Sunday, December 4, 2011

Education May Be for Later, but Learning is Right Now

The tact that I generally use when I have a “success chat” with a student who is not engaged in their learning often starts with how very, very short this time is that they are in school, and how very, very long the rest of their life will be. I often talk about how hard it can be to be stuck in a financial situation that isn’t working, having no job, or in a job that pays but is physically or mentally wearing, hating it every day and not having any choice in the matter. Conversely, I also talk about the positives of getting up every working day and looking forward to doing a job because it suits them, they are good at it, and they feel like they are making a difference. 

After hundreds and hundreds of these discussions, not one student has ever sat in my office and said, in their words or otherwise, that these ideas are not worth their consideration. When doing this, I am careful to maintain an even tone and a positive outlook, as it wouldn’t be helpful or respectful to use those cliches and criticisms or tell someone they have no future in an attempt to scare them into trying harder. Students listen more when spoken to positively, and I really don’t want to be that angry guy from the old Twisted Sister video, anyway.

My task then turns to convincing students that the learning needs to happen right now so these doors can stay open for later. A student needs to pass grade 9 to get to grade 10, and so on, right through to and beyond graduation and the wider choice of “summer” jobs and hopefully any of the post-secondary options that avail themselves at that point. We are all big supporters of having an educated populace and think very highly of the concept of the full liberal arts education, but those are abstract concepts to most students and don't usually help in these conversations. I tend to stick to more pragmatic reasoning.

The difference high school graduation makes to a person’s life chances, even at the minimum requirements, is staggering and worth every amount of effort it takes to support. Graduation is evidence of the willingness to learn and to carry through with a responsibility. It means mastery of some basic skills, some confidence, and a small measure of marketability. High school graduation is the first level of education where we can see a substantial increase in opportunity, and it is the gateway to the vast majority of education levels and potential career options that follow. Getting our students graduated remains the key element in every conversation and every final decision we make at our secondary school.

We also push to expand students’ options with more total course credits, more robust courses, and higher levels of achievement within those courses. Higher achievement, of course, means more choices, and motivated students will often tell me what level of achievement they need in order to “get” to get into the program they want. 

Still, all this logic still requires the willingness in students to engage in delay of gratification. They must do things right now that they sometimes don’t enjoy, so they can have the things they want later, that they hopefully will enjoy, and as much as everyone is able to understand that concept, not everyone is able to do what it takes in the meantime.

Many of the flexible programs we have built were started out of necessity as opposed to inspiration. As a small school with declining enrollment we needed to provide students with timetable choices that we could not offer using only traditional course delivery. We currently offer online courses, full courses through learning guides as well as partial courses so students can complete credits, and we are starting to look at video-conferencing. All these  options are directly supported by teacher contact time, which is essential. We also allow students to take courses out of their natural order, if there is a clear benefit, and we often have middle school students take high school courses as an enrichment opportunity. In fact, last year our top grade 10 English student was actually in grade 8! The flexible programs we have built to provide opportunities have been embraced by the students, and have absolutely helped them move forward and graduate from our school. We are also farther along the continuum for Personalized Learning than many places and though the flexible program options started mostly as a survival tactic, I can see many of the benefits in regard to engagement, and I am on board as a result.

The next step in Personalized Learning, beyond offering more choice and opportunity for students, is the steady progression in our classrooms in regard to our instructional methodology. Beyond simply doing more meaningful projects, teachers and students will need to have greater understanding of course outcomes, more flexibility to co-construct their learning, and more encouragement to share in the assessment processes. These are concepts we already see in great classrooms, but the hope is that there will be a shift from some, to most, and then eventually to all of our learning environments, and with that, a higher level of engagement for all of our students. I see Personalized Learning as a bridge between the right now of learning, and the later of education. We will be where we need to be when we no longer have to rely on will happen later to motivate our students, because the excitement of learning right now is more than enough to keep them going.

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