Make a change!

Another summer is behind us. Teachers and students have headed back to school and wondering what the year ahead will bring. I greet each September with a mix of anxiety, excitement and enthusiasm as I really begin thinking about the things I want to do better this year. Of course there’s also a healthy dose of depression as I bid farewell to another summer vacation and set my alarm clock for some unbearably early hour. One of the best things about teaching is that it’s a bit like the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray (which, if you haven’t seen it, is well worth a watch) in that we get to keep doing the same thing over and over again – sometimes in the same day. You know that super idea you have that you just KNEW was going to blow them away? Remember how devastated  you were when it flopped? That’s ok, because you can fix it up and take another crack at it next time. I’ve had lots of ideas that didn’t work in period 2 that I was able to tweak and try again period 3, or the next semester. The point is to keep getting better. If you’re not getting better you’re in the wrong line of work.

Hopefully we all want to improve. Unfortunately, teachers are faced with all manner of obstacles that school boards and ministries of education put in our way. At our school we’re very lucky because we have an admin team that believes in shielding us from as much bureaucratic interference as they can so we can be free to do our jobs. They see their job as cutting through the red tape and deflecting the distractions and then getting out of our way so we can do our job – teach. For me personally, that kind of support allows me to focus on becoming a better teacher, on trying new things and on improving my practice. That road, admittedly, is a long one which I continue to travel.

The important thing is to remain positive. We have to ignore all the stuff that has nothing to do with teaching – and there’s a lot of it – so we can spend our time and energy on becoming better teachers. Stop and think sometime about how much of your day is spent on tasks that you would consider secondary to teaching. You might be surprised (or even disturbed). Educating students is our top priority so we must be ever vigilant to guard our attention that it is not seduced by all the other demands in a typical day. In other words, let’s be sure we do not miss the forest while counting the trees.

So that’s what I want to concentrate on this year. I don’t want to catch myself in the staffroom grumbling about this new policy or that new form we have to fill out. For me, that will be a considerable challenge but I am resolute in my desire. I want to conserve my mental, emotional, and physical energy for the core of my job – teaching and guiding students.

How do you stay focused on what you believe to be most important?

How can multiple choice questions work for me?

To be honest, I love multiple choice questions because they’re easy to mark. To be totally honest, my students answer the questions on Scantron forms and the scanner marks them for me. It actually takes me longer to walk to our main office where the scanner is than it does to actually mark them! But is that really all there is to it? MC questions get a bad rap because many people think you can only test at a recall level with MC. I disagree! Sure, when I first started teaching my MC questions were pretty much all about memorization because I was a novice teacher and that type of MC was really easy to write. Also, there was no shortage of question banks that had tons of recall MC questions. That was actually really convenient for me because my teaching was mostly about memorization of facts and recall tests. When I look back at the volume of material I used to cover I shudder to imagine what it must have been like to be a student in my class. I think it’s fair to say my teaching style didn’t encourage anyone to study biology after high school that’s for sure.

I’ve learned a lot in the years that followed and I’m learning still. Since those early years, my classes have moved away from memorization. In fact, I’m so far from it now that all my tests are open book and students write them in groups, but that’s another blog entry (or two). I said all that to say even though there is virtually no memorization or recall in my class, I still use MC questions as the main part of my tests and quizzes.

Let me give you an example to show you how you can convert a memorization MC question into a higher order thinking MC question.
Here’s the memorization question:

Which hormones are produced by the human ovaries?
a) Estrogen and progesterone.
b) FSH and estrogen.
c) LH and estrogen.
d) The ovaries do not produce any of these hormones.

This is a typical recall question that likely looks familiar to all of us. I saw lots of them as a student and I’ve used lots of them as a teacher.
Here’s a slightly higher order version:

Why would the menstrual cycle of an human, adult female stop if her ovaries were removed?
a) A lack of both estrogen and progesterone.
b) A lack of both FSH and estrogen.
c) A lack of both LH and estrogen.
d) The menstrual cycle would not stop if the ovaries were removed.

It might seem like a subtle difference between the two but the latter version requires the student to recognize that the ovaries produce hormones and that those hormones affect the menstrual cycle. Now if we wanted to take this question up another notch we could do something like this:

Estrogen and progesterone are both produced by the ovaries. What would be the effect of removing the ovaries of an adult female?
a) The menstrual cycle would stop.
b) The menstrual cycle would remain in luteal phase permanently.
c) The lack of FSH would prevent any further ovulation.
d) An increase in progesterone and estrogen would prevent flow phase.

