Friday, July 22, 2011
How will student achievement be improved?
Think of learning in school as an onion.
1. At the very center of the onion of learning is the question, what is the student doing? Learning can't be imposed on someone. It's something that we do for ourselves. So if learning is to happen in schools, it will or won't happen depending upon what the student is doing. Most importantly, the student must be paying attention to the situation or information in order to learn it. Unfortunately, the learning-by-osmosis theory doesn't work. If student achievement is to improve, it must improve here.
2. A layer out from the center is the learning activity that the teacher has designed. Much of the art of teaching happens right here at the learning activity. The learning activity creates the challenge and environment for students that will engage them in the process of learning so that they will do the real work, the learning, on their own. The teaching art at this layer is not only to engage students, but to engage them in the knowledge and skills that they are there to teach. While teachers and schools cannot control student engagement and hence, learning, they can nurture it. In this way, teaching is more like gardening than manufacturing. It is at this layer, learning activities, that schools and teachers have the greatest effect on improving student achievement.
3. The third layer from the center is where teachers determine how they will expose students to the knowledge and skills students are there to learn. Will they simply tell the students what they need to know? Telling is simplest in terms of preparation, but one of the least effective for learning because the student's role is to sit quietly and listen (or not). That student activity is unlikely to result in effective learning. Also in this layer, teachers decide how to parcel, structure, scaffold and model the new knowledge and skills as well as check for student understanding. Considering improving student achievement, this layer mainly represents an opportunity to mess up. If the students are overloaded with information, can't connect it to what they already know or are confused by disorganization, learning will be impaired.
4. The next layer out is, what to teach? These days, this is largely determined by state learning standards. It must also consider alignment with what students have learned in previous years and what will be expected in future classes and after graduation. This layer is extremely important and controversial. On one hand, there are those who insist that facts specified in learning standards are the goal of student achievement. On the other, many say that in the era of the Internet, facts are readily available but skills for problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity are where improvements in student achievement need to focused. And others say that while problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity are indeed valued skills, we can do little to teach students to be better problem-solvers, critical thinkers or be more creative. While this layer is very important with regard to improving student achievement, there is disagreement about the path toward improvement.
5. The next layer out is the general school environment. Is the school well equipped and well maintained? Are the teachers and staff friendly, welcoming, optimistic and non-threatening? Is it safe? Do students feel secure and valued? Improvements at this layer can do a lot to foster student achievement. Improvements at this level are strongly influenced by the school and district leadership. If a school is a mess, unfriendly, uninspiring or unsafe, only the school or district leadership can turn it around. Neglect at this layer can drag student achievement down.
6. The outer layer of our onion addresses the question, how is learning valued by parents and society? We can improve student achievement by enlisting the support of parents for learning. And we can improve student achievement where the culture generally celebrates learning, contribution and service rather than fame, consumption, leisure, pleasure and wealth. While one school is unlikely to change our culture, it does have the power to selectively shine a light on models that we hope students aspire to emulate.
Continuous improvement toward higher levels of student achievement can and should occur at many layers surrounding the students. And while they are all important, let's keep in mind that it is most important to occur at the very center where the student is doing the learning.
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