Last night I was inducted into the hall of fame of my high school, Mentor High. It was quite the humbling experience, one because of the honor of the whole thing and two because it forced me to realize how little I actually remember from those days 30 plus years ago.
I was joined in this induction by four eminently more qualified women (a second male inductee could not attend due to illness – so his wife accepted for him.) two being graduates from earlier classes and two latter. I was comfortably book ended by accomplishment and eloquence. I read two poems, thanked some folks and said a few words and got out of the way.
One theme that came up in my and a couple other’s acceptance speech was the matter of choice in schools.
We were not talking about that extremist view that tax dollars should be taken away from public schools and doled out so folks can move their kids to private and religious institutions. I mean here we were, five inductees to a public school’s hall of fame who have all achieved a modicum of success and it was not because we escaped public schools, rather we succeeded because of the public school system.
The choice we were speaking about was choice within our public schools. When I was attending school I had the opportunity to select electives that interested me – keeping me an engaged learner. I was able to take classes in journalism, poetry, and science fiction that were developed by teachers who had their own special interest in the subject matter. Enthusiastic instructors + enthusiastic students = a winning combo in my book. A second inductee, a Certified Public Accountant, reminisced about her similar experience with elective business oriented classes. Now while I did my best to steer clear of curriculum that involved numbers and stats – her recounting verified something I’ve been telling educators for years.
My ability to choose what I wanted to learn helped me become the person who I am today. My accountant compatriot said virtually the same thing last night. Her opportunity to delve into a subject that interested her more deeply led her to the achievements of her life – including the hall of fame slot. This is not rocket science folks (although a well designed physics elective may lead one there.)
THIS is the kind of choice we need to foster in our schools. Research shows that engagement is critical to learning and that choice leads to engagement. This is true in reading, as Kylene Beers and Robert Probst remind us in their latest book Disrupting Thinking: ”We know – we know – from research that giving kids choice in what they read is critical in increasing volume of reading and that the volume of reading is predictive of reading achievement…” to which I would append, “and academic and subsequent life success.” This choice dividend extends beyond reading material.
I know I would have floundered in those statistics classes and that some of those kids crunching numbers or unwrapping a twist of DNA well, their eyes may have glazed midway through The Martian Chronicles.
But, that’s the point isn’t it?
I think it would do us well to look a bit closer at the folks who are setting our education agenda. Are they forcing their proclivities downstream? Does a billionaire software engineer really understand the kid who is going to grow up to be a philosophy professor? Does a wealthy political donor comprehend the learning needs of a kid on the spectrum?
Again I come back to a question I repeatedly ask of educators, students, policy-setters and myself – What is the goal?
Is the goal to pass this certain test or is it to instigate critical thinkers?
Is it to create citizens with broad and shallow knowledge bases or do we want folks who understand and excel in their chosen vocations?
Are we creating a workforce who obediently follow instructions or are engendering free thinkers who question authority when needed?
There is very little more frustrating than having no choice.
More electives, more learning delivery systems, more everything – it keeps students and teachers engaged. We do not need school choice – we need more choice inside the schools we have.