In this version, I’ve gone so far as to tell the student that the ovaries produce the hormones in question. Instead of testing recall of that fact, this question requires the student to be able to reason what the effect of the loss of the hormones would be.

Don’t get me wrong – I think recall MC questions can still be really useful. In every subject there are things that simply have to be memorized – there’s no way around it. The point is, you don’t have to abandon MC questions because you are moving to higher order thinking and inquiry. I believe MC questions can be used to assess student learning at a high level in any subject. Tell THAT to the math teachers!

It took me hundreds of hours over the last several years to build a bank of higher order MC questions by writing some and collecting some from other sources. If you’re trying to move toward helping students think rather than memorize, or you’re already doing that and want help finding MC questions, I’m offering all of mine. Click here for details.

What are your thoughts on multiple choice questions?

Isn’t evolution just a theory?

Actually, evolution IS just a theory. The thing is that in science the word “theory” means something very specific. In our everyday language, theory means a guess or an idea. Like when someone says, “My car is making a weird noise but I have a theory Question Evolution Campaignabout what might be wrong.” In science, theory means “a well developed explanation for a phenomenon supported by evidence.” Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge. The National Academy of Science describes a theory as “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” A theory is considered stronger the more phenomena it can explain and by its ability to make falsifiable predictions about those phenomena. Theories are improved (or, sometimes, replaced by better theories) as more evidence is gathered. This is the strength of the scientific method – over time the theory gets better at predicting and explaining.

So, evolution is just a theory, but in science that’s nearly as good as it gets. Evolution is a theory just like electricity, gravity, magnetism, plate tectonics, and lots of others. So why the controversy? We have to be clear in saying that among biologists there is no controversy. In fact, evolution was pretty much completely accepted about ten years after Darwin presented his work in 1859. Why, then, are some insisting on a continued “debate” 150 years later?

At one parent-teacher conference, I had some parents say they were interested in what I was teaching about evolution but wondered when I might be telling the students about “other” explanations. I replied, “What other explanations?” Wait a minute! How could I be so closed-minded?! Shouldn’t we be “teaching the controversy”? Shouldn’t we make sure students are exposed to the alternative explanations? One of our goals is to make students think for themselves isn’t it? Don’t we want to present them with different points of view and then encourage them to decide for themselves? The answer is yes – in a debate or perhaps an ethical discussion. Not in the case of a scientific theory. When it comes to a scientific theory, there ARE no other explanations – that’s how it got to be a theory. Just like there are no alternative explanations of why two magnets are attracted to one another or why an apple falls when you drop it. Our chemistry teacher doesn’t teach about the parts of the atom and then say “Ok class, now you decide for yourselves if you believe this to be the structure of the atom.” We don’t accept or reject theories based on how we feel about them or what we learned as children. We do so based on evidence. Science doesn’t progress by what we “think.” It progresses by what we observe, measure, and test. It has nothing to do with belief.

Religious Differences on the Question of EvolutionIt is part of the agenda of certain groups to create the belief that there is a “debate” about the validity of evolution theory or that there is some kind of controversy. This is simply not reality. The theory of evolution has been singled out of all (well, maybe with the exception of big bang theory) other theories as controversial because it conflicts with the creation story as it appears in the Christian bible. Creationists have created a false dichotomy wherein one must choose either the biblical account found in Genesis or evolution theory. They would have us believe that the issue is much larger than it actually is. In 1950, Pope Pius XII stated that there is no conflict between Christian belief and evolution, a position confirmed by Pope John Paul II in 1996 and again at the Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories conference, held in 2009 at the Pontifical University in Rome. In 1998, The National Center for Science Education found that at least 77% of churches in the United States support evolution education. These religious groups include the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, National Baptist Convention (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), National Baptist Convention of America, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Episcopal Church, among others. In 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement supporting evolution. The Clergy Letter Project is a statement signed by over 13,000 clergy in the United States supporting evolution education and rejecting the teaching of creationism. If we look at popular opinion outside the United States we see that most people accept the evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life we see on the planet.Acceptance of Evolution in Various Countries

Other than a relatively small group of people making a lot of noise, there really is no controversy involving evolution. Of course evolutionary biologists are debating points within the theory but no serious biologist rejects the theory as not explaining what it purports to explain. So, for those of us in education, especially science education, let’s get to the matter of teaching science and avoid wasting time with silly arguments about pseudo-debates. For those who may have encountered any kind of resistance to the teaching of evolution, or pressure at all to teach creationism (in any of its forms) in a science class, try to point out that evolution is a scientific theory like any other. As long as gravity is taught in science classrooms, so should evolution.

