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As Long as We Remember...

July 5, 2011

Who’s Responsible?

Nick Diaz

A typical dining room chair has four legs placed in a position to offer optimum balance and support. Sitting on this chair requires little effort from the user.


What if someone removed the front left leg? This would require the person to use his own legs to help maintain balance. If one removed two legs, or even three, the user would have to work harder to maintain his balance and support, ultimately requiring him to support himself; to stand on his own two feet.


What if a student’s progression through middle school and high school worked in a similar manner? As an incoming 5th or 6th grader, a student is given four legs of support designed to help him be successful.


During each of the following years, a leg of support would be removed, requiring a student to learn to stand on his own. In concept, the process would ultimately make one responsible and accountable for one’s own success.


It seems, however, the current system works in the opposite way. Instead of removing legs of support, today’s educational community keeps adding legs.


When a student is doing poorly in the classroom, we blame teachers, the size of the class, the lack of technology, the cost-per-pupil ratio, the home environment….everything, it seems, except for the student.


At what point do students become responsible for their learning? Clearly, schools have a responsibility to maintain adequate balance and support for their students, but they also have the responsibility to teach them to stand on their own.


Teachers and coaches (really, one and the same) must consider whether young people are sitting comfortably in a chair with four legs, (requiring little, if any, effort on their part), or whether they are able to stand freely on their own.


It seems to me that someone planted securely in a four-legged chair is unable to move forward, while the person able to stand on his own has the opportunity and means to propel himself closer to his goals.


* * * * * * * * *


There are inconsistencies between what science knows and what schools do.


Experimentation and observation states that, if parents or teachers promise a kindergartener a fancy certificate for drawing a picture, that child will likely draw a picture…and then lose further interest in drawing.


Yet in the face of this and many similar informal observations, and as the world economy demands more non-routine, creative, conceptual abilities, too many schools are moving in the wrong direction.


They are redoubling their emphasis on routines, right answers, and standardization. They are hauling out a wagon full of “if-then” rewards:

Pizza for reading books;

iPods for showing up to class; and

Cash for good test scores.


We are bribing students into compliance, instead of challenging them into engagement.


As standardized tests have become the means for measuring student achievement, the need for remediation has become quite apparent. Unfortunately, however, schools respond to this dilemma by redoubling their efforts with the same routines that have already fallen short.


This is akin to attempting to remove a 13-mm metric nut or bolt with a half-inch SAE socket. Then, when it doesn’t work, we try again with another half-inch socket. Then, when the student becomes disinterested and frustrated because he’s attempting to be successful using the wrong tool, we apply the “if-then” reward system in an attempt to motivate him.


Why do we not recognize that we are attempting to solve the problem with the wrong tool?


Are the “standardized testing” and “if-then reward systems” effectively helping our students achieve? Perhaps we would better meet their needs if we helped them move toward autonomy, mastery and purpose in learning.


“Testing” is not the problem; it is not intrinsically bad. It is part of the whole, as each school and school system must develop its own mission and vision, led by a forward-looking principal as educational leader, (more than just a school administrator).


For students to strive toward said autonomy, mastery, and purposeful learning, the mood, the culture of the school must be established by solid educational leadership.


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