15 Things Students Want the Nation to Know About Education

I was pleased to see this piece in the Huffington Post a while back and finally gotten around to writing about it. As the author Lisa Nielsen says in her opening…

It’s rare for education reformers, policymakers, and funders to listen to those at the heart of education reform work: The students.

Seems to me that in most education policy statements and discussions in the media, the students are not seen so much as the clients or key stakeholders in the education process, but more like the product. I think it is important that we resist the conventional wisdom of looking at education as an institution manufacturing an educated citizenry as its “product”, whose stakeholders are not our young people, but only political and economic leaders and parents (as necessary votes to keep at least those political leaders in office).

FYI, Nielson sets the context for this list of items from K-12 students…

In fact Ann Curry, who hosted Education Nation’s first student panel, admitted folks at NBC were a little nervous about putting kids on stage. In their “Voices of a Nation” discussion, young people provided insight into their own experiences with education and what they think needs to be done to ensure that every student receives a world-class education. After the discussion Curry knew these students didn’t disappoint. She told viewers, “Students wanted to say something that made a difference to you (adults) and they did. Now adults need to listen.”

So here are each of the sentiments shared by the students as listed by Nielsen in her piece. For whatever reason, the statements are very brief and lack any detail of meaning, but given that, they still communicate some important messages that I think we adults that attempt to play a role in young people’s development need to wrestle with…

1. I have to critically think in college, but your tests don’t teach me that.

K-12 school as a developmental venue seems to have completely lost its mojo, to the point where no one trusts that a gathering of young people and adults in a building with an array of resources is going to result in any learning without constant poking and prodding. Students need to be constantly tested and their scores need to be published so society can root out the “bad schools”.

Our kids know what this game is, and it certainly is not helping them go about their business of trying to figure out the knowledge and skills they need to be successful adults.

2. I can’t learn from you if you are not willing to connect with me.

There is an old Buddhist proverb that goes something like “when the student is ready the teacher will come”. Not heeding that wisdom, we adults seem to try to keep giving kids the answers before they ask the questions. Let’s change our approach to facilitating rather than directing our kids’ education by first asking them how we can be of assistance.

3. Teaching by the book is not teaching. It’s just talking.

Kids want to engage the world, which includes getting real adults’ opinions on that world and dialogging about it. More and more I’m thinking these big ubiquitous school text books are one of the greatest impediments to the real learning process, again attempting to answer the questions before they are asked.

4. Caring about each student is more important than teaching the class.

We human beings are social animals. We are best in relationship and community with each other, rather than participating in a one-way dissemination of information that is mostly out of any real context.

5. Every young person has a dream. Your job is to help bring us closer to our dreams.

This seems to me to be the strongest call out that our young people want to direct their own development while having us adults available to be of assistance and help facilitate, rather than direct that development.

6. Even if you don’t want to be a teacher, you can offer a student an apprenticeship.

Our young people want to be in real community with us adults and contribute to the real world with their efforts before they complete 13, 17 or 20 plus years of formal schooling. I can’t imagine most of them like being “institutionalized” and cloistered away in their schools from most of the real world.

7. Us youth love all the new technologies that come out. When you acknowledge this and use technology in your teaching it makes learning much more interesting.

Our kids are well aware that electronic communication technology is the water they will continue to swim in and are generally very comfortable when they swim in that water. If we adults have something we want to share with them, the perpetual question is do we make them come to us on our terms or do we go to them on theirs.

8. You should be trained not just in teaching but also in counseling.

This refers back to item 5 above. Get to know me and what I’m all about. Don’t just talk at me… help me!

9. Tell me something good that I’m doing so that I can keep growing in that.

As 30 year veteran public school teacher (and former NYC and NY state “teacher of the year”) John Taylor Gatto says…

I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us… I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children’s power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to *prevent* children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.

Gatto as always provocative!

10. Our teachers have too many students to enable them to connect with us in they way we need them to.

Ask Bill Gates… surveys show that class size has little impact on standardized test scores, which of course are the only metric that matters these days, so what are these kids whining about! (I’m getting snarky… forgive me!)

11. Bring the electives that we are actually interested in back to school. Things like drama, art, cooking, music.

How many of us adults looking back to school days had our most memorable experiences involved in these areas? Is it okay that they are being jettisoned in favor of ever more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) classes in the face of declining school budgets? Since we make kids go to school, are we done with all carrots and will wield only sticks?

12. Education leaders, teachers, funders, and policy makers need to start listening to student voice in all areas including teacher evaluations.

A lot of the teachers I dialogue with freak out when they hear this. They argue that it is a conflict of interest for teachers to be evaluated by their students, that it will somehow warp the educational process. Teachers will be afraid to be “tough” because students won’t like it. Essentially… you can’t ask the inmates to run the asylum.

13. You need to use tools in the classroom that we use in the real world like Facebook, email, and other tools we use to connect and communicate.

This refers back to item 7. If I had to rely on my face to face conversations with my kids and not read and comment on their stuff on Facebook, I would certainly know a lot less about them than I do. And when I do get one of those wonderful opportunities to have “face time” with them, a little prior research on Facebook gives me insight on the comments to make or questions to ask to bring them out.

14. You need to love a student before you can teach a student.

This is that whole relational thread again. Human beings like to interact with other human beings that take the time to find out who they are and really care about that soul they have discovered. As long as we are going to continue to require adults to manage every aspect of a young person’s activities at school, they need to be adults that clearly demonstrate that they care about the kids they are shepherding.

15. We do tests to make teachers look good and the school look good, but we know they don’t help us to learn what’s important to us.

Circling back to item 1 here. The kids know what the game is. School is increasingly becoming an exercise in control rather than development.

I can imagine some of the teachers I know, upon reading the above, would share their sadness and frustration that though caring deeply about their students, standardization and teaching to the test has really diminished their craft. Other teachers and adults I know, would role there eyes and shake their heads and indicate that these kids are spoiled brats and don’t know what’s good for them, or what kind of harsh world is out there for them. They might go on to point out that teachers can’t be expected to compensate for neglectful parents who don’t have the time or inclination to really care about their kids.

Nielsen concludes by saying…

The students are ready to talk to us. How are we going to make time to listen and incorporate their voices into the policies and decisions that affect them?

Hers is a question of the governance model. I continue to pound the drums for transforming the hierarchical governance model used in almost all schools (democratic-free schools being a notable exception), and giving our young people a real voice as the key stakeholders in their own development.

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