Monday, October 01, 2007

Our Conversations Can Start With Questions

Nothing shapes our journey through life so much
as the questions we ask.
Greg Levoy

What are the important questions teachers, schools, and leaders in education should be asking themselves?

Are we “preparing” students as life long learners or merely “preparing” them for future schooling in “higher” institutional settings?
If we believe that:

The object of education is to prepare the young
to educate themselves throughout their lives.

Robert M. Hutchins

Are we doing the work we need to do as teachers?

I, honestly, spend a lot of effort “preparing” my students for future grades in hopes that my efforts and more schooling will cumulatively fuel their growth as lifelong learners. While it is clear to me that “preparing” students for future grades inherently includes preparing them as learners, I am not sure how their future teachers will envision their roles.

There is a neurophysiologic basis for constructivist teaching and yet many teachers persist in teaching as if it is their job to “impart knowledge.” How do we shift teachers’ view of their role to one that supports students in learning how to think and to one that helps students’ learn how to learn?

How is it that eons ago schools decided upon “reading, writing, and arithmetic” as areas of focus and haven’t changed that much!? Perhaps we have really shifted how we teach reading, writing and math, and yet, are we limiting our thinking and approach by using the same old categories designated in the days of imparting knowledge?

If our goal is to prepare students as life long learners, there are lists of the skills positively associated with the process of learning. Arthur Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind could all be labeled lifelong learning skills. Here is the list he developed with Kallick:

· Persisting
· Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
· Managing impulsivity
· Gathering data through all senses
· Listening with understanding and empathy
· Creating, imagining, innovating
· Thinking flexibly
· Responding with wonderment and awe
· Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
· Taking responsible risks
· Striving for accuracy
· Finding humor
· Questioning and posing problems
· Thinking interdependently
· Applying past knowledge to new situations
· Remaining open to continuous learning

When I go over that list, I realize which “habits of mind” I try to foster subject by subject and yet, am I giving students the feedback they need and how am I assessing their “progress” and my success? If we value these habits of mind, how do we hold ourselves accountable to fostering their growth? Are there ‘habits of mind’ that are missing from this list?

Many of these habits of mind inherently demand slowing down, taking time, and pausing to be reflective. Deep listening takes time and full presence. Creativity and imagination usually suffer with a tight time schedule. While we practice silence in Quaker Meeting, are we finding times throughout the day to bring that calm back? Do we ourselves take time to pause and reflect?

Our lives and the current lives of our students and parents seem to be running at a faster and faster pace. Not only that, it seems to me as a teacher today, the times demand that I expose kids to moral issues, ethical questions and spiritual ideas as well because I am old enough to see the shadow side of the competition, consumerism and technology, all of which can get ahead of deeper thought.

Aren’t gratitude, kindness, hope, grace, forgiveness and compassion all basic to being human? And are these cultivated or learned ways of being that school can influence? Don’t we all need to work for justice, a free and fair world, where oppression and inequality no longer exist, and for peace? Service certainly is part of thinking interdependently and it has to include developing a deep sense of reverence for the interconnectedness of all life on this Earth.

‘The “salvation of this human world,” Havel once said to the US Congress, “lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.” All is not lost if we will resist the forces that conspire to disabuse us of what we know to be right and human and true. Hence the works of educators is no less than the salvation of this world.’ Diana Chapman Walsh (college president)

It is no wonder that the job of being a teacher feels overwhelming! And yet, this is the calling many of us are trying to answer. There are many dimensions to growing our hearts as individuals and as global citizens. Simply stated, becoming a teacher is a lifelong process of growing ourselves to be whole for the “work” at hand.

At a good school teachers and students are jointly engaged in a search for truth, in what Quakers call continuing revelation. Students greet the school day with enthusiasm. Teachers and administrators are there to guide, to respond, to teach, and to learn. They hold high expectations for their students, knowing that students work toward expectations. And as good teachers grapple with improving the intellectual abilities of their pupils, they also work to provide a climate of sensitivity to the human condition, to ensure that our most personal gift, the gift of our minds, is used in a generous spirit for worthy goals. A good school’s overriding aim is to help each student respond to the best that is in him or her. Robert Smith, Former SFS Headmaster

How do we keep striving towards the best?

We teach by being life long learners ourselves. We can serve as role models of continuous learning- by staying relentlessly open to ideas in search of the truth to make learning come alive for our students.

I look forward to continuing our conversations over dinner at monthly meetings and I also hope many will feel inspired to contribute their thoughts to this collaborative blog.

It Is I Who Must Begin

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try –
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying that things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
– to live in harmony
with the ‘voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
– as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

-Vaclav Havel