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Entries in future schools (9)

How was school today?

Here is what I learned at school today.

Forty years of research by Gallup demonstrates the difference effective teachers make on student performance - not just to students' academic gains but also to their hope, engagement, and well-being.

We all know that good teachers make effective learning.  But let’s look a bit closer at the evidence here.

If you ask students in America today whether they know they will graduate from High School, find a job, or whether there is an adult who cares about their future, 50% will answer no.  They have no hope.  They no longer believe in the learning process; they are disengaged.

If you measure levels of student engagement in the learning process, 60% of students in America feel connected to the process of learning at Grade 5.  Year-on-year, however, this felt connection to the learning process drops to an average of 36% by Grade 12.  

Gallup also demonstrates the link between levels of well-being and engagement in the learning process.  79% of students who ‘smiled yesterday’ feel engaged in today’s learning.  Class size, meanwhile, had no impact of levels of student engagement.

Whichever way you look at it, the system seems to be broken.  Students have no hope because they are not engaged; and they are not engaged because they do not have a sense of well-being.

So what’s the solution?

The Gallup study also shows us that 79% of students who were able to answer positively to the statement ‘My school is committed to building the strengths of every student’ were engaged and that student achievement, amongst these students, was significantly higher.

Many entire education systems, however, are founded upon an entirely different methodology.  They propose what I once heard appropriately described as a form of ‘bulimic learning’, where facts are stored up through memorization and, on a particular day, spewed out during the course of an examination.

But let’s imagine a system where teachers are trained to spot the strengths of our children and relentlessly build upon them.  What would be the impact of a system that sought to unlock the human potential of our students, as opposed to simply setting up hoops for them to jump through?

Here’s another interesting statistic that has a ring of truth about it at least.  97% of Kindergarten kids want to be entrepreneurs when they grow up.  Yet only 17% will be studying this at University and a mere 4% will ever actually do it!  By contrast 80% of us are today doing jobs that we feel do not in any way build upon our strengths.  We work, in other words, not because it is what we were destined to be, but because it pays a wage.

Companies figured this all out some time ago. Great companies are not concerned with their weaknesses or what they cannot be best in the world at.  Their strategic focus is relentless in the pursuit of becoming better at what they are already good at. 

It is time for schools to play catch up.

I attended a student ‘graduation’, recently, at a primary school not far from where I live.  Lined up to receive their certificates, it was clear that these students had successfully jumped through the hoops of bulimic learning as had been required of them.  The Headteacher even went as far as mentioning the two students who had not been successful, who were now forced to repeat another year at primary school.

I left the ceremony disturbed by what I had seen, thinking that I had just witnessed something distasteful. Even today, months later, I find myself wondering about the two students who did not received their certificates.  Had anyone ever given them a reason to smile?  Were any of their teachers relentless in the pursuit of their personal strengths and talents?  Had anyone ever thought to ask about their sense of well-being and level of engagement in the classroom?

Just when are we going to learn?


Thanks to the team at Gallup Europe who inspired this article, following their Learn@Teatime event entitled 'Can Europe create schools that live up to the 21st century's challenges?' on 4 November 2009.