Sunday, 6 June 2010

Wanted: A generation who can solve problems, not just see them

The economy is failing; education is failing, even our elected officials are slowly becoming weeded out because they can’t solve any problems. Working together should be the answer. So why aren’t we doing it? Where are the creative think tanks developing solutions to our world’s problems? Without the aide of Facebook, Twitter or Skype, hundreds of years ago, our nation’s leaders were able to build a country sitting in a room and working together. What is stopping us from taking advantage of our public institutions, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and universities to harness the power of solving our world’s problems in these already funded, structured groups? We have the means to communicate. Our own president makes himself accessible on Twitter. So why aren’t the masses making an effort to help BP come up with a viable solution for the oil leak in the Gulf? Children are not spending enough time in their classrooms solving problems.
As a teacher, I am constantly wracking my brain to create authentic educational situations in my classroom to excite and motivate learners. It certainly seems in our international interest to hone these skills. Yet, how can the youngest generation help those in communities recovering from natural disasters like those in Indonesia, Haiti and again our Gulf Coast if they don’t face the problems in their own cities? Shouldn’t we be preparing our children to work with others in an effort to solve problems with our global neighbors, not simply to compete for the jobs they might take?

Developing a problem solving approach within education should be driving our decision making for educational reform on the international, national, state and local levels. School administrators could band together, spending more of their time listening to teachers and parents as they engage in meaningful learning projects. Keeping teachers accountable for student’s learning should happen at the planning level in the context of a conversation. Instead, our nation is leaning towards the common practice of browbeating teachers through statistical analysis of standardized test results. Even attaching merit pay to teachers based on the numbers of an all-knowing and all-powerful test.

Solving real problems (appropriate to the age and developmental level of the student) demands students engage in much higher standards. They are planning, testing, analyzing and evaluating the data from a project with real ramifications not only resulting in a grade on the report card, but also improving their communities. Classrooms could plan contributions to local shelters from school gardens. But instead of applying the knowledge from their units of study in life science, children are graded based on their understanding of plants on bubble sheets with A, B and C choices.
In contrast to a standardized test in science, a positive experience with any community learning project might generate more questions from students, more research, and more interest in specific areas of community need. A project might even motivate students to extend their learning beyond the school day or even the school year.

Teachers must be able to have time and support to create meaningful learning projects at school. This means districts look more carefully at the amount of learning time taken to use standardized measures of skills in isolation. Yes, we need to help our children by exposing them to tests. But, we need to carefully weigh the amount of precious time we take to give them and analyze them. Time spent writing, reading; investigating and evaluating learning projects should be a district priority.
We need to work with what we have right now. Our school year will remain at 180 days until our nation creates a solution for operating costs. Schools will move forward if teachers and administrators stop blaming each other and start using the very problem solving model we expect the students to master.

Change will come. Dollars will be scarce. Unforeseen problems will arise. Isn’t it time we start making an educational long-term investment that makes sense? If students are taught how to work together for common goals that benefit our communities, they will develop into responsible citizens who use their free time to make creative helpful solutions to help our world. But, they need practice and teachers need some room and time to create these learning experiences with other teachers and administration. Wouldn’t it be exciting if a team of budding scientists from a high school in Boise, Idaho sent BP a post on Facebook with a solution to fix the oil leak in the Gulf?

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