Have you had an experience you’d like to share? Want to share your thoughts on this issue? Please leave a comment.

Parent-teacher conference : What’s the point?

If you’re reading this you’re likely a teacher and, if you’re a teacher, you surely have your share of parent-teacher conference stories. For those of you who are not teachers, thank you SO much for following my blog. I have lots of those sParent-teacher conferencetories as well and, although we can learn lots from them, they are not my purpose in writing this. I’d like to get right to the heart of parent-teacher conferences and ask “What is their purpose?”

Ok, so that question raised the hackles for some people. You might be thinking “but we’ve always had parent-teacher meetings!” or “but how else can parents find out about their child’s progress?” Parent-teacher interviews are a long-standing school tradition, but I would never say that they are a “sacred cow” of education. What I mean to say is that I believe it is long past the time to rethink how we conduct parent-teacher conferences and **gasp** maybe whether or not we should even continue to have them at all.

There are at least two major problems with the idea in its current form. The first problem is seeing the parents we actually need to see. As I wrote in “Hands up if you love parent-teacher,” we nearly always end up seeing the parents of the students who are doing well while rarely do the parents of struggling students show up. That shouldn’t surprise us, as it can’t be denied that parental involvement is a key predictor of student success. Successful students are successful partly because their parents attend parent-teacher conferences. These parents have always been concerned, involved and engaged. They are invested in their children’s success so, of course, we see those parents at each and every conference. These students have always enjoyed significant parental support. I realize, this rule cannot be applied to all cases but it is a useful generalization.

The second problem is how do we make use of the time we have during the conference? Want to know a little about your child’s school life, progress, and development? Ask the teachers who spend several hours each weekday with him. But make it fast – there’s a line-up behind you! A parent-teacher conference is an opportunity to learn about your child’s life at school, how he’s doing, possible areas for improvement, and concerns the teacher might have. The real challenge is getting to that information. Most of my parent-teacher evenings have been spent sitting across the table from a parent with me talking about the importance of study, test preparation, completing assignments, yada, yada, yada. Obviously, these are skills that would improve the success of any student. The parent might ask a question or two before leaving and say something like “Well, we’ll have a talk with her and make sure things improve.” Remember, I hear that statement whether the student has 95% or 35%. Then I repeat the process about 15 times and go home. There seems to be little expectation – let alone hope – that the experience will actually result in any difference for the student, the parent or the teacher. I would be hard pressed to think of a student who made real, sustained improvement as a result of a parent-teacher conference. Having said that, the most productive conferences have always been those in which the student was present and participated.

Let’s be honest – nobody loves parent-teacher conferences. Teachers, parents and students alike, are apprehensive about the whole thing. Some parents have negative memories of their own school experiences and don’t relish the idea of spending an evening with a bunch of teachers. The irony is that the more desperate the situation, the less likely a parent is to want to meet. If a student is doing well it’s easy to sit down and hear a teacher say “You know, she’s just a pleasure to teach and such a hard-working, enthusiastic student.” On the other hand, nobody likes to hear “Your son falls asleep in class, hasn’t completed any assignments, and skipped the last test.”

So then, why are we still doing this? I believe there is some value we can realize from parent-teacher conferences but not if we continue with the traditional approach. At our school, all student grades are available to parents online so there should be no surprises when report cards (come to think of it, why are we still giving those out?) roll out. We should not be spending our time discussing this assignment that wasn’t completed or that assessment on which the student scored poorly. Instead, we should focus on some basic questions that are applicable to all students:

–          Does the student pay attention in class?

–          Does the student have trouble staying on task or completing assignments?

–          Does the student come to class prepared and organized with all required materials?

