The Top 12 Global Teacher Blogger Discussion: September 2016

paint-brushesHow can we maximize the value of art and music in education and how can it be blended with more traditional subjects (math, science, history, etc.)?

I teach at a community college, and a professor there created an art therapy club for professors, adjunct, and staff. Nine people attended the first session where they colored with pens and painted with watercolors. Future sessions will consist of making jewelry, drawing, and using mixed media—all as therapy to help adults relieve a stressful week. This is brilliant; however, our primary and secondary children are going to school during a time when the arts are slowly being eliminated from their curriculum. I find this dichotomy painfully ridiculous.

Instead of answering the question this month, I’m going to ask a few of my own:

If schools embraced this idea of art therapy, would we have as many children and teens suffering from stress and anxiety?

If students were allowed to embrace their creative sides, would they grow up into adults who needed art therapy?

If art is therapeutic, why do we give it so little importance and relegate it to an elective in secondary schools?

Why do parents and educators allow people who don’t really care about their children to make unhealthy decisions for their children?

Why does the very notion of school imply that everything that is taught there needs to be quantified? Can’t we just enjoy learning without testing or assigning a letter grade to it?

Why are math, science, social studies, and English classes more important in a child’s education, than art, music, dance, and theater?

Why do people think that studying the arts is a waste of time and not preparation for college? Why can’t students who truly love the arts immerse themselves in those areas and continue to do so in college?

Why is our society so bent on educating only half the child? Do people not see the damage being done to our children when we eliminate the things that bring them the greatest joy?


Part 3: The solution is right in front of us

Robinson’s final point is that we cannot help our students thrive under the current educational system, but we do have an alternative-school model that should replace what we are doing now. I agree. I’ve transcribed his main final points in italics, and then I’ve added my own thoughts and experiences, but feel free to watch his presentation in its entirety below:

3rd Principle: Human life is inherently creative.

We create our lives and we can recreate them as we go through them. Instead, we have a culture of standardization.

Finland doesn’t obsess over [math and science]. 1) They have a broad approach to education which includes humanities, physical education, the arts. 2) There is no standardized testing in Finland (a few tests but it doesn’t drive curriculum). 3) They don’t have a dropout rate. Finland [wonders]: Why would children dropout? When they are in trouble, we get to them quite quickly and support them.

What all the high performing systems in the world do is what, sadly, is nowhere in existence in the systems across America:

 1) They individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it is students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn.

A few years ago, I had a student teacher; it was one of the best teaching experiences I have ever had. The first semester we worked as a team: We had individual conferences and helped twice as many students because we were both in the room. So many things would change in education if that were the norm rather than the exception. We would have teachers accountable to each other; no one would be able to hide behind a closed door and call it anonymity. Students would have two teachers to talk to about learning issues. One teacher could teach while the other walks around the room monitoring individual learning. Teachers could have individual conferences with students about their writing or comprehension of certain concepts. Informal, diagnostic evaluations could happen every second of classroom time.

As a parent of a child who is struggling in school, the team-teacher approach would have unlimited benefits as well. Having a 2nd teacher in his classroom–not support staff, but an actual trained teacher–would get him the individualized instruction he needs. As it stands now, he is lost and confused during most instruction. The classroom is not about his learning, but about the standard that is being taught–standards that become meaningless as he is increasingly distraught over his inability to keep up.

 2) They attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can’t improve education if you don’t pick great people to teach and if you don’t give them constant support and professional development.

Right now, anyone can get into a teaching school. Teacher candidates could have been D students in high school, yet they are admitted into the teaching program. Those teacher candidates may have been average students in the teaching program as well, yet they can apply and be hired to teach our children. I want my child to have the best and brightest teachers, so their knowledge base is greater and their passion for learning is evident. I don’t want my son to have a teacher who thought teaching would be easy, or to have a teacher who wasn’t able to get into another profession.

 3) They devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. There’s a big difference with this and the systems that go into a system of command and control [America’s current system]: central government decides they know best and they are going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.

This is the most revealing fact for me. Not only has the government stripped us of the respect we deserve as teachers, they have stripped us of our discretion. They don’t trust us to use our knowledge and experience to make educated decisions for our students. That is not what a democracy is supposed to be like. It reminds me of Animal Farm, and Squealer’s rhetoric:

“Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

As the general public stands by and watches the government take away teachers’ discretion, be aware that they are also taking away the general public’s equality. Instead of educating all citizens to be solutions orientated and trusting us to make decisions for our own well-being, they are giving us a script to follow because none of us, according to our current government, can be trusted to make wise decisions.

