Inspiration for Transforming Education

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.  The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”  These words were spoken over 50 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the height of the industrial-age when education modeled assembly line standardization with desks in rows, teachers front and center, and students compliantly following directions and “taking” instruction.

Interestingly, nearly 20 years into the 21st century there is still a great need to remind ourselves of Dr. King’s words and the necessity to develop critical thinkers.  Our workforce moved from the industrial-age and into the information-age years ago, yet our education system often lags far behind in many areas.  To promote the long-term retention of content and the requisite thinking skills for 21st century learners, there must be movement from teacher-centered pedagogy to learner-centered pedagogy.  This will require teachers to abandon the predominate use of ‘sit and get’ strategies that are best for low-level learning.  Educators must retool and develop strategies to facilitate active learning and no longer be merely presenters of information. It takes time to “shift” instruction, but the time-clock doesn’t even begin until first-steps are taken.  If you are looking for inspiration as a starting point for creating a culture of innovation and critical thinking at your school or inside your classroom, then consider the following entry points:

  • Use of Space- Is your school/classroom set-up in such a way that it promotes and encourages collaboration and a student-centered approach?  A culture of collaboration, healthy debate, diverse perspectives, and creativity/innovation are all important in shifting the educational culture in your classroom and/or school.  It’s difficult to reach today’s students with 1950’s classrooms.  Consider taking first steps in shifting educational culture by creating environments conducive to student-centered learning.
  • Relevance & Relationships-  Consider the instruction happening in your school/classroom.  How can you teach your required standards in a connected way that brings relevance to students and builds relationships?  Students need to understand how the learning taking place in their classrooms will prepare them for their “real-world”.  There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but a few that I have found to be game-changers are school-wide themes, project-based learning, 21st century skills integration, and entrepreneurship.
    • School-wide themes:  The use of school-wide themes brings some connectedness to learning across all grade-levels within your school.  Themes can be somewhat generic, but they are a great way to build thematic units or design project-based learning units.  By publicizing your school-wide themes and sharing learning activities related to your theme, you begin to build a collaborative and unified learning culture.  If you have the opportunity to record student-led morning announcements, there are many opportunities to share your school-wide theme.  Another great addition to the “school-wide theme” concept is to utilize quotes as your themes.  For example, our quarter one, two, three, and four themes for this school year are listed below.
      • Q1-  “The things that make me different are the things that make me.”-          Winnie the Pooh
      • Q2- “If you can dream it, you can do it.”- Disney
      • Q3- “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”- Seuss
      • Q4-  “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”- Gandhi                       Not only can the use of school-wide themes bring relevance to the learning taking place at your school, themes can also teach lessons, develop character, and set the tone for your school culture.  Your school-wide themes can in essence tell your school’s story.
    • Project-based learning:  PBL is a student-centered inquiry-based approach that begins with a driving question.  With school-wide themes, the driving question can be connected to the school-wide theme.  Learning takes place THROUGH the project.  Project-based learning isn’t “doing projects”.  Remember, the goal is for students to think and problem-solve.  Using authentic PBL doesn’t happen overnight.  The process is deep and has to be developed overtime.  Authentic project-based learning requires research and professional learning.  If you are interested in incorporating PBL in your school or classroom, one great resource I have found to be very beneficial is  I am sure there are others, as well.
    • 21st Century Skills Integration- The Partnership for 21st Century Skills developed tools and resources for integration of the 21st century skills: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking.  In fact, there is even an “Educators Guide to the 4Cs” on the National Education Association (NEA) website.  A specific focus on 21st century skills assists educators in focusing less on “tools” (i.e. specific technology) and instead shifting that focus to what students are doing with tools.  Are students using tools and resources to create, innovate, collaborate, and think critically?
    • Entrepreneurial Skills-  How great would it be if we could develop young people who grow up with the skill-set to find new ways to solve old problems? How great would it be to help young people recognize the importance of grit, tenacity, and perseverance?  What if we harness the creative spirit of young people and allow them to be outside-the-box thinkers?  Teaching entrepreneurial skills to young people provides experiences that cultivate the aforementioned learner.  I recognize that not all students will grow up and start their own business, but the same skill-set required of entrepreneurs is needed for success in any profession.  When you watch 5th grade students work collaboratively in diverse teams to design solutions to environmental problems and pitch their solutions to adult mentors from real-world settings, it becomes easy to see the many benefits of teaching entrepreneurial skills.  The level of student questioning, critical thinking, communication skills, etc. is amazing when students are afforded relevant, real-world experiences that allow them to innovate, connect, and collaborate.
  • Scheduling & Educator Capacity:  Creating a culture of innovation and critical thinking cannot happen without intentional scheduling.  Once you have that really awesome collaborative space, you need to make certain it is being used!  Equity is also important.  I don’t know about you, but I want all students to benefit from a wide-variety of experiences. Through creative scheduling, every student in kindergarten through fifth grade can be afforded opportunities to code, utilize design thinking and 3D printers, create with a variety of digital tools, engage in PBL, art, and choose their own weekly electives.  Creative scheduling and building resources for this type of learning does not have to be limited to certain schools, districts, or zip codes.  Let’s provide all children with opportunities that allow them to think critically and innovate so every child has the background knowledge necessary to dream big.
    • Educator Capacity:  How can we develop students who are critical thinkers and creative if we strip all creativity from the ART of teaching?  Build teacher capacity by expecting student-centered practices and provide ample opportunities for growth.  Focus on sound instructional practices and build a collaborative culture among educators for continued learning.  For instruction to be “outside-the-box” teachers need the freedom to break “outside the textbook”.  There is little connectedness, relevance, and collaboration coming out of the side bar of a textbook.  Develop teachers who are creative and critical thinkers themselves.  Grow and learn alongside them and NEVER STOP LEARNING!

If you find yourself stuck inside a 20th century classroom, school, or district I encourage you to begin taking action toward transforming your classroom(s).  Our students deserve to be prepared for their world and future.  Just take the first step….

Take the first step

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