Learning from What Doesn’t Work for Students

One of the blessings of my work is that I work with so many different schools and districts that I can garner so many great ideas from their learning and leadership. Recently, one of these school districts started the day off with having a panel of students that “traditional school” had seemingly failed. These students currently were in situations with alternative options that were working for them. A favorite quote of mine is, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” from Bill Gates. Listening to these students share their struggles set a tone for the day for all of the adults to center their work. Too often, when we have student panels, we ask students where “school” worked great for them. Although we can learn much from success, we do have to learn from where we have let our students down.

Here are a few things that I learned from these students during this conversation:

1. Relationships are everything.

Many of the students had shared that they had gone through some personal struggles and that they couldn’t keep up with school. They reminded the group that they needed to be seen as “people first and students second.” One student had mentioned that in their new setting that one teacher, who had never taught her in any class, said hello to her every morning and knew her name. She acknowledged that this simple gesture had made such a difference for her. It reminded me of the importance of seeing all students in our schools, whether we teach them or not are our students and a simple greeting as you pass by can mean everything. Her words validated why “relationships” are at the “core” of the work that we do in education, with both students and colleagues.

This leads to the next point.

2. The value of relationships lessened as they grew older.

As students grow older and content gets heavier in school, there seems to be less of a focus on relationships, and seemingly as a correlation, a lesser interest in the school experience. I know this is not the only factor, but I do believe it plays a part for many. At the older levels where there are more “content specialists,” it is harder to connect with students as you could see over 100 students, if not more. Building these relationships when we see so many students may seem hard, but it doesn’t mean we don’t try. Many educators I know at the middle and high school level do a great job building relationships with students in and out of their classrooms despite the barriers they face.

One of the things that I discussed with the group after the students left is how could we change the structure of high school where classes are longer in a day but for a shorter duration of the year. Some schools are doing this right now and not only does it allow you to know your students better, but it also gives you more time to dive deep into learning while helping shift the structure of the classroom. It would be tough to lecture for 3-4 hours a day to the same group, whereas if you only have 45-60 minutes, the time frame almost lends itself to this process. What is essential to understand is that content is relevant and lecturing is not a bad thing. But when you see students for only a short time every day, it is hard to “create” when there is little time to deliver the necessary content in the first place.  

Many high schools have a structure similar to what I had as a student (five classes in the day for about an hour). But when teachers were the sole source of information, was that perhaps the best way? When teachers currently are an important, yet not the only source of information students have access to, is there a better format of how we can structure these days? A format that helps us know our students better and what drives them, but also create spaces for a deeper understanding of what they are learning. This is just something that I started thinking about as I listened to these students. I know many high schools have already tinkered and changed this structure so they can better respond to the diverse needs of their students and teachers.

3. All of the suggestions and students made were things school can do.

There was nothing that I heard from the students that weren’t possible in a traditional setting of education. They focused on the importance of relationships, having the opportunity to learn content in a way that was meaningful to them, and providing different options in how they shared learning. They also discussed the importance of tapping into who they are as people to bring out their best while supporting them to find pathways to success in a meaningful way.

In “The Innovator’s Mindset,” I shared some “what if’s” and then asked, “if you could start a school from scratch, what would that look like?” Some of the “what if’s?” are below:

What if we believed that everything that we had to make great schools was already within our organization, and we just needed to develop and share it?

What if schools operated as if we should all be “learners,” as opposed to students being the only learners?

What if we promoted “risk-taking” to our staff and students and modeled it openly as administrators? What if we hired people who did not look at teaching as a “career” but as a “passion”?

What if everyone in our organization, not just our students, was encouraged to pursue his or her dreams?

What if we focused on connecting and learning, both globally and locally?

What if people were always our first focus, as opposed to “stuff”?

In a place where every learner is encouraged to reach his or her dreams, these “what ifs” can become reality. 

The purpose of the exercise was to show that some of these “what if’s” are things that we can do in schools today. The above, in my opinion, are all possible. They might not be easy, but they are possible.

Listening to students who “struggled” in the traditional setting of school (that were now all flourishing in new environments) is something we need to do more often, but listening is only a first step. When we receive the feedback, what will we do differently because of it, and how will the students know?

I was so inspired by what I heard from these students and the educators who immediately started discussing things they could change right away and implement them in their context. I hope by sharing this idea, more schools and districts will follow this process.

Source: George Couros

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