I hear constantly that a socialist system like Finland’s won’t work in a democratic system like America’s. The irony is that Finland has more freedom and equality than our democracy does. Their teachers are trusted to teach; their parents are trusted to make wise decisions for their children; their public is allowed to make their own choices. The wool has been pulled over our eyes; democracy is no longer the operating system of America. We are a capitalistic society being controlled by big businesses.

There’s wonderful work happening in this country, but I have to say it is happening in spite of the dominate culture of education, not because of it.

Many of the current policies are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It’s like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data. Policy makers believe that if we fine tune it well enough, it will hum along perfectly into the future. It won’t, and it never did.

The point is that education is not a mechanical system; it’s a human system. It’s about people: people that either do want to learn or don’t want to learn. Every student who drops out of school has a reason for it, which is rooted in their own biography. They may find it boring, irrelevant, it’s at odds with the life they are living outside of school. There are trends but the stories are always unique.

Alternative Education Programs: these are programs that are designed to get kids back into education. They have certain common features: they’re personalized, they have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community, and a broad and diverse curriculum that involve students outside of school as well as inside of school. And they work. What’s interesting to me: these are called alternative education. If we all used this system, there would be no need for the alternative system.

This is the key to changing our current education problems. If we ran all public schools like an alternative education school, there would be no more drop outs. Students could explore what they are good at and passionate about. We would have smaller class sizes; students will be engaged because they will have more choices and will want to learn what they choose to study.

The culture of the school is absolutely essential. Culture is an organic term. Death Valley isn’t dead; it’s dormant. Right beneath the surface are the seeds of possibility, waiting for the right conditions to come about. With organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable.

There are public school systems in this country that look like Death Valley. There seems to be little to nothing growing in their schools; however, if we pour the right mix of money and quality teachers into each school, we will see growth.

You take an area, a school, a district you change the conditions, give the students a different possibility, you give people the discretion to be innovative and creative. Schools that were once bereft will spring to life. Great leaders know this.

The real role of leadership in education is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility, and if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things you completely did not anticipate.

We need real leadership in this country, not command and control. If we sit back and do nothing, we will have lost an entire generation of people to this standardized, one-size-fits-all mentality. A real leader will put the right people in charge and then get out of the way. A real leader will create a climate of possibility, not limitations. The recipe might be slightly different for each socioeconomic area, but the bottom line is we can meet each child’s needs in a school system. How? By taking back the funds handed over to big businesses. If we stop pouring billions of dollars into standardized state tests, we could stop this downward spiral.

Imagine what we could do if that money went back into the school system: we could hire more teachers, decreasing the student/teacher ratio from 30-35 to 1 to 15-20 to 1, allowing for more individualized instruction; we could provide free meals and snacks to children who often go without meals, but are expected to learn at the same rate as everyone else; we could attract better qualified people to the teaching profession by offering more competitive salaries, giving the profession the respect it deserves; we could offer more vocational choices for students so they could join the workforce as contributing members of society right out of high school, instead of having dropout rates skyrocket, limiting their earning potential. It can be done, but we need to make a stand.

Quote from Ben Franklin: There are three sorts of people in the world: those who are immovable (people who don’t get it, won’t get it, don’t want to know about it), there are people who are movable (people who see the need for change and are prepared to listen to it), and there are people who move (people who make things happen and if we can encourage more people, that will be a movement, and if the movement is strong enough, that’s, in the best sense of the word, a revolution). And that’s what we need.

We need a revolution, but first we need people who are willing to move. I’m willing to be that person who makes things happen. How about you?

Ben Franklin

Part 2: the 2nd principle that drives human life

In an earlier post, Part 1: Identifying the problems, I discussed how Ken Robinson’s video

 is helping education by shining a light on the problems, identifying the 3 principles that drive human life, and then he offers an existing solution. The first principle is about individuality.

Robinson explains the 2nd principle this way:

2nd Principle that drives human life is curiosity. If you can light the spark of curiosity in children they will learn without any further assistance. Children are natural learners. It’s a real achievement to put that ability out or to stifle it. Curiosity is the engine of achievement.

