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.
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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!


  1. Robin Wait (@robinjwait)July 15, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Good post, and I agree with all 5, especially empathy and critical thinking. I might also add social responsibilty (which service is a part of) and democracy (not in the strictly political sense, but what it means to live in a democratic society, to be a democratic citizen).
    As a secondary school English and writing teacher, I like to use literature and writing to get students to explore their creativity and their critical thinking skills. To be thoughtful. I use literature and writing to teach students about "personhood," social responsibility and empathy, about ethics and morality. It can be done, without a lot of superfluous or meaningless testing. But I think that I have much more freedom as an English teacher to explore these larger themes than, let's say, a math teacher, who often has his/her hands tied by a loaded curriculum and standradized testing.
    I think there is a growing glimmer of hope for the future, however, as the new generation of educators is much more connected and much more willing to change and adapt to improve student learning.

  2. Leslie Whittington - twitter: @whittclassJuly 15, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    Great post! I would add resiliency, taught through providing learning experiences where students are free to fail and try again. I think these qualities must be taught in schools. Sadly, many student are not taught them at home and those who are need to know these qualities are valued.

    There is no doubt that the culture of education needs to change and the outcry for that is being heard in blog and twitter posts worldwide. The “how” is what I find the most frustrating. How do you change an institution? As I read your article, I am convinced that we must demonstrate these same tenets to our colleagues and students if we are to truly make a change.

    We must be innovative in presenting new tools as well as new ways of thinking.

    We must be empathetic as we are met with resistance usually born of fear; careful not to tear colleagues down or belittle them in an effort to show them something new, which would only diminish our influence with them.

    We must be resilient and continue to follow our convictions in order to make a change for current or future students and colleagues, no matter how many times we are pushed back.

    We must continue to reach out to others no matter where they are on the spectrum of educational innovation. Too often I have experienced colleagues whom I respected and knew I could learn from take on an air of superiority as they reached for those above them to meet their own needs. While this tendency is natural, it is one we must resist if we are to look outside ourselves and serve others.

    We must be critical thinkers as we connect with like-minded colleagues and together come up with ideas to affect our classrooms and our schools. Real learning comes through experience. Maybe we should start writing experience plans, instead of lesson plans.

    Lastly, I believe learning is an innate quality. The love and passion for it comes when we find something relevant to us, something we can make a connection to. We must light fires in students and colleagues by helping them find their passion. The learning will come naturally.

    As you can tell, I am passionate about this post. :) It struck a chord in me and helped me put a lot of things together that I have been mulling over. Thank you for the "experience" that I gained from your post! :)

  3. Robin,
    Thank you for your comment. Responsibility and citizenship are vital. I like your example of using literature to teach critical thinking and I share your optimism for the future. There is an educational revolution starting, and we are blazing the trail.

    Fantasic comment - it's a great post in itself. As you allude to in your comment, and as I mentioned on Plurk to someone as we discussed the post this morning, educators who "get it" need to start leading. We've been allowing those who have no vision and no educational experience set policy for too long while we complain about it. It's time for us to set the example for our students, for our colleagues, and for those outside education. I often use the metaphor that we need to change the current so that those who refuse to change are swimming upstream. Your point about resiliency and allowing students to fail is excellent, also. Failure should not be viewed as something negative, but rather as an experience that you are expected to learn from. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to share.

  4. Amen! I have one thing to add, and another question.

    Collaboration is something that needs to be taught, rather than called "cheating". Today's world has already changed to the point where this is a critical skill. It's too late already, we're far behind on that trend if we're preparing students for today's and tomorrow's jobs.

    My question is about the change that needs to take place. I don't think many can argue that it needs to happen, and many agree about what needs to happen. My question is when? I remember talking about this very subject back in the late 90's when I was still in college. Yet, nothing has changed and only pockets of schools here and there are doing what we all should be doing. What is it going to take?

    I work in the only school district in the country that was granted a waiver from NCLB mandated testing. The only difference that I can observe is that we're preparing kids for the college entrance tests rather than the state ones. We're still taking the state tests in the elementary levels. I'm met with inertia, even hostility, when I try to change the status quo. Again I ask, when?

    I'll grant my district some kudos for moving in the right direction, focusing on what matters more to kids and preparing them for careers as well as college, and even adding in a self-imposed citizenship requirement, but it is still falling way short. We haven't yet granted teachers the right to be teachers and not just masters of test preparedness.

    As a nation, there is little we can do about our situation until the law changes. As an arm of the government, we can't willingly break the law (NCLB) while also claiming to be preparing students to be productive citizens.

    We need a critical mass-a huge group of people who all agree on some fundamentals. We need to listen to the masses shouting for these 5 things (and others that our society as a whole would agree upon) and stop listening to the folks who say that the "3 R's were good enough for me".

    As a colleague and fellow plurker Kevin Honeycutt likes to say, it's time to prepare them for their future, not our past.

  5. Andy,
    Fantastic points. I couldn't agree with you more about collaboration. As for when, I believe the answer is "right now." Some of the great changes in United States and World history have happened when those who recognized injustice did something about it. High stakes standardized testing is not only bad for our educational system. It is seriously harming our children. As educators, we have done a lousy job of making this point to the public. We've been too busy complaining about our job security (which is important, but not the argument that resonates in a time when unemployment is rampant). As KH would say, politicians have done a great job "framing" things for the public. Who could argue against "No Child Left Behind" or "Race to the Top?" We need to start a "Successful Students Initiative" or something else cleverly named that includes the changes we need.

    The difference between now and the 1990's is that our country was prospering in the 90's. When you look at the state of the country right now, we are primed for an educational revolution because it is becoming crystal clear that what we are doing is not working. More and more people are coming around.