I am currently involved in a study group, examining ways to incorporate organizational and institutional shifts in our district. It’s a huge undertaking to even think about; there are so many stakeholders and so many expectations. Making that shift happen (and simultaneously getting everyone on board) is daunting, to say the least.
A comment from a colleague in the study group got me thinking more about the roles of students in this process. She suggested that rather than make an institutional change in our district, teachers who are ready to incorporate technology, develop project-based and learner-centered units of study should do so. Then, she continued, if students who have those teachers get a lot out of those learning environments, they will start to demand similar ones from their other teachers.
Now, I have always been a huge advocate of involving students throughout any school change because I think that when you ask them, kids have great insight to offer regarding the ways they learn. In fact, I encouraged my Semester 1 students to advocate for changes to their environments after hearing the amazing ideas they have. However, my colleague’s comment has resonated with me, and the more I consider this possibility, the more skeptical I become.
Is it possible for students to alter the way they are educated? Are the stakes too high for students to take the risk of standing up for changes they would like to see in an environment that affects them so drastically?
A student once told me that she learned at a young age that school was not really a place to think. It is a place where you learn to judge what and how your teacher wants you to think. Once you figure that out, she said, you can be successful. Questioning the teacher, the material, or the class rules are things she learned to never do if she wanted to get good grades, the ultimate measure of success for high schoolers.
We can learn a lot from that student, but I wonder if teachers will. Teachers are a stubborn bunch sometimes. I know; I am one. For the most part, we got into teaching because we excelled in a particular subject area. We like knowing a lot about that subject, and we like sharing that knowledge with others. However, that can sometimes get in the way of serving the interests of our students.
Especially early in my teaching career (and sometimes now), I will admit that I was terrified of not having all the answers and looking incompetent in front of my kids, parents, and administration. I was scared of and frustrated by inquisitive students who, I thought, could ruin a whole lesson and my credibility by simply asking questions. I thought that because I loved literature and writing and because I studied both in college and grad school, I should have all the answers. Somewhere along the way, I had learned that teachers were the masters in any class and teachers who weren’t knowledgeable weren’t respectable.
What I realize now is that I was really afraid of being exposed for what I was (and still am)—someone who doesn’t have all the answers, someone who is still exploring and learning about the literature and writing styles she instructs students about. It took a lot of study and reflection to realize that I was not requiring my kids to think, and I have slowly incorporated a lot of changes into my classroom. The most significant of those changes happened in the last two years as I let my kids in on the entire process of learning, and I showed them how I learned along with them. I embraced what I had been afraid of exposing, and I found the rewards of doing so invaluable for my students.
My biggest worry now is that inquisitive, creative students will have teachers like I was (and sometimes still am). They will be unhappy and unable to change their surroundings, to step out of their comfort zones because they could have teachers who, by no fault of their own, are still stuck in that mentality that they have all of the knowledge to impart on their students.
In almost every other real life situation I can think of, people have chances to alter their surroundings. What we often forget, though, is that our students are seldom offered the same choice.
So, I want to know what you think. Is there any way for students, our school’s greatest stakeholders, to lead an education revolution? How can they change the minds of even the most stubborn teachers? Or, is an educational shift entirely dependent on a top-down or maybe teacher-led revision?