macedonia, and they met and married in America. We didn’t speak a lot of English in my home, which explains some of my learning issues when I was a child.
I’m an October baby, so I started kindergarten at 4-years-old (cutoff for school in New York at this time was 5 by December 1st). That made me 5 when I started first grade. My teacher was a lovely, grandmotherly lady who even had the wrinkly pantyhose and grey hair. We used to hug her goodbye everyday on the way out of school. One day I remember being called to the chalkboard for spelling; I was the last one at the far-right side of the chalkboard. I and three other children had to spell “first.” I wrote it frist. The teacher went down the line: “Look class. Little Tommy spelled first perfectly! And so did Lisa. Well done, dear! And so did Sammy. Excellent! So proud of you, Sammy! Oh, now class. Would you look at the way little Pauline spelled first. Is that the way you spell it?” All the kids in the class yelled, “No!” Some of them went on to add, “She’s stupid!” I remember walking back to my desk deflated.
I tell that story for a few reasons. 1) I still struggle with my spelling, especially when I don’t have time to think it through, or if someone is watching me, and this is 42 years later! I have gotten better through the work I put in after high school, like studying Greek and Latin stems, learning spelling rules, and using mnemonic devices. 2) I’m not traumatized over that event—well maybe a little, but I’m okay. Obviously, that experience pointed me towards teaching; my positive and negative experiences with education made me want to be a positive influence for my students. 3) The crux of the story is that I never received any teacher-help for my spelling inadequacies. I moved through all of elementary, middle, and high school without anyone saying, “Hold on. There’s something missing here. Let’s go back and figure out what that is and strengthen your spelling foundation.” That’s what will be different with the Never-Give-Up Initiative: Teachers will identify and work to correct gaps in students’ education as soon as they are discovered.
American Public Education System Needs to Change
If you recall from my last post, educating a child has three core components: teacher, student, and parent. The emphasis over the last few years has been on teachers’ positions only. Teachers are crucial to the equation, but not any more important than the other two. The Never-Give-Up Initiative will make sure that teachers don’t give up on students, that students don’t give up on themselves, and that parents are not taking a passive-aggressive role in their children’s education. However, before I discuss those core components, I want to share how the educational system needs to change, beginning with Early Childhood Education.
Please note: I am not an Early Childhood Specialist or Teacher. I don’t presume to know the science behind the instruction or the data that is pushing for earlier and earlier formalized instruction. What I do know is my experiences with my own children; they were each different learners with different experiences. I also have had discussions with my high-school students about what went wrong for them. Many of them point to their elementary-school experiences as to where their difficulties began.
Preschool (3-4 years old)
Preschool should be about socialization, period. Children this age should have fun and learn how to interact with each other and the teachers. There is a movement that is asking for mandatory preschool, funded by the state. This is a huge mistake for two reasons: 1) Most children are not ready to learn in a formalized setting at this age. If parents want to teach their children letters, colors, and numbers, then that one-on-one setting is perfect for this age group. In a larger group, children want to play, make new friends, and observe what other kids are doing. Preschool is perfect for early socialization, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. 2) We don’t have enough money to fund the education of children who are ready to learn in a group setting, let alone to fund a preschool program. If parents want to place their children in preschool, they should pay for it.
If this is what a parent chooses to do, I recommend looking for schools that emphasize play and positive interactions: playing nicely, using nice words, sharing toys and materials, learning how to handle minor disagreements, and listening and respecting the teacher and other students. Any more than that at this age will make students who are not ready to learn feel like failures.
Kindergarten (5-6 years old)
Kindergarten should be a small step-up from preschool. Along with the positive interactions described in the preschool section, children will begin their formalized education. At this age children are ready to learn letters, numbers, and colors in a group setting, and some of them will be reading already; however, what will determine if children are ready to move to the next level will be how well they listen and follow directions. These two skills will determine if a child struggles with his or her education or not. If a child is not listening, he will miss important instructions and information. If a child is not following directions, she will spend a lot of time doing the wrong thing. I can’t think of two more discouraging scenarios for a child.
So much of a child’s learning difficulty begins with not listening or following directions. This will be the only “homework” a child receives at this age, and it is truly homework for the parents as well. Parents will work with their children on listening and following directions at home. In addition, all schools will have a parenting class where parents can get help on how to teach these necessary skills to their children. If a child has mastered his or her letters, colors, and numbers, but still cannot listen and follow directions, that child cannot move on to first grade.
