Change our schools, or drug our students?

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice. We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

– Dr. Michael Anderson, a pediatrician for low-income kids in Georgia on why he prescribes Adderal for ADD/ADHD in spite of his belief the disorder is “made up”

Colleagues, I’ve been simmering on an idea for the past couple of years and this morning when I read   the New York Times article containing the above quote from Dr. Anderson that simmer became a boil. The idea is this: school is so crushingly, cripplingly boring. Kids in desks in rows, bells, hour after hour of listening to an adult talk, whole days without going outside (or seeing daylight in some of the windowless schools I’ve been in!), silence while doing worksheets, silence while taking multiple choice exams, speaking to peers only during passing periods or when the teacher turns away . . . I know it isn’t always like this. Still, even the best teacher who’s classroom is dynamic and learner-centered is only functioning as one small piece of a student’s day.

Our’s is a system unfit for children who “can’t sit still” or “who lack focus” – they must be drugged. I recently re-watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?” (if you haven’t seen it, please, please take the next 20 minutes and have a look . . . he is so funny! so substantive!):

Although I am tempted to rant for a page or two about how deeply our students crave creative involvement in meaningful art I will save that reflection for another day. Let’s start for now with the structure of a typical school day.

Two years ago the administration at my school took a chance and let my colleagues and I implement something called Working Wednesday for our senior class. This involved not having regular period classes on Wednesdays and instead creating an individualized schedule for each student according to his or her needs. Some students had an entire day of flexible time during which they could work on independent projects and assignments while others had a carefully crafted schedule full of appointments with various teachers for one-on-one tutoring, college counseling sessions, ACT tutorial, and re-testing for failed exams. We also used Wednesday to visit our local library, conduct field research at a nearby lake and listen to guest speakers.

The additional advantage of a flexible schedule is it lets teachers take turns playing catch up. We would rotate tutorial and monitoring duties in such a way as to allow large blocks of time (way more than our usual hour planning period) to grade and plan. At the end of our first year implementing Working Wednesday we saw huge jumps in our student’s achievement. My students’ performance jumped from 32% passing in 2010-11 to 45% on the college-level IB History exam.

I have heard people say that if Rip Van Winkle awoke today from a 100 year sleep the only thing he would still recognize among the iPads, airplanes, cell phones, and internet connect laptops are schools – because they look and operate almost exactly the same as they did 100 years ago. We cannot afford another 100 years under the same system. We must change our schools and teachers, along with parents, must be the ones who demand the change.

How can we make our schools dynamic places of learning? How can we structure our classrooms so that rule-following and sitting still aren’t the qualities we reward most in our students?

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2 thoughts on “Change our schools, or drug our students?

  1. Christine Roach says:

    I have always felt a terrible conflict as a Kinder teacher. As a teacher, I am very comfortable with individualizing, with being (possibly too) flexible to meet students needs. My logic is that if a class is objective driven, it doesn’t matter HOW the student gets there (sitting, standing, doing a jig) as long as it doesn’t interfere with someone else’s learning. However, a huge part of the Kinder teacher’s role is to teach students how to function in this strange artificial environment and get them ready for the behavioral expectations of the rest of their academic life. I felt like I was doing the right thing, but in the end did it disservice my students? Because the next year chances were pretty high that they would get a less tolerant teacher. In First grade did they have to adapt to a harsh environment while dealing with a higher academic load?

  2. Chrissy says:

    “If you aren’t prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

    Indeed. My PhD dissertation has just produced its first publication (its in press, not out just yet) because those reviewing it could not believe my data was real. True story.

    To succeed academically, you have to not only be prepared for others to think you are wrong, but then defend why you are not!

    I suspect students, by and large, do not learn this. The skill to articulate your ideas and continue to defend them until either others join your cause or you prove to yourself that you are wrong.

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