I think those three simple questions address nearly all possible roadblocks to student success – at least the ones we can easily address in the classroom. Actually, they are really the simple keys to being a successful student. I have a sign in my classroom that reads: “Rules for Success: Show Up, Pay Attention, Do your Work.” What else can we say? Of course, there are also socioeconomic factors or issues of mental or physical health that we cannot so easily address. With the nearly universal access to email, should we be waiting for parent-teacher conferences to address any of these three questions? In the case of our school, parents can follow their child’s progress online and check in with any teacher whenever they feel there is a concern. The teacher can, likewise, send a quick email if an issue arises in the classroom at any time.

In short, I’m convinced that parent-teacher conference evenings are no longer relevant. Would it not be more efficient to have ad hoc meetings with parents to develop useful, practical strategies that a student can use to improve his or her outcome – regardless of their current achievement? Wouldn’t it be helpful to publish a set of common skills for success in any classroom? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make better use of technology to communicate student progress on a more frequent basis? Let’s find better ways to work together toward our common goal – which is to achieve the best outcome for all students.

What do you think? Leave a comment to let me know.

Hello out there? Anyone listening?

Sometimes I look at my students and I ask that very question, usually in my head, but sometimes aloud. We’ve all been there. Those days when one kid’s asleep, two more are texting, another is staring at the floor, one is drawing cartoon characters, and a whole bunch of the rest are just staring at you with blank faces, mouths agape. It feels as though only three kids are actually even listening to a single word I’m saying, let alone be even remotely interested! Every time it happens I’m dumbfounded. Why don’t they realize how important education is? Why are they so indifferent? Why so apathetic?

Recently I’ve been thinking quite a lot about that very thing. I began to wonder “Would I want to be a Bored studentstudent in this class?” What about the other teachers in my school? Would I want to be a student in those classes? I wasn’t too sure of the answer. I mean sometimes students talk about something they did in one of their classes and they seem to have really liked it, but I don’t think very many of them are hopping out of bed in the morning thinking “Yippee! Another day of school!” Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not naïve enough to think that students are going to skip to school every morning, whistling a happy tune. Heck, some days I don’t even want to be there. But is this really the best we can do? For the most part simply imitating the teacher-centered style most of us endured when we were students? There must be something better.

If we agree that there must be something better – what is it? I understand that some concepts require a teacher at the front of the room explaining what’s what. There’s no way around that. Students are novices and we can’t expect them to teach themselves or each other (that’s another blog entry in itself!). Having said that, I think we can allow them to take a bigger role in their own learning. I think that’s the golden idea right there. Oh, it’s tough – believe me. It’s not easy to stand by and let them take charge, but I think it’s a more effective way to get them engaged in their own learning. The passive approach just ain’t workin’, folks! When only about one third (at best) of our students seem interested in what’s going on at school, I wouldn’t call it a smashing success.

Ok, so how do we retool the factory? How do we shake off the chains of traditional instruction and really start to take some chances? Where do we find excellent, student-driven activities that will engage students and get them interested in what they’re learning? What will it take for us to risk letting go of the reigns a little bit? When will we realize that we can better than students spending so much time day dreaming and watching the clock? Who do we turn to for help and guidance?

I realize that I just asked a whole lotta questions and didn’t give many answers but that’s ok. I don’t claim to have the answers. If I had this all figured out you’d be listening to me speak on a lecture tour for $100 a head rather than reading my blog for free. What I do know is that if teachers start talking and sharing ideas then amazing things are bound to happen!

What do you think?

On Taking Time Off

Over the last few years some of my colleagues (including some who are also friends) have taken leaves of absence from teaching. They all have their reason for doing it: some to travel, some to further their education, some because they want a break. I never seriously considered it because I was afraid of losing my connection to my school. I mean, who would teach my classes? No one could possibly do it as well as I do! Could they? The school couldn’t possibly function without me! Could it? A large part of the joy of teaching comes from feeling part of a community and I thought I’d lose that by being away. Nope. That’s not for me, thanks. As I spoke to more and more people who took time off, I noticed they all said the same thing on their return: they loved the time off, enjoyed relaxing, and fit right in as soon as they came back. You know the old expression “it’s like you were never gone”?

