Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

How Education Takes Itself Too Seriously

Education has lost sight of what is important — the children we teach.

Education has become a system that revolves around the needs of the adults instead of the needs of the children. We focus on curriculum, assessment, and technology. We focus on content, instruction, and differentiation.

But we fail to focus on what really matters — reaching children.

Education programs fail to address the primary driver of success in the classroom — relationships. They fail to address childhood development and the conditions in which children learn best. They fail to address how to incorporate social and emotional learning into teaching practices.

Education currently addresses all of the nuts and bolts of teaching, but it fails students where it matters most.

It takes everything seriously except how students feel about their education. About how students feel in their classrooms and with their teachers.

Education takes itself so seriously that billions of dollars are spent on educating children and teachers.

If teachers understood child development as well as their content area, would students learn more? What if we took cultivating relationships with students as seriously as we took constructing the curriculum? What if we stopped taking education so seriously and started taking children seriously instead?

According to Education Next, we spend $18 billion on professional development programs each year. Most of the hours I have spent in professional development have been focused on how to be a better teacher through instruction, which The New Teacher Project found was a misuse of our resources.

“In a 2015 study, The New Teacher Project sought to quantify the impact of PD only to find that ‘despite enormous and admirable investments of time and money . . . most teachers we studied do not appear to be improving substantially from year to year.’” — Education Next

Professional development largely focuses on the latest educational trends. But these trends are simply adaptations to what currently exists.

Take, for example, Cognitive Load Theory. This theory was developed in 1988 by John Sweller and maintains that “instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning.”

However, the application of this theory to the classroom is simply good teaching. Of course, students benefit from utilizing background knowledge to learn new material. Of course, students can only learn so much at one time. That’s why we scaffold material and teach the content step by step.

Painfully obvious professional development unnerves me. Teachers should already know that scaffolding material and avoiding overload is the best way to teach content. It is Teaching 101. This shouldn’t be new information, so why are we spending so much money re-teaching what we already know?

Another trend that is gaining ground in schools across the world is personalized learning.

“Personalized learning is an educational approach that aims to customize learning for each student’s strengths, needs, skills and interests.” — Amanda Morin at Understood

But this is another common sense learning principle that should already be in practice. Personalized learning is teaching individual students and respecting their current levels and pace of learning.

“In 2015, Pane and his RAND colleagues undertook the field’s most comprehensive student to date. They found that 11,000 students at 62 schools trying out personalized-learning approaches made greater gains in math and reading than similar students at more traditional schools.” — Benjamin Herold at Edweek

However, our current educational model was designed to create factory workers that exit the system with the same amount of knowledge and skills as their peers.

Obviously, learning is more meaningful and productive when it is individualized. And the research backs it up.

But in a system designed for adults, it is difficult to create a personalized learning space for children. This would require redesigning schools to reflect a mobile student population and mixed age classrooms. It would require additional money and time to train teachers on how to differentiate lessons.

In The Absurd Structure of High School, Bernie Bleske notes:

“The biggest issue students and teachers face is time. In some schools, a teacher may have 80 or 90 students, but in my experience, the average is significantly higher — 120 or more. It is simply impossible to monitor, to assess, to provide feedback, to really know each student.”

In a system designed for adults, children are endlessly cycled through classrooms from kindergarten to twelfth grade without any thought as to how they have developed as human beings. Many students do not have connections with any adults, as Bleske notes it is nearly impossible to connect with every student in our current system.

In a world where education takes itself so seriously, where curriculum and instruction are heatedly debated in universities and in school districts, the flawed system goes unnoticed. The children go unnoticed, and the adults are what matter.

Classrooms are filled with children. Children who crave a safe and comfortable environment where they feel cared for and respected. Children who need an adult in the room that is concerned more for who they are instead of what they learn.

Because who they are is what really matters. The development of children is how we create confident and successful adults.

“The widespread advancement of SEL will require a gradual and grand shift in pedagogy.” — Giancarlo Brotto at EdSurge

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is virtually excluded from standard curricula. Schools boast of advisory programs and homeroom, but the bottom line is that SEL needs to be integrated across all content areas and all parts of the school.

“One of the most prevalent SEL approaches involves training teachers to deliver explicit lessons that teach social and emotional skills, then finding opportunities for students to reinforce their use throughout the day.” — Roger Weissberg at Edutopia

SEL needs to be the driving force in every classroom. SEL needs to be a living component of a school instead of an added class that students merely sit through.

Instead of spending billions of dollar on teaching content, let’s start spending billions of dollars on teaching people. This means reassessing how we train teachers. This means reassessing what we believe kids should learn.

If we stop and ask students how much voice they have in their own learning, it is often depressing to hear how downtrodden they feel in a system that is designed to assume what is best for them. Regardless of what their needs are as individuals.

Instead, we use the reward and punishment system of grades and the delivery of adult-dictated content.

One high school student said it best:

“You move along the conveyor belt of exam seasons, hoping for the grades you need, so you can be packaged up with a pretty label saying you got straight As and shipped off somewhere else.” — Harriet Sweatman

If this doesn’t strike a chord, then I don’t know what will. Because in the world of education, we have lost sight of who truly matters — the children we teach.

We need to stop taking education itself so seriously and instead focus on what matters — the children in our classrooms. If we take into account how children develop and how they learn, then our programs would be designed to reach children.

There is hope that education will rise to the challenge of 21st-century learning. There is hope that education reformers will continue to redesign schools to reflect how students truly learn. There is hope that educators will enter the profession more concerned with how to reach children than how to teach them.

Because the teaching of content is secondary to the teaching of life. Most of us have relatively little memory of the content we learned in school, but we carry with us the memories of the people that affected us the most.

It’s time for education to take a backseat to students. Take children seriously instead.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +435,678 people.

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