A couple of days ago, I was asked what I thought was wrong in our nation’s elementary schools. Although I spend a great deal of time wondering about how to improve teaching and learning, I had never considered the question from that perspective. I guess I’m a glass half full kind of gal. Yet after thinking about this over the past few days, I think that many of the challenges facing our nation’s elementary schools are the same ones facing our secondary schools.
1. Teachers working in isolation – despite the apparent camaraderie in many elementary schools, teaching is in essence a solitary profession. You step across the threshold and get to be master of your own universe. More structures to promote authentic and learning based collaboration need to be implemented.
2. Teachers are generalists – elementary teachers usually have a liberal arts background with limited expertise in a variety of subjects. Most don’t consider themselves to be writing, math, history or science specialists. Most districts realize this and they mandate particular programs that are “foolproof” to implement. Some teachers even prefer/rely on these programs since they have so many different subjects to prepare for. The problem is that most of these programs are direct instruction oriented and one size fits all.
3. The permeating belief that skills must be taught in isolation before students apply the skills. I hear the “we have to teach them the basics before we can do projects” argument all the time. This results in the overuse of meaningless readers and super simple drill and kill types of assignments in math and other subjects. Project Based Learning can and should be implemented in elementary schools more often.
4. Confusion between thematic and interdisciplinary instruction – Many think that if you do a rainbow story, read the chapter on rainbows in the science book, make a rainbow in art class that they are “integrating” instruction. What is missing is relevance and rigor. Why do rainbows matter? Why should one study rainbows? What do we already know about rainbows? What are the essential scientific understandings that students should be able to discuss..interdisciplinary instruction uses essential understandings and questions to anchor units so that they include meaningful work across all the disciplines.
5. Lack of emphasis on the affective curriculum – if kids are shut down and they don’t feel safe, they don’t learn. Period. Teachers should spend several weeks building the classroom into a functioning learning community so that students feel a sense of ownership and a sense of peace that their ideas, words and actions matter. The Responsive Classroom Model or the Tribes approach provide good guidance in this area.
6. Casting aside of the arts – As Sir Ken Robinson points out, as children get older, we progressively educate from the neck up. The visual and performing arts allow us to educate the whole child while tapping into and strengthening their physical, spiritual and emotional intelligence.
7. One size fits all approach to both teaching and professional development – There is a perception that all third graders need to be taught the same skills and content. If a child has already mastered the skills and content, they aren’t challenged. If they haven’t mastered the skills and content, they feel inadequate. The direct instruction model perpetuates one delivery mode and makes it difficult to differentiate. This applies to drive by professional development as well.
8. Too many external demands – accreditation, NCLB, state testing, serving on committees, coaching, district mandates etc. all hang over the heads of our nation’s teachers and arguably serve as a distraction to improving teaching and learning.
9. Not enough emphasis on inquiry – we need to teach our students to be curious and to ask great questions. Students quickly figure out that the teacher is the only one allowed to ask questions and that there is usually one right answer. This is a tragedy as our nation needs students who can ask the right questions at the right time. We must simultaneously teach questioning skills and emphasize open-ended questioning in our thinking. The inquiry cycle approach to learning should be taught to all teachers and students.
Granted not all teachers and/or elementary schools are created equally and there are definitely exemplary exceptions in all of the above mentioned areas. However the sad truth is that the challenges outlined here are being faced by amazingly gifted educators across our country every day. It’s time to wake-up and realize that the answers to our nation’s educational challenges do not lie in more testing and more government intervention. It would be much more prudent to rely on what we know about how children learn best including the latest brain research and social learning theory. By leveraging teacher knowledge through the use of networked learning and trusting their expertise and instincts about how children learn best through the use of collaborative inquiry and protocols, we could radically transform the educational experience of millions of children so that they come home each day revitalized, engaged and inspired to learn more.