Well, now I can happily say the same thing. Last spring I decided to apply for a leave of absence for one semester and it was approved! Woohoo! What a feeling as June approached knowing that I would be away from the classroom until the following February. Looking ahead to that break I truly realized just how much I needed it. We all work hard and, if you’re like me, you rarely take the time to check in with yourself to see how you’re doing. On that first day of school in September I realized just how much I needed it. I woke up knowing that I didn’t have to go to school and it felt great! Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and, some days, I even think I’m pretty good at it. But the feeling of absolute freedom I enjoyed was indescribable. I suppose that’s what retirement feels like in some small way. I was my own boss and could decide what to do with my day – every day.

Now that I’m back in the classroom, how do I feel? I’m happy to be back because I really do love my job. I’m bummed because – let’s face it – vacation is better than working. And I’m wondering about the possibility of doing it again. The semester allowed me to do a little travel, to take on some projects that I love, and to enjoy my hobbies. Most importantly, it let me spend a lot of quality time with my partner. It taught me to appreciate the little things we could do together. It reminded me just how important time together is. Her hours are quite flexible so she and I were able to spend time together living for a few months in a way few couples are able. I shall treasure that experience always.

Is a leave of absence something you’re thinking about? If your employer allows it and you can manage it financially, I can assure you it will never be something you regret. At the end of life none of us will remember the extra hours we put in at the office. Rather, we will look back fondly at spending time with those we love and cherish. Go for it! Oh by the way, the school was just fine without me in case you were wondering.

Enough memorization already!

Want to do better in biology? Just study more. I’m sure the same could be said for your subject right? Breaking the widely held belief that biology (or any subject) is a “study subject” meant for “memorization” is really tough and I haven’t been able to do it! Well, not entirely anyway. By the time my students get to grade 12 biology most of them have figured out that memorization just won’t cut it. My tests are open book and the students work in groups to answer questions that require them to think and apply what they’ve learned. That transition has NOT been easy!

Every Tuesday night from 7 o’clock to 9 o’clock I play on a trivia team in a trivia league (Warning: Nerd alert!) and I absolutely love it! Although a trivia contest is nearly pure memorization, the questions I like the most are the ones we have to try to work out as a team. I love the questions for which two or three of us each have a little piece of information that we put together to come up with an answer. The aspect of the game I like best is combining teamwork, application and problem solving. It seems to me that most of life is that way – we collaborate on problems by bringing our own contribution to the table. We apply what we’ve learned from past experiences when faced with new problems. We evaluate evidence and make decisions. That’s what I’m trying to teach in my classes and the approach I take to learning and assessment.

A few years ago I began to realize that everything I did in my own life that had any real value had very little to do with memorization. Let’s be clear about one thing: this idea may be new to me but it is not new. Mark Twain said “Education is what’s left over when you forget all the things the teachers made you memorize in school.” And as we all know, Twain’s words changed how we think about education. Wait . . . no they didn’t. That didn’t happen until a few decades later in 1973 with the publication of Jean Piaget’s book, To understand is to invent: The future of education. Ah, yes. That book finally opened our eyes to the error of our ways. Umm . . . wrong again. We still see students sitting in rows, dutifully memorizing facts to write down on recall tests. That’s the way I used to teach. After all, that’s the way I was taught.

So what’s the hold up? First of all, we tend to teach the way we were taught and it’s tough to break the hold of that influence. Additionally, it took a long time for me to get comfortable with all the other elements of being a teacher. I was focused on my content, classroom management, lesson planning, dealing with parents, making tests, marking . . . you get the picture. Who had time to think about pedagogy or philosophy of teaching? For the first few years I was barely one day’s plan ahead of my students!

Slowly, I began to realize that if I was going to achieve anything meaningful with my students, I had to stop having them memorize stuff. Instead, I had to teach them to ask questions, find answers, be curious, apply what they’ve learned, be skeptical . . . the list goes on. And that brings me to the third reason we have been so slow to adopt a model of less (or no) memorization: it’s hard work. Writing questions that challenge students to think and apply is difficult and time-consuming. Grading those assessments takes even more time. Designing lessons that highlight themes and connections is not easy. This approach demands a real commitment of time and effort that has to be compatible with everything else we try to fit into our day. I realize I’m not where I want to be but I am on the path. Nothing worth doing is easy. Realizing this, I will keep marching along, taking small steps, moving ever-closer to my goal. I’ll make mistakes and learn from them. I’ll continue to be led by the advice and example of others, following in their footsteps. As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Tell me about your efforts to leave memorization and busy-work behind and have students do meaningful learning.

