Shifting our Focus

The following blog post was written for the Lethbridge Herald, April 03, 3019.

Sometimes it is very difficult to let go of the past. It is comfortable, even though we know that it is likely remembered far better than it was actually lived. Similarly, we often hold on to our traditional beliefs about schooling and education. Traditionalists like to say, “If it was good enough for us, it is good enough for them.” The truth is that in many cases the education of the past wasn’t good enough for most and, given the complexity of our society, we can no longer view the world through only our own eyes. We are simply failing our children if we chose to remain in that paradigm of thinking.

There was a time when power was held by those who had the knowledge. Students needed to be in school to learn that knowledge because it wasn’t universally accessible. But now knowledge is universally accessible. So where does that leave us in education? Smarter was defined as those who could score better, which meant those who could regurgitate the knowledge back in the form of some test. Google has recently stated that GPAs are worthless criteria for hiring, yet we continue to sort students based solely on their ability to give us back what we gave them in the first place. The ability to memorize, though not a bad skill in itself, was in high demand. The rewards we have provided have not been about the learning, but rather the grades received.

Research would say that the reward of grades or that type of external motivation for most students is quite dangerous. According to the Hechinger Report on intrinsic motivation in the classroom, “one of the consequences is that students stop challenging themselves for fear of trying something hard and failing at it.” The carrot and stick method of motivation is not only archaic in today’s society, but harmful in our schools, organizations and governments. We need to find ways to motivate students intrinsically because that leads to higher student engagement.

According to Gallup, student engagement continues to fall as students become less interested in what they are learning. In the 2016 Gallup Student Poll, 74% of grade 5 students were engaged with school, while only 34% were in grade 12. Why is this important? Because there is a link between engagement and academic growth and post-secondary readiness. Even more important is that those disengaged students are almost 7.5 times more likely to feel discouraged about the future and students without hope often don’t have a successful future!   

During my 10-year tenure as Superintendent of Schools for Holy Spirit, we’ve tried to focus less on simply remembering the dots and more about connecting the dots. Our high schools, through the redesign process, have looked at flex opportunities and course design to engage students through more hands-on problem solving activities. We are being creative in what we offer to students in terms of investigative options at the junior high level and more STEM and STEAM programming at the elementary level. The freedom to do things differently within our schools has produced some great student engagement growth and our achievement has not suffered.

We live in an area that has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Alberta.  One in five students are not ready for kindergarten. Yet, as seen in our last Accountability Pillar survey, our division’s three-year averages outperform the province’s in 13 out of 16 categories.  This demonstrates that we don’t have to do what’s always been done and compromise excellence. Today’s students deserve a freshness in their schooling and parents deserve assurances of high quality learning. But that freshness and that assurance won’t come without the continual shift in our beliefs in education and our practices in schools.   

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    • Del Sheehan on April 3, 2019 at 9:36 AM
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    This is really good Chris.
    Del Sheehan

    1. Thanks Del! I think this is such an important discussion to have in education today and maybe no better time that with an election being front and center.

    • Paul on April 3, 2019 at 9:46 PM
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    Great article Chris. I am pleased to see that great leaders such as yourself are still standing strong on deep learning and not succumbing to the current narrative of “back to the basics”.

    1. Thanks Paul. I appreciate your comments and know that you did the same while in your previous role and continue to advocate for such in all of your work.

    • Duane Pike on April 9, 2019 at 1:18 PM
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    Awesome article, Chris!

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