This is the true goal of an educator: to encourage students’ curiosity. The teacher needs to create a climate of curiosity for his/her subject matter. If the teacher does that, the majority of students will embrace what’s being taught because they are naturally curious. Unfortunately, I have some students at the junior level who have almost lost their natural curiosity by the time they get to me. The flame is not completely out, but they have been disengaged for so long that they don’t know how to begin fulfilling some of the tasks I ask of them.

I am saddened by this fact. I spend many of my teaching hours trying to undo the damage that has been done to the psyche and confidence levels of my students.

However, one of the greatest joys I have in teaching is when a disengaged student finally engages and trusts me enough to ask or answer questions. That engagement is a sign that curiosity is still alive within him/her, which means the desire to learn is still present. All is not lost.

Robinson identifies what I believe is the biggest problem in education in our country:

One of the effects in this culture is to deprofessionalize teachers. There is no system in the world that is better than its teachers.

That statement is so powerful, I need to repeat it: “There is no system in the world that is better than its teachers.” Therefore, if the government, big business, and the media have all worked together to destroy the profession of teachers for their own monetary gains, they are ultimately destroying our country. The question is, to what gain? If the general public is buying into this propaganda, they are also contributing to the destruction of our country. I can’t imagine why people would do that on purpose. The only answer is that the general public has been intentionally misinformed.

Here is the truth as presented by Robinson:

Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. Teaching is a creative profession. Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system. You are not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage… You see, in the end, education is about learning. If there is no learning going on, there is no education going on. People spend a lot of time discussing education without ever discussing learning. The whole point of education is to get people to learn. You can be engaged in the activity of something, but not really achieving it. . . . The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning; that’s it.

Sadly, I know there are teachers currently working who do not facilitate learning. There are a few in every school, but they are not the majority. The whole basis for starting these tests was to weed out the “ineffective” teachers. Who really thinks that a billion dollar industry is needed to get rid of bad teachers? Ask any teacher, counselor, or student who the ineffective teachers are, and one will get immediate feedback. Everyone knows who the teachers are that show movies instead of teach their subject matter, who give answers to diagnostic tests instead of teaching the material and checking if their students understand it. How much money would that cost?

Definitely not the billions of dollars taken out of the classroom to fund state tests:

Part of the problem is that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on, not teaching and learning, but testing. Now testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. But they should not be the dominant culture of education. They should be diagnostic; they should help. Testing should support learning; it shouldn’t obstruct it, which it often does.

I am not against all testing, obviously. We need to check what our students know and don’t know; we need to find out as teachers what we need to go back over so our students actually learn the material. I have diagnostic tests that tell me if they understand it. If they don’t, they come in to work with me one-on-one until they do. If it were my error, I re-teach it. Simple. Cost effective. Immediate. We have had these type of tests since I was in grade school. Why do we need extremely expensive tests when good teachers already create valid assessments?

The argument may be that depending on the teacher, school, district, region, or state, some students may not be getting the same education as other students. That’s true, but it starts and ends with the teacher, not the test. Truthfully, this all begins with good leadership. A good leader knows he/she has to hire the right people and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. If a teacher is struggling, a good leader will provide the support needed to help that teacher or have the strength to fire the teacher and find a better qualified educator.

But that’s not the goal of these government mandates:

Instead of curiosity, we have a culture of compliance. Our teachers and students are encouraged to follow routine algorithms, rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.

It is no accident that we have a culture of compliance instead of curiosity in public education. If we see the writing on the wall, we can see the future of education: The elite private and charter schools will produce the leaders and the public schools will produce the followers–those who have been trained to comply. (More on that in my post Can we escape the matrix?)

This is the type of education the general public is allowing for their children. Yes it is free education, but at what cost? Doesn’t every child deserve the right to the best education possible? The type of education that will nurture individuality, curiosity, and creativity, rather than compliance?

In case there are readers who think I am exaggerating, here is a resolution document from a local charter school against the Common Core Standards. They know that educating their future leaders is being stifled with this type of narrow, compliance-based standardization of education, which is driving the state tests.

Let’s give all of our children a fighting chance, whether they are poor, rich, or somewhere in between.

Students first

Part 1: Identifying the problems in our current educational system

Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley

I love Ken Robinson’s videos: He is entertaining and makes a lot of sense. Recently I read some criticism about him; these people thought Robinson was a lot of fluff with no substance, and some thought he was doing more harm than good because he creates a type of “caricature” around education with no real solutions. I disagree. Robinson has an important role: He draws attention to the problems in education, which he does very well, and then gives us the motivation and tools to start a revolution against the government mandates for testing. Not only does he identify the problems we have in education in this video, but he also suggests a simple solution to those problems, a solution that we already have available in this country.

