What Do Our Children Need to Be Successful?

Cathy GassenheimerBy Cathy Gassenheimer

Today it seems we live in an “either-or” world. We’re either for something or against something – too busy or distracted to sift through the pros and cons of arguments and find what’s valuable and worth keeping.

This seems to be particularly true in education. In Alabama, you have to make a choice: you’re either for the new College and Career Standards or you’re against them. But what if the question changed? What if we set labels aside and started by asking: What do our children need to be successful in school, life, and citizenship?

Isn’t that what we really care about?

The patterns of learning have changed

I’m old enough to remember the times before desktop or laptop computers, Google, cell phones, and other innovations of the Digital Age. When I needed to “search” for something, I went to the card catalog at the library or the World Book Encyclopedia.

Back then, we seemed to believe that there was a finite amount of knowledge to learn — and that being told about that information (often via a textbook) and memorizing it at school would prepare us well for college, career, and life.

Well, learning facts is certainly part of the equation. To be successful students and citizens, we need to have the capacity to memorize some basics, to know and understand key concepts, to have the “prior knowledge” necessary to make sense of new things.

On the other hand, we do now have Google and other apps that can connect us immediately to information by a simple touch or click. That has become a game changer. In addition to possessing core knowledge, we now need to take what we know and be able to do something with it!

Students need learning that lasts

When you listen to college professors or business leaders, they tell you about the need for their students and/or employees to be able to take what they’ve learned in school and apply it to the situation at hand.

To be able to do that, students need to participate in their learning. Everyone learns best and remembers most when they are figuring things out. School should not always be just listening to a teacher tell us about what we need to learn. This is well described in a video-enriched article by Libby Woodfin, co-author of Learning That Lasts (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2016).

Students not only need to memorize the multiplication table, but they need to know how to use multiplication in practical ways. They need to understand how to put math to work, not just how to recite the formulas. They need what Harvard’s Ron Heifetz calls “adaptive expertise,” where they are expected to apply what they learn outside of the classroom to solve real-world problems.

That requires an augmented type of learning that builds on the way many of us learned in school. Students need to understand the “why” of learning. That requires that both teacher and students hold high expectations for themselves.

Take a few minutes to watch this video, Austin’s Butterfly. If you’re like me, you’ll be amazed at the first graders’ level of discourse and understanding when they are given a chance to participate in their learning.

What if we were 21st century students?

So, let me invite those of you who are reading this blog to think differently. Think about how you would like to learn if you went back to school. Would you want to sit passively listening to a teacher talk all day long? Or read a chapter and answer the questions at the end?

Or, would you like to actively engage in learning with your teacher and your fellow students, taking a concept and relating it to something that is important – understanding it so deeply that you’ll be able to use it throughout your school career and your adult life?

Alabama teachers and students are ready for this kind of teaching and learning. In fact, in many Alabama classrooms, you can see something very much like Austin’s Butterfly going on. But we still have too many students sitting passively as the teacher does most of the hard work.

To make active, engaged learning the norm, we need to invest in our educators and students — both in our words and through our time and treasure. Like doctors, educators need ongoing access to research and best practice. Students need caring, well-prepared and fully supported teachers.

And we need to recognize that our most vulnerable students require extra support to learn successfully. It’s harder to learn when one is hungry or needs glasses or is homeless. We have the ability to meet these needs if we put aside labels and join together to support what we can prove works for our kids.

Our standards provide the framework for improving learning, but it’s up to us to ensure that teachers and students are given the tools they need to thrive.

As we saw in Austin’s Butterfly, every student can be challenged to learn more and be successful. Won’t you join us in making education in Alabama better for today’s and tomorrow’s students?

Consider making a gift of support to extend the work of the Alabama Best Practices Center and the A+ Education Partnership. We can do so much by setting aside labels and putting the future of our children first.