By Leonard Quilty
The primary concern of education is character. A school should be a model home, a complete community, an embryonic democracy.
~ Colonel Francis W. Parker
It’s hard to believe we are already nearing the end of the first month of the school year. During our first week back at school, we met as a group of teachers to briefly discuss the topic of student resiliency. This was in preparation to hear a guest speaker talk about resiliency the following day. At our round table discussion, I listened attentively as viewpoints were put forward. I was then called upon to share my perspective on the subject.
My response centered on two words – encouragement and belief. Apart from structuring our classroom with the appropriate procedures and guidelines, it is paramount that we create an environment where our students feel that we believe they can be successful. It’s long been my philosophy that our students will rise to the level of expectation we have of them.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the classroom teacher in the U. S. who had inherited a group of grade six students who were low achievers in the previous grade. One day she checked the students files and noticed that their IQ scores were in the high 120s range. She then thought to herself. ‘Wow! These students are geniuses. I better challenge them to really excel this year.”
And they did. So much so that the principal took the teacher aside at the end of the school year and complimented her on the high achievement, and great behavior, of her students. When he asked the teacher what was the key to her success with her students, she answered that because the IQ numbers in the students’ files were so high, she just challenged them and expected them to do well. The principal then explained that the high numbers in their files were not their IQ scores, but their locker numbers.
I just finished reading a great book by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison called Loving Learning. The book’s sub-title is “How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools.” In the second chapter, the authors include an intriguing quote (about good schools) from British philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. “Good schools bestow upon their graduates a recollection of childhood as a golden satisfaction … not as a passage of time hurried through on the way to more profitable engagements, but, with gratitude, as an enjoyed initiation into the mysteries of the human condition.”
I especially like the last part of the quote, “an enjoyed initiation into the mysteries of the human condition.” Wouldn’t you like to send your children to that type of school? Or if you are a teacher, wouldn’t you like to work in such a school?
As the above authors attest, in the majority of today’s schools, at least in this part of the world, there is such a focus on standardized testing that it is easy for students, and teachers, to feel somewhat stifled. The stress of competing for top scores on these high stakes exams has, in many schools, created a culture of “teaching to the test.” It’s interesting that a country like Finland, which is ranked as having one of the best educational systems in the world, has, for the most part, no standardized testing.
Yes, of course, we must have our students strive for high achievement and ensure they’re prepared for the demands of post-secondary education. But, at the same time, there has to be a balance between academic rigor and the simple joy of learning.
The famous philosopher, Socrates, had it right when he said: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” The more I advance in my teaching career (31 years now!), the more I realize the importance of creating an atmosphere in our classrooms whereby a sense of wonder and curiosity is predominant.
In Loving Learning, the authors described that kind of school atmosphere. Their version of schooling is one where more emphasis is placed on “eliciting and engaging students’ interests, combined with project-based learning, integrated curriculum, strong school communities, and real-world relevance.”
That emphasis harkens back to some wise words from John Dewey, one of the founders of the progressive education movement a century ago. “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Leonard Quilty is a guidance counsellor with the Centre for Learning@Home in Okotoks, Alberta. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org