If a child has to repeat the kindergarten session, the parenting class will become a mandatory class for parents. The message needs to be clear that free, public education is a privilege and that it is the parents’ responsibility to prepare the child for school. If parents are not working with their children to become learning-ready students, parents will have to pay for other methods of education or home school their children. I have heard far too many stories of parents expecting teachers to “raise” their children, without discipline of course. Listening, following directions, and being respectful are things the parents should be teaching at home; teachers are only reinforcing those skills.
1st – 6th Grades
Once the child has learned the academics of kindergarten (alphabet, numbers, and colors), the positive interactions of a social world, and the listening and following directions necessary for learning readiness, he or she can move on to 1st grade. The biggest difference in my proposal is that each class will have a rotating-door schedule: If a child has mastered all three crucial elements of kindergarten within the first month of class, he or she can move up to 1st grade. If a child is reading already but cannot have positive interactions with other students, he or she will be placed in a reading group with other readers until he or she learns those other skills.
If a child moves up a level, but then reverts to a lower academic or social level for a number of instances, that child will have to return to the lower level. This is not a punishment for the child. It is a way to help him or her see the importance of proper behavior and necessary skills for learning readiness. It will also maintain the learning environment for the other children who are following directions, are respectful, and ready to learn. So much of our classroom time now is spent working with behavior problems that it hinders the growth of the other students. This system will maintain the purpose of education.
In the classroom there will be a team of highly-qualified teachers: One master teacher with two well-trained tutors who will work with students to achieve the goals (10-1 ratio of students to master teacher; 5-1 ratio of students to tutor). The elementary level is the most important level in a child’s education. Having this many teachers will guarantee that each child will have the attention necessary to master the skills.
Students will enter each level based on their readiness, and their abilities when tested. This is not a standardized test. It will be practical knowledge and skills-based testing. If a child is ready to leave kindergarten with the three main components I described earlier, then he or she may test into a second-grade reading level and a first-grade math level. Once he or she has mastered the first level, he or she will move on to the next. Some students will move more quickly, others slowly, but the idea is they won’t move on until they’ve mastered the previous level (mastery will be determined by the student being able to do the task/skill every time he or she is asked to do it, or at least he or she will know where the mistake was made and be able to fix it).
Another area that needs to be changed is what to do with a child who takes interest in a certain subject, beyond core subjects. For example, Johnny, a seven year old, can read chapter books independently and understands them; he will be in a high-level reading group (which may be equivalent to a 3rd grade reading level with six to nine year olds in the group). Johnny may struggle with his addition tables, so he will be in an entry-level group for math where he practices addition facts in many different ways (a 1st grade skill, where he may have five and six year olds with him). However, Johnny’s interest in birds and flying has him asking questions about how birds fly. Currently, in this school system, no one has been interested in the aerodynamics of birds, so he will have an independent study in a computer research lab with teachers who specialize in academic research. Those teachers will also be working with other independent study students, but those students may be researching automobiles, Susan B. Anthony, or Picasso, to name a few. This extra research will happen at the end of the day dedicated to students’ passions, possibly called Discovery Hour.
Discovery Hour can be spent in a research lab or it can be spent in a more hands on lab learning or participating in science, art, dance, sports, cooking, or music. Whatever the child gets excited about learning, he or she will spend the last hour of the day doing it.
Learning should be fun. We have to allow our children to find answers to things when they want to know them. “We can’t study birds right now” or other “can’t” answers to inquisitive minds is a perfect way to deflate curiosity.
Where do we get the money for this initiative?
1) Get rid of state testing and state organizations that run the tests. Billions of dollars a year are spent on these state tests. If students are not moving on until they have mastered the Common Core Standards at each level then there is no need for the test. The fact that they are moving on proves they have mastered it. Throughout the world and in our own country, many incredible initiatives are being funded because people are choosing to put money where it matters. We have to choose to invest in our children by having master teachers (a masters’ degree or better requirement) and pay them a masters’ salary (equivalent to doctors and lawyers). Respect for our teachers will draw better qualified people to the profession.
2) The tutors will come from college education programs. College students who want to be teachers will need to work with students before becoming student teachers. They will not be paid, but they will receive invaluable experience before being expected to teach. It will be part of their education to work in the classroom. Creating this experience for college students will also weed out the people who cannot and should not be teachers. Being a master teacher is a calling. No one should become a teacher without that passion and dedication.
I want to end this post with a call for another paradigm shift. We all have heard the old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Let’s shift that disrespectful taunt into a respectful motto: “Only those who can, should teach.”
Look for my next Education Reformation post on what middle and high school will look like.
The video below is Sir Ken Robinson’s speech that was the impetus for my own proposals. It is over 10 minutes long, but well worth the time.