Sunday, February 3, 2013

We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For

"What do we want the students we teach to be like as adults?"

This question is at the base of the research conducted by Ron Ritchhart and Project Zero at Harvard University. The responses he has received from educators are rather consistent. Rather than content knowledge, educators indicate that they want students to be inventive, risk-taking, responsible, compassionate, creative, reflective, meta-cognitive, and skeptical. These dispositions, coupled with thinking skills and abilities, produce good thinkers. If this is what we envision for our students, Ritchhart poses, how do we create schools that develop good thinking?

Good thinking is developed by students being able to communicate their ideas and by interacting with one another. It occurs in classrooms and schools where everything about the culture communicates the importance of wondering, noticing, and problem-solving.

While not likely to gain political attention, there is an important finding here. Ritchhart and colleagues have found that when student are immersed in "Cultures of Thinking," their scores on standardized achievement tests go up.

In the last post I talked about the positive effects of authentic intellectual work. Authentic intellectual work is considered to be assignments or activities that require students to use higher-order thinking skills and to gain in-depth understanding. This work also involves elaborate conversation, such as structured dialogue or extended writing. Finally, the work is directly connected to the lives of the students; there is a real-world relevance.

This research was conducted in the Chicago Public Schools system five years after the district made extensive reform efforts. Researchers found that when teachers required students to do authentic intellectual work, students performed better on standardized achievement tests.

These two studies, vastly different in student populations and locations, have two fundamental elements in common: complex sophisticated thinking and extensive social interaction. Students dig deep to find answers, engage with one another in doing so, and learn how to navigate the world outside the school. Students develop these strong communication and deep thinking skills, and their achievement scores on standardized tests go up. The absolute most powerful thing here is that students leave schools with abilities, skills, and attributes needed to lead successful lives. How can these efforts be anything but our moral imperative?

"What do we want the students we teach to be like as adults?"

I recently had the pleasure and honor of working with twenty or so high school students, helping them develop stronger reading skills when faced with informational text. These students were enrolled at what I call the "alternative" alternative high school. This school is the literal last stop in the K-12 experience for 150 or so students enrolled. These students have been failed by our K-12 system, have suffered unimaginable life circumstances, were court ordered, or a combination of insurmountable challenges. So many of these students had or were living stories that would make most of our complicated, messy lives look very manageable. Most importantly, this is the last opportunity for many of these students to develop what it takes to be successful in life, guided and coached by committed, talented educators.

Despite my charge to improve their reading ability, the need was far greater than literacy. Many of these students were so used to persistent and immediate crisis that they had little skill in being strategic, weighing options, and being discerning; they were living life in survival mode. The students with whom I worked never had the experience of elaborate verbal communication. Just having them learn to write about their thinking was so very difficult for most of them. While I know I made a difference, it was with such few numbers, and the need is so great. The talent and the commitment of those teachers and administrators in this building is more than commendable.
However, this school is not unique, and unfortunately, we have far too many schools with similar stories. With this incredible body of research that shows the powerful effects of students developing complex thinking skills and strong social  skills, why aren't we taking this knowledge and implementing these efforts in the places and with the students that need us the most?

What a difference it would make in day-to-day or in international interaction if we had growing numbers of people that have the attributes of responsibility, compassion, risk-taking, and creativity-  and are able to engage in sustained, elaborate conversations in resolving problems.

The bonus here is that as we develop students with complex thinking and social interaction skills, they will produce the increased standardized scores that policy makers find so very appealing.

I read an op ed piece yesterday by a former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools. He challenges educators to formulate and advocate for a school reform effort of our own. In short, educators are silent in this national conversation.

I accept this challenge and am ready to begin the reform effort now. I know that many of you are right beside me. Without additional research, international comparison, other meaningless assessments, and new academic standards, I propose that our vision for reform be based on this question:

"What do we want our youth to be like as adults?"

With a clear vision, we will identify and remove those structures, laws, policies and any other impediments that will prevent our success. We will restore those resources that have allowed us to be powerful educators, including mental health personnel, fine arts programs, and physical education at all levels and every day. We will be indiscriminate about the students we enroll, asking only that the student and the family is in partnership with our efforts. We will find one of the many empty school buildings in this nation and begin - one building at a time.

These buildings are located in communities, and we cannot do this in isolation from those communities. Unlike the national reform effort folks, educators understand that communities have unique needs, just as our students have unique needs. We will take into account those needs as we keep the driving question in front of our every move.

We will use our knowledge, passion, experience, and research to create schools that teach students how to be good thinkers and strong communicators. Because we know that will bring success, that learning is possible - and at depths we have only really dreamed of reaching.

It is time to begin. We are the ones we've been waiting for.