On early graduation.

Everyone loves course registration time right? It’s the time of year when some students are busy choosing their classes and trying to work out their schedules so they can fit in all the courses they want to take. Others are modifying their choices because they might have failed a prerequisite course. Still others are trying to meet the minimum graduation requirements and get out of high school as quickly as possible.

Finsih LineThat got me thinking. Our government sets graduation standards and requirements in terms of the courses students are required to pass – grade 12 English, grade 11 math, a life role development course and so on. These requirements are expressed in courses, not in time, so why not let students graduate once they’ve achieved the minimum requirements rather than after having served a minimum sentence? Let them check off the items on the list and then check out of high school. It won’t be a surprise to anyone to learn that some students really aren’t very keen on school. Might they benefit from being able to get the job done and get out? Wouldn’t it motivate students to work a little harder to finish early? Not to mention ease some of the pressure save education budgets by getting them on their way sooner.

In an article published in January, 2012 in Education Week, Caralee Adams wrote about this very thing. She points out that some states are adopting policies (23 states already allow it) that encourage early high school graduation with a variety of incentive programs.

Let’s decide that we want students to have certain skills rather than ask them to occupy seats in our classrooms for a certain length of time. Once they’ve demonstrated those skills why not let them graduate? Instead, we have classrooms (or more likely out-of-the-way places they like to hide during class) filled with apathetic students who have already reached the entrance requirements for college or university or who are anxious to enter the workforce. At my school students must take a full course load so they are stuck filling their schedules with classes they don’t need or have no interest in because they failed one grad requirement. I think it’s time we made a high school diploma a measure of achievement rather than a certificate of attendance.

The possibility of early graduation might actually light a fire under students who are currently disengaged from our system. It is reasonable to expect that student interest will rise and behavioural problems will decline if students become intrinsically motivated to reach the goal of early graduation. Seems like a great carrot to put in front of the horse.

Stop right there. I know what you’re thinking. You don’t even have to say it. Allow me take off my rose-colored glasses because this issue is certainly not as simple as just waving goodbye as students head, smiling, out the door, diploma in hand. There are students who are simply not ready to leave high school early for reasons of emotional immaturity, lack of work ethic or, responsibility or a variety of other reasons. Once we have identified the challenges students might face with early graduation we have to start finding solutions. We must begin to develop career-readiness programs and provide counselling to students who have questions, concerns or need direction. We don’t want to do more harm than good by sending students out to the world without the skills (academic and otherwise) they need to be successful.

At the same time, there are many students who have a clear plan for what they want to achieve and would be motivated to achieve it sooner rather than later. Why make them remain in school not being challenged and feeling like they are wasting time? Rather, let’s challenge them to meet the prescribed grad requirements so they can move to the next phase of their lives if that’s what they choose.

What would this system look like? I don’t know. To complete the required credits in less time, students could employ some combination of traditional classes, online courses, evening or summer courses, or even independent study. Maybe we could develop competency-based assessments to measure student proficiency rather than requiring their butts in seats for a given length of time. Can anyone see the elimination of grades and classes in the distant shadows of the future? I can.

Why be educated? Part 3: There must be more

Hopefully, we can agree that there must be more value to education than just earning more money in life (although that’s a pretty good reason to study for that history test). I mean, what about those of us who don’t see “the Dollar” as our primary motivator? What about art and music and the love of nature? What about creativity and ethics? Doesn’t education have some inherent value apart from future earning potential? Is there something we can find that makes educational invaluable?

T.S. Eliot said “It is in fact a part of the function of education to help us escape, not from our own time – for we are bound by that – but from the intellectual and emotional limitations of our time.” I won’t pretend to be able to say it better than that great poet but I can write a little about what I think he was trying to say.

Gunpowder KegEducation has the unique power of being able to lift us from our present circumstance to reach heights otherwise unattainable. Sure, you can earn more money and, yes, you’ll feel more like you fit in (as I wrote in my previous two articles) but there’s a far greater benefit – something altogether intangible. Education empowers you to change yourself – to change your mind. Through education we can exceed what our parents achieved. Through education we can overcome the limitations of our class or social status. Education is a great equalizer for the disadvantaged. It is the tool by which each of us can forge a new and unexpected future for ourselves. I can’t recall a single student who stood out from the rest simply because they memorized all the facts or had the highest grades. The students who separate themselves from the pack in my mind are those who can think. They are the ones who are intuitive, inquisitive and are developing insight. As Eliot said, with education we can change the way we think and that is a powerful force indeed.

