Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Educational Musings

Undoubtedly the first of many I'll end up writing here.  My mind often wanders around the questions of how I can better serve the needs of my students and the future needs of our society, and how the system as a whole could be improved.  I probably will not write all of the thoughts I mulled over right now, but I'll touch on a few.

This afternoon I let my mind meander that thought field for a few hours uninterrupted.  It's really fascinating to see where all a mind will go when allowed to wander freely in pursuit of a question, as all manner of seemingly disparate thoughts suddenly become connected in ways that they have never connected before.  As I allowed myself to do this, it occurred to me that this is one of the elements of deeper learning, critical thinking, and creativity that simply does not happen in the current public school system.  Students are never allowed to, let alone encouraged and given time to let the mind wander in search of answers.  As an educator, I know the reasons, and I'm as guilty as the next teacher of hurrying my students along, lest anyone get bored and start causing trouble.  Nevertheless, I am saddened by this.  Of course, to all outward appearances, I did not seem to be thinking deep thoughts - I seemed to be coloring.  That's right, coloring.  The problem with letting students really let their minds wander is that you are not quantitatively accomplishing anything with a measurable result.  And you cannot prove that students are actually using that time to ponder anything useful.  In today's educational climate, it'll just never happen, because it would be seen as a waste of time.  But I do not feel like I wasted time this afternoon.  At this point, I should caution that this post will not be organized neatly - it too will wander.

In defense of allowing, encouraging, and providing time for students' minds to wander:  problem solving is not always neat, easy, or even a logical step by step process.  In fact, creative problem solving is often more organic than linearly rational.  Rational problem solving strategies are worthwhile also and are very helpful, especially when you find yourself stuck, or need to verify the results of your solutions...but rational and logical strategies are not the be-all end-all of problem solving.  Creativity is important, and creativity often requires time to let connections form, particularly "illogical" connections. But I think the most important part of this insight is that many problems are just not simple enough to solve quickly and neatly.  Solving complicated problems (like, for economic recession, or how to maintain or expand infrastructure efficiently, or how to reorganize the school system for the 21st century) takes time in order to let all the pieces fall into place, and time to let the mind run through several possible results, and time to imagine how something might work.  Most people are not that great at sitting still and thinking, however...most people need to have their hands doing something while they think.  It comes out as doodling, or coloring, or knitting, or exercise, or daydreaming, or any number of other activities that one can do while really focusing on something else intently.  Sometimes thinking hard looks an awful lot like doing nothing productive.  Of course, one could also just as easily really be doing...nothing productive.  Always a possibility.  Nevertheless, complicated problems take time and reflection and imagination to solve...but we aren't teaching students how to approach these sorts of problems (or the patience needed for the process of really deep thought).  Students are increasingly getting less time for mind wandering at home too, as their days get more and more taken up with public, social, busy activities.  After school activities are great, but everyone needs downtime...time to process.  Ideas need to have time to sink in, like a good marinade.  In order to get the soaked in good flavor, you have to let it sit for awhile.

Another thing I have noticed with my students is how much they crave one on one adult attention.  That's not a news flash, of course, but it bears mentioning.  In education we are constantly admonished for not knowing our students well enough to recognize their individual needs and minister to those needs when possible, that we must differentiate our instruction and authentically engage as much of our classes in the learning as possible all the time.  That's a good bit of jargon for one sentence, but even those outside of education will understand that when you have 22+ children to 1 adult in the room...your chances of realistically accomplishing this in every lesson are very slim indeed.  Particularly once you remember that the teacher is human, and the students are human children (who are notoriously adorable and perceptive but also erratic and irrational).  Mass producing education in an assembly line fashion is historically a rather newfangled idea - for most of history, education has been a very low student to teacher ratio type of thing.  Of course, for most of recorded human history only the wealthy or the powerful were provided an education even remotely as comprehensive as what we currently attempt, and most of the world population was left illiterate, regardless of the time period, culture, or location on the planet.  Student to teacher ratio is incredibly important.  Meaningful conversations can only take place when you can really focus on a single person, or at best, a small group.  Any more than a small group and you end up talking AT them, not WITH them.  Even as adults, we need real conversations with those older than ourselves, as well as our peers, and those younger than us also.  There's even a term for this in child development - it's called scaffolding.  We learn from people in all three groups, although the purpose differs depending on which person in the relationship you are...but in all cases scaffolding is a symbiotic relationship.  We need those older than us to provide role modeling and guidance.  We need our peers to provide constructive criticism and support.  We need those younger than us to provide inspiration and a fresh perspective.  Our society, and our school system, places the most emphasis on the peer relationships by keeping us most constantly corralled with those in the same place we are...but those are not the people we learn the most from.  Children, in particular, crave having a steadfast adult role model and teacher - in the form of a parent, a schoolteacher, another relative, another caretaker, etc.  In truth, children really need more than one, if for no other reason than to witness that no two people approach things the same way, and that most of life's issues have more than one right answer, or at least more than one way to reach the right answer when there is only one.  But you have to be able to have a real conversation where you can really listen to them on a regular basis...which is very very difficult when you must maintain part of your attention always on the other 20 people in the room to maintain safety.  Also, students need to have real thinking and problem solving modeled for them in real, day to day situations.  They need the opportunity to ask questions, most importantly, "WHY?", and be able to get an answer when possible.  So often I run into the problem of just not having enough of me to go around, and not enough time.  I also wonder how many discipline problems we would avoid by simply having enough adults to really attend to the students fully.  How many lives would we save?  How many bullies would we prevent?  How many geniuses would we nurture? do we get more adults meaningfully involved in the process?

My question right now is:  how do we make the ratio of students to teachers more balanced while maintaining financial solvency in the school system, make the most of the infrastructure already in place, liberate teachers to assist students in gaining the thinking and problem solving skills they really need to have a successful life and use the best of current research on how humans learn to make it efficient, alter teacher training programs to make the needed shifts, and do all this in a timely and cost efficient manner?  In other words, how do we fix this and make it really work for what we really need to grow into a better society?  And what role does technology play in this solution? 

Not a question one can solve without taking the time to let the creative mind wander, now is it?  But these are the kinds of questions that we need to be asking ourselves, and the kinds of questions we need to train our students to ask and solve, if we are going to get through the myriad crises that our world faces right now triumphantly.  Go ahead, just try and tell me that the rigor rate in my brain was not high up on Bloom's taxonomy while I "colored" this afternoon.  ;-)  Something worth pondering.  I'll write more later.  I don't have a definitive answer yet, of course, but my brain is working on an idea, and it's one of the more practical ones I've had yet on the subject.  (I've had some pretty impractical solutions to the same question cross my mind over the years)  Goodnight world!

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