The internal struggle I’ve experienced since becoming an educator in 2013 is real. I love teaching, but from the very beginning, something felt off. The only way I know how to make sense of a challenge is to become informed and to write. I consumed any educational literature I could get my hands on (Dweck, Guskey, Duckworth, R. Berger, Zhao, Wagner), as well as anything that might be remotely related to how people think and learn (Sineck, Pink, Heath & Heath, W. Berger, Robinson). Then I wrote, reflected, and dissected every thought in my brain. I was left with this: the education system in the United States desperately needs a transformation.
Our education system at all levels is preparing students for an economy that no longer exists. I am a Millennial. My friends and I were sold a formula for success: college diploma=job. We have degrees in Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, Art History, Business, Chemistry, etc. Guess what? That formula we were sold is completely bogus. Despite being competent and hardworking, the jobs we were promised upon graduating college didn’t exist. Many of my incredibly bright friends are unemployed or underemployed. Some are living with their parents and others are working multiple jobs, for which they are overqualified, to make ends meet. We were not prepared for creating jobs. No one told us we could be innovators and no one taught us how.
The fact that education has not changed to meet the needs of a changing economic landscape concerns me. I worry about my current students. Schools continue to teach silence, obedience, stillness, and uniformity. Schools value compliance over creativity and risk taking. Yet, our economy needs entrepreneurs and risk takers, and more importantly, our world needs them. There are serious crises in this world that need innovative, global thinkers working on solutions.
Educators need to help students find their purpose and passion in a meaningful way. Education should cultivate the strengths of each student. We must encourage students to pursue their passions and share their talents. We do not need to raise compliant, polite children, we need to raise innovators who are going to change the world. But we’ve got a serious hurdle in our way, educators are not taught to take risks. In many ways, we are encouraged to “keep on, keepin’ on”. If we aren’t pushing boundaries, how can we teach our students to take risks? If we are to change the way we educate, educators must be supported in reinventing our schools to meet the needs of our students.
I’ve seen firsthand how important it is for teachers to model innovation. The principal at our school supports innovation and I live in Vermont where there is legislation that requires high schools to use proficiency-based graduation requirements. We are encouraged to experiment and we are supported when things go wrong. Growth mindset is foundational to our school culture. Teachers and students alike are taught to embrace discomfort and failure in order to grow.
Last year, I started playing around with project based learning. The project was self-directed and open-ended. Students were asked to develop their own driving question that would help them learn about how the world could be a better place. One of my biggest fears was that students wouldn’t know what to research. I thought my 9th grade students were too young to have definitive interests. I quickly learned that I was wrong. Students had big, meaningful questions: How can we encourage teenagers to utilize their creativity to better themselves and their community? How could an LGBTQ-friendly app help LGBTQ youth feel more connected? What would need to change in order for teenagers to be engaged at school? The questions students asked led to meaningful learning because they took ownership of their work from the beginning. They were immersed in topics that affect them personally and they sought to solve these real-world problems. Students who had been disengaged were suddenly empowered.
During the project, the classroom was busy and messy and I felt uneasy with the lack of control. What came next was liberating; I learned to trust. This came after a critical look at daily video that was recorded by a colleague during the project. What I noticed was that behavior I assumed was undirected was surprisingly productive. Conversations that I couldn’t hear from across the room were actually about projects. Students were asking each other for help, discussing their ideas, and exchanging information. They were motivated and excited.
When students are encouraged to explore, they develop compassion, persistence, and self control. Perhaps most importantly, they find out what they are passionate about. These are the skills that will help students succeed in the future. Students inspired me throughout our first PBL experience and I am changed as a result of their fervor. Now that I have witnessed how transformative this type of learning is for students, there’s no going back.
As I jump in and work to empower students and develop a culture of creativity in my classroom, I patiently wait for others to do the same. When I become impatient, it is important for me to remember that I know, at least in Vermont, at least at Enosburg Falls High School, a change is gonna come.