Am I alone in this or is that concept EXHILARATING? A single idea can change a mindset. One new notion can reshape our thinking. American author Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “[One’s] mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” And there it is. There’s the spark to the powder keg. Once you know something, you can never un-know it. We can never go back to the way we thought before. The mind is changed by new ideas and as it changes, it is capable of new things we could have never dreamed. A new idea is the tiny pebble that sends ripples out to all corners of the mind. We open ourselves up to new potential and limitless possibility. By learning from others we use the synergy that comes from the collective knowledge of human kind to expand our own capability exponentially. Education opens our eyes to the world around us and the way it works. It changes the lens through which we view the world. We become more aware of nature and humanity; of injustice and inequality. We begin to understand our potential to effect change as we weave our tiny thread in the complex fabric of the world.

We can excuse inaction from ignorance. We can forgive complacency in those who are unaware, but the educated among us cannot hide behind such excuses. When we are educated we are held to a higher standard. With education comes the responsibility to act. The question is no longer “Why be educated?” The question, now, is “What can I do?”

Why be educated? Part 2: I don’t want to be left out

So now we all know about the earning power of education and our students are all jazzed up
about going to class. They’re hanging on our every word in anticipation of those big, fat pay cheques they’ll earn by getting all smarted up. What do you mean yours aren’t?! Did you show them that graph?

Teenagers nearly always have a hard time seeing into the future. They’re pretty present-oriented, so the promise of a better lifestyle might not be quite enough to get them to memorize the dates of the French Revolution or to really care about that physics project. Is there some value in education that they can grasp right here in the present? Is there something they might be able to relate to in their day-to-day life?

The answer is yes. It’s no fun to be part of a conversation and have no idea what the others are talking about. Whether it be with parents, teachers, or peers the feeling is the same. The experience leaves us feeling marginalized, alienated and inadequate. We feel like we have no contribution to make. Think about watching a documentary or reading news stories of current events and being unfamiliar with the topic. Or not “getting” pop culture references in novels, TV or movies. Not to mention the hilarious science jokes your biology teacher makes! Now take that feeling and imagine it happening again and again, day after day. Would this become your norm? Would you become accustomed to it? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Would we ever get used to feeling left out? Rather, these experiences would be a constant reminder of our inadequacy.

Education can change all that. I remember a student rushing into class one day a couple of years ago to announce excitedly “I heard on the news last night about mad cow disease. We just learned about that in class and I knew everything they were talking about!” Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about! The sense of pride that student felt simply by being informed on a topic she had heard about in the news was palpable. There was no inadequacy or feeling of disconnect. Education has that effect on students. I explain the importance of education to students by reminding of them of those times they felt unable to participate in a conversation. Then I ask them if they’ve ever had an experience like the one I just described. Lots of them have. They remember how it felt. They remember how good they felt to be able to participate. They say things like “I felt so smart” or “I knew more than my big brother.” Many times, parents tell me how excited their son or daughter is to talk around the dinner table about what they’ve learned. When students are talking about the curriculum at home you know they’re excited about education! The sense of empowerment that comes with education cannot be over-emphasized and we should make it our priority to be certain that students realize that.

Of course none of us can know everything, but that’s not the point. That’s the difference between memorization and education. The former equips you to participate in trivia contests; the latter gives you the skills to ask great questions. Even more importantly, it gives the courage. That’s the real value of education. It’s not what you know, but what you realize you have left to learn. The real potential lies in our ability to expand our knowledge and stretch our minds to accept and generate new ideas. Without education, those are very difficult (some might say impossible) things to do. With education comes an open, inquiring mind. Inquiry is both the mother and child of education. We’ve all heard the young child asking “but why?” over and over; their curiosity growing with each new question and, in turn, prompting more questions.

We all agree that intrinsic motivation is the key to student performance. We can’t force students to learn – not any kind of genuine learning anyway. We can motivate to some extent with grades or even with the threat of consequences, but true achievement comes only when a person recognizes the value in a given task. Only when they see purpose in what they are doing will they become truly invested in it. Of course, the same is true for education. Even more so I would argue. If we are to make any kind