Teaching Science in Kansas: An “Aha Moment” on what is wrong with our educational system

I just spent an amazing evening with a group of Kansas science and math  educators. After a formal presentation by Kenneth Wesson on brain function and cognition, an impromptu group of interested educators met last evening to discuss how to implement some of the things we have been learning in this conference. Ken is an amazing man, and easily the best conference speaker I have heard in a very long time. He is also the first speaker I have ever seen who was willing to come back for an informal impromptu session with conference participants after the formal sessions had ended! (I heartily give the thumbs up for this man if you need a conference speaker on brain research.)

As the teachers spoke, I began to grasp what is wrong with our education system in this state; perhaps even what could be changed to improve education throughout this country.

Aha! We need to promote innovation.

If there is one thing that we could change to improve the education system, I think it would be to encourage more innovation in the classroom. Our system is designed to encourage conformity. We want our students to conform to the status-quo, and heaven help the teacher who tries to branch out and implement some new instructional methods. There is no support mechanism or reward system in place for innovative teaching. Doing it the same, safe way is what is rewarded, while those who try new methods are ignored at best, and possibly are even punished for their efforts. The end result is our teachers feel powerless.

Human beings have an innate urge to control their environment. Take away all control and you will either have a depressed or confrontational human being. Teachers feel as though they have little control over how and what they teach in the classroom. I recently asked my daughter’s teacher about the science curriculum in the first grade. We don’t really have much time for science with the emphasis on math and reading, was the reply. What?!? We are in a time of tremendous upheaval and opportunity in the world today! We are living in the most amazing time in human history, what do you mean there’s no time for science, I thought to myself. But this notion was echoed by the science teachers I heard last night. Apparently, one cannot teach reading and math while at the same time teaching science.

In listening to the science educators last evening, I got the impression that those who are trying to engage their students in experiential learning activities often go unsupported and unnoticed. If we are expecting improvements in academic performance, this isn’t how it should be. We should reward those teachers out there working hard on professional development, who are learning how to teach better and setting an example of leadership and innovation in their schools.

If I were an Obama advisor.

The time is ripe for change in this country. President-elect Obama ran his campaign on the theme of change. Mr. Obama, I have a dare for you. I dare you to unshackle teachers for a period of one year to unleash their creative solutions on the problems that plague this nation. This means a freeze on formal, government run assessments. Leave the assessment of student learning up to the professionals that we have trained and hired to teach our young people. In other words, LEAVE THEM ALONE for a whole year! Just let them teach! Good teachers pay attention to what they are doing and learn through experimentation. That is the essence of assessment. Finding out what works and what does not work.

Of course, this is a pipe-dream, and Obama doesn’t have the authority to implement what I propose. The real authority comes from our local and state elected officials. The state legislature, which allocates the funding for our schools has the real power to bring about change.

I suggest that a one-year moratorium on state reporting would be sufficient to bring about a radical change in how we teach in this state. It would free up so much time for professional development of our teachers, we would have an an amazing time of innovation in our schools.

Of course, such a proposal would meet stiff resistance. How would we have teacher and school accountability without state reporting. How could we compare our school with the one down the road?

I would argue that the model of freeing up time just to think and create is exactly the model followed by some of the best and most creative companies in the world.

Look at how the best and brightest companies treat employees. Businesses which innovate best do not weigh down talent with burdensome reporting in the name of accountability. Instead, they do all they can to encourage a release of creative energy.

For example, in my week internship at the Wichita Boeing plant (now Spirit Manufacturing) a few years ago, I participated in a weekly staff meeting. My team spent approximately 15-20 minutes on accountability where each staff member brought the team up to speed on the progress made toward personal goals. The rest of the hour meeting was spent brainstorming on ideas of how to reinvent the new company that was forming. What an amazing concept. A quarter of the time spent on accountability for the staff, and three quarters spent on innovation ideas. That was one hour out of a forty hour work week. The rest of the week, the workers were pretty much left alone to do their jobs and do them well, because they are professionals.

Can you imagine if the accountability process for teachers involved a one hour meeting once a week in which groups of ten teachers met with a team leader to discuss the goals they had set for the week?

Little Susie scored an “A” on the math test this week. She’s been really struggling, but things are finally making sense to her. To me, that is a report worth making, because it would provide an opportunity for immediate feedback from colleagues. High fives, congratulations, the works!

Instead we are obsessed with standardized achievement tests, and endless reports that rarely provide any direct, meaningful feedback to the teachers doing the hard work of teaching.

We are in the most amazing of times. The earth is flattening through technology. Paradigms are shifting. Indeed our whole notion of how to be successful through teamwork and collaboration are changing how we do work. These changes need to be implemented in our educational system if we want to prepare our students for the world in which they will live.

I have no illusion that the standardized assessments and government reporting will discontinued at any time in the near future. But I do believe that the time has come to encourage our elected officials and school administrators to start finding ways to reward creative, innovative and effective teaching.

8 thoughts on “Teaching Science in Kansas: An “Aha Moment” on what is wrong with our educational system

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  6. I was thinking about the innovation piece this morning. Never in 18 years of teaching has anyone pushed me to innovate, create, or take a risk. I have taken a long pause to reflect on that–that’s crazy. Grrrr…it just seems as though we are going backwards. There is so much emphasis on what they are suppose to recite, and no emphasis on what they can do on their own.

    Last year the district paid for 8 teachers to take the day off to add a few sentences to the curriculum because the board thought there wasn’t enough in it about the Mexican American War. That was the one problem they had with it–no sentence on the Mex-Am War.

    Is it a matter of giving people the permission to takes risks?
    Can we “legislate” innovation?
    Or does teaching just naturally draw people into it that do not innovate?
    Teachers are a group of people that decide the future of a kid by filling in a report card with a grade that reflects what they get right, and what they get wrong. We have been conditioned to believe that being wrong = bad. Many times when you take an innovative risk it will be wrong. But if wrong = bad. Not wrong = good. So good students and teachers = people who do things and don’t get them wrong. If you don’t take risks you will not be wrong. So teachers who don’t innovate = good teachers

    Crazy math, but so true. I was talking to a teacher this summer who said “I am afraid to take risks.”

    Why would innovative people choose to work in an industry that squashes innovation…and in one which does not reward innovation, but almost goes out of its way to squash it.

    I am currently reading “The Google Story” and it has really made it clear that public schools are not graduating students that ready to walk through the doors and apply for a job. Those that can seem to be getting their skills by being innovative outside of school.

  7. Paul, you pose some interesting questions here. I think that most people, including teachers, are risk averse. Humans are obsessed with minimizing the potential losses that risk implies. However, if the returns are great enough, some will innovate.

    There simply aren’t enough rewards for risk-taking in teaching for most people. Personally, I take risks because of the intrinsic rewards I get from my successes. And as a college teacher, our system is somewhat different than k-12 public schools, since we have scholarship & service added to the mix with our teaching. Our system rewards rewards innovation better, but it is not perfect either.

    Giving permission to take risks is not enough. When things work out well, we need to reward and take notice; and when things flop, we have to exercise restraint, realizing that failure is part of the process.

    You are exactly right that we condition our students to think that wrong answers=bad, and we as teachers are conditioned to think this way in our own career. Entrepreneurs would disagree with this mindset, realizing that failure is always a part of success. We have to change our mindset if we hope to improve education!

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