Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday's Five - What We Should Be Teaching

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with others, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of the page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook Page with others.  Each post has a "Tweet" button on top and buttons on the bottom that allow you to share in several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.
Chris Poulin/USFWS
Ask a parent what qualities they want to see in their children when those children become adults.

Ask a teacher what qualities they want to see in their students when they graduate high school.

Ask your neighbor what qualities they want to see in the next generation of young adults that will be living in the neighborhood.

Ask a businessperson who is looking to hire someone to work at their business what qualities they want in their employees.

I can guarantee that none of them will respond that they are hoping young adults will be able to find the main idea of a passage, identify the author's purpose for writing a poem, or be able to calculate the mean of a series of random numbers without context.  With that in mind, today's post will focus on five subjects that are largely ignored in schools today due to the culture of standardized testing and the push for "accountability."  I don't think that one can argue that a focus on the following five areas in schools would not be beneficial to our students, our communities, our country, and the world as a whole.  If our students were "proficient" in these areas, everything else would take care of itself.

  1. Innovation - We are robbing students of motivation and an understanding of what they are capable by forcing them to only perform tasks related to multiple choice questions on reading and math (those terms are used loosely) tests.  It used to be that "creating" meant that students would glue cutouts from a magazine in a shoe box.  Now, technology gives students the ability to share what they've learned in many ways instantly.  Their writing can be published instantly on a blog for the world to read.  Their videos can teach children thousands of miles away.  The possibilities are vast and numerous, and we need to take advantage of them.  
  2. Empathy - The ability to understand others emotions and be compassionate is something that is rarely focused upon and is of paramount importance for our students.  There are numerous studies that show that empathy and success in business are closely linked.  A Google search for "empathy and success" produces over 770,000 results.  Even more important than business success, however, is the fact that being able to empathize makes one more able to help others.  
  3. Service - In my experience, nothing gives a person a feeling of self-worth and a satisfaction of having filled one's purpose more than the act of helping others in need without expecting a reward in return.  We should be giving our students opportunities and encouraging them to find ways to provide service in areas about which they feel strongly.  
  4. Critical Thinking - This crucial skill, which is closely related to innovation, is the one that has been most ignored due to our current standardized testing craze.  There is simply no way to truly measure the ability to problem solve and think critically on an easily scored multiple choice assessment.  Teachers don't demand critical thinking because they don't have time; they are forced to teach students to interpret test questions that measure low-level thinking skills instead.  Teaching critical thinking takes time, leads to unpredictable lessons, and puts students in control - all things which are frowned upon in many of our schools.
  5. The Love of Learning - We have to stop using our schools as places where we fill students' heads with facts.  Unfortunately, most of what we teach can be Googled in less than 30 seconds on their phone, which too often we won't let them take out of their pocket.  Our students have figured this out and largely find school to be irrelevant.  I wish I could say that they are wrong.  We need to start using schools to show them the power of learning.  If we combine the above four subjects and teach our students to empathize with others, allow them to find ways to help others they can become passionate about, and give them opportunities to develop their creativity and critical thinking skills, what we will start to see is students who take control of their own learning.  They will learn without us asking them too.  How often do we hear complaints that students don't study?  What if they were so engaged and passionate about a topic that they didn't view learning outside of school as studying, but rather as necessary to fulfill a desire deep inside of themselves?  
Is what I describe above possible?  Yes, but not in a culture based on assessment and test scores.  It's being done right now in several amazing schools.  Unfortunately, those schools are the exception.  We need to change the culture of education so that this type of education is what is expected.  What if we defined success by the positive impact we have on others rather than by how many low-level thinking questions one answers on a once-per-year assessment? 

Now it's your turn.  Are there any important skills that you think we are not teaching our students?  What are some ways we could teach these topics in our schools?  Should schools be teaching the above qualities?  Would our society be better served if we left the development of these qualities to parents and continue focusing on reading and math?  Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below, and share the blog with friends and colleagues.  We'd love to hear their opinions as well!