This past Tuesday I took a trip up to Sparta High School in Sparta, NJ to view a new educational documentary entitled "RE:THINKING" that was shown by the Sussex County Principals and Supervisors Association. I am not a big movie watcher, (the last film I saw was Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and I can't tell you the last time that I watched a documentary. However, there was a "force" (sorry, couldn't resist) that was pulling me to check this movie out this week. It was a great opportunity for me to challenge my thinking and assess my priorities as a leader because the documentary was going to address a fundamental question that I ask myself every day...."Are my students really prepared for their future?"
In doing some research on the movie, I came across the website , rethinkingmovie.com. There it describes the film as follows: "RE:THINKING dives deeply into the research and practice of what it looks like when students are asked to think and what it means to teach thinking skills in the classroom. Following the work of Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera of Cornell University, RE:THINKING follows four school districts over the course of three years as they successfully meet public education requirements, while embracing a culture that emphasized thinking over memorization and valued the individual child not as an empty vessel to be filled but as an adult-in-training." I couldn't help but be excited because for the past several years my staff and I have worked very hard to shift the focus of our student's learning from memorization to critical thinking and analysis. I was anxious to see if we are on the right track.
While I won't spoil the movie for those of you who want to watch it, there were certainly many takeaways that I found to be thought provoking and transformational. As a Principal the movie caused me to stop and reflect on what I am doing as leader and what our school is doing to facilitate "thinking" for our students and our staff. Here are some snapshots of the movie that got me "rethinking....."
1) What are we preparing students for? Is it for what we are comfortable with? Wow. I haven't really thought about their learning that way. Are we leading students toward a future that makes us comfortable or are we challenging students to be prepared for a future that is uncertain? As I follow my PLN on Twitter and speak with colleagues from other schools, my belief is that we are preparing students to succeed far beyond the walls of our schools. However, although it might be uncomfortable for us, it is critical that we constantly adapt to the needs of our students so that we prepare them for the future that they are comfortable with.
2) Culture trumps strategy. Truth. In David Guerin's blog " 17 Signs You Are a Future Driven Educator," he highlights the importance of building culture. He says "When your students know you believe in them, it brings out the best in them. Your encouragement makes all the difference. The person who influences you the most is the person who believes in you. They will rise to your expectations. You see them for who they are becoming and not just who they are right now. You see a bright future for your students." You can have all the administrative meetings and action plans you want to develop the "strategy" for student achievement. If you do not have a culture of trust, empathy, accountability and responsibility in which everyone together is working toward a common goal and who all believe in the power of "we", student success will be difficult to attain. Building and fostering relationships with your students is essential to starting the shift in the thinking process. (Check out David's blog here: http://www.davidgeurin.com/2017/09/17-signs-youre-future-driven-educator.html)
3) Learning how to learn is transferable. We must help students understand that "how they learn" is often more important than "what they learn." Classrooms must be connected in that students can work with their teachers, regardless of content, to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, to learn how to collaborate and share ideas, and to take risks with how they learn. Failure may happen, but learning from failure embraces a "growth mindset" that will drive thinking and learning to new levels.... perhaps even to an "Innovator's Mindset."
4) People become alienated from curriculum because it is disconnected from their lives. Curriculum should be a living, breathing document. Far too often in schools "the curriculum" sits in a binder or a google drive and gets forgotten about when the daily routines of school begin to happen. The same lesson plans and assessments are used because "it worked last year." Our students are learning in new and engaging ways. It requires that our curriculum evolves. The last thing we want in our classrooms and schools is for them to be stagnant.
5) Are we allowing for natural curiosity in our schools? Taking after the #leadlap philosophy, we should be creating schools in which students want to run into, not out of. We want students to be curious about learning. We want to them to question. We want them to be able to explore what they are passionate about. When students are excited about what they are learning, they are more inclined to ask questions, think critically and explore opportunities that aren't always available to them when they are not engaged in their learning. I have been proud of what my staff has done through PBL, makerspaces, simulations, Genius Hour, and BreakoutEDu activities that have sparked student learning in various ways. Teachers must know what gets their students excited about learning. Help students find "their why" and "their way."
6) Are we okay with children not knowing the pythagorean theorem? Are we okay with students not knowing how to build a relationship? With state mandates and standardized testing there is an emphasis placed on "covering the material." Unfortunately education has become about numbers. Evaluation scores, school rankings, state report cards and test scores have become the norm. We have to remember that schools are about students. Are we willing to give up content for the sake of teaching students critical skills such as communicating with each other, building positive relationships, overcoming challenges, productive struggle? I learned the pythagorean theorem in 10th grade Geometry. That was also the last time I used it.... (sorry math teachers.) However, I do remember struggling and overcoming challenges in that class. I remember my friends helping me study for tests. I remember learning from failure. I'm okay with that.
7) The struggle is learning.....we simplify for students by trying to take the struggle away. Students today crave instant gratification. Technology has caused the world to forget what it is like to wait for anything. Answers are at our fingertips. All we have to do is "Google it," send a text, DVR it, or ask Siri. Students today need to learn to struggle. They need to learn how to think, to question, to analyze, to re-do. The reward of learning is in the journey, not the destination. We have to make our classrooms more improvement focused and less grade focused. As Yoda once said, "We must unlearn what we have learned." If we take the struggle away and never learn to think for ourselves, "that is why we fail."
8) Personalization is important. Everyone learns differently. Everyone thinks differently. We must embrace the individual student and seek to find ways to grow with them. When you find caring teachers, you have passionate students. When students feel that you know them and you will help them through the struggle, it makes all the difference between a classroom of students and a classroom of learners. Hearing the words, "I believe in you. You can do it" will not only personalize their learning, it also might be the only positive comments that your students get during their day. Parents don't keep their best students home. They send their best. Sometimes school is the safest place for them. Create opportunities to personalize learning.
9) The best way to improve education is to share all "the bests." Classrooms and schools cannot function in isolation. Schools must invest in their teachers. There must be meaningful, relevant, purposeful professional development for staff that enables them to share best practices, highlight key learnings, collaborate across grade levels and content areas. If we expect our students to be learners and thinkers, as educators we must model that practice. We must constantly seek to learn. Check out how we learn at our school... https://youtu.be/SmtVzHFl3rc When it comes to student success we can leave no stone unturned. We must look for the best ways to reach them. When we maximize our potential, so will they.
10) Imagine if all we are doing is rolling out students who are really good "at school." If this happens then we have failed them. Students must learn to be able to articulate their thinking, look at different perspectives, question their own view of the world, use evidence to defend an argument, determine fact from fiction. As much as schools are controlled by mandates, standards and regulations, they must remember that the future is not. Our students need to be prepared to be ready for a world that is constantly changing. The goal is to produce a citizen that is capable of thinking carefully, thoughtfully and critically for the rest of their lives.
On the drive home I reflected on what RE:THINKING was all about. The end of the documentary left a vision in my head that reminded me of our purpose as educators. We are responsible for educating the eager young minds of tomorrow. Their future is not written. It means that our best lessons have not been written yet either. We must challenge ourselves and our students to "rethink" what we are learning and doing. We need to make school a place where thinking transcends culture and embraces the unknown. Students are waiting. We need to make sure they are prepared. Put on your thinking caps...........
Richard M. Hayzler
A life long educator and current Principal of Pequannock Township High School in NJ, Rich is excited to share his ideas and thoughts about education and how we can change the world for our students and our staff.