We just need to get enough people to voice their concerns and desires for public education. That’s where the rest of us come in.

As a high-school teacher in a middle-income district, I won’t pretend to have the problems that the lower-income districts have; however, if the problems I face as a teacher are exacerbated in lower-income areas, we have a crisis on our hands.

I teach honors English to freshmen students and American Literature to mostly juniors, with a handful of seniors repeating the class. Even in this middle-income neighborhood, 27% of my American Literature class failed last semester (up from 10% seven years ago). Some people may be tempted to blame me as the teacher for those failures, but let me assure those naysayers that I did everything I could to help those students, but they chose not to get the help they needed. I literally begged them with tears in my eyes to let me help them. They flat out refused my help because they have either stopped caring or think they are beyond help. Even though I didn’t have any freshmen fail, I still had a number of Ds, which was unheard of in years past.

Sadly, a few of those F students dropped out of school at semester; I’m sure they had their own reasons for making that decision, but in general, school has become irrelevant for them. Both children were bright students who chose to sit in my class and do nothing, even though they were fully capable of performing every task.

In my limited experiences with middle-income students, the disengaged students are getting more dominant. I am finding them in my honors classes now as well, not just regular level classes. If No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were working, wouldn’t we see the opposite results?

Robinson makes this claim:

In some areas, 60% of kids drop out of school. There are others who are in school but are disengaged from learning.

Obviously, my numbers are lower, but any percentage of dropouts, let alone disengaged students, is unacceptable.

Robinson bases his talk on the three principles on which human life flourishes, all of which are being contradicted or actively destroyed under the current culture of education:

3 Principles on which human life flourishes:

   1st, human beings are naturally different and diverse.

   2nd, curiosity drives human life.

   3rd, human life is inherently creative.

As ridiculous as Robinson’s claim that the current culture of education is destroying these principles may seem to laypeople, I know this claim is true because I teach, and always have taught, life lessons in my classes through stories and classroom discussions. Every year I get more and more students who are starved for this type of teaching. Their ears perk up when I encourage them to be individuals; some cry when I tell them it’s okay to be different. Students stare at me in shock when I tell them I’m proud of them for asking questions because it shows that they are thinking and learning; sadly, for some, their natural curiosity has almost been destroyed. I also have students who need a lot of prompting and encouragement to find that which has been stifled for far too long: their natural creativity. I encourage doodling and out of the box thinking to solve problems, which some cannot do. Most students just want me to tell them what to do and what to think.

Robinson explains the deterioration of the first principle this way:

1st, human beings are naturally different and diverse. Education under No Child Left Behind is based on conformity, not diversity. Schools are encouraged to find out what children can do across a very narrow spectrum of achievement. One of the effects of NCLB is to narrow the focus onto the standards of things. Science and math are necessary, but they are not sufficient. A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, humanities, and physical education.

Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents, not just a small range of them. The arts aren’t important just because they improve math scores; they are important because they speak to parts of children’s being that are otherwise untouched.

Thankfully, I work at and my son goes to school in a district that has all of these things, but it’s not enough. When I went to school we had Home Economics and Life Skills courses that taught us how to cook and bake, sew, take care of children, and perform everyday tasks that made our lives a little easier. What’s ironic about this is that I had close family members who also taught me these things because the nature of family was so different 30 years ago. Today, children don’t have these classes and many don’t have that type of family around to teach them those skills.

If school districts have the arts, humanities, and physical education courses, some schools take away these “electives” if students perform poorly on any portion of the standardized tests. Parents should not allow schools to do that to their children. I know my son would never go to school if they took him out of art or music so he could get extra help in math and reading. I know he needs these important skills, but he is just developing slower than other students his age for various reasons. He cannot be punished for that fact by having the things that bring him joy eliminated from his education.

For the schools that don’t have these electives because of budget cuts or poor standardized test scores, I can’t imagine what a grim, lifeless place that must be for students.

The solution is not to take these courses away from public education, but to allow students more choices and options in life. If they are allowed to choose their own paths, they will be engaged with their education. Isn’t that the goal? We want our children to discover their talents and passions so they can become productive members of society.

Next post: 2nd principle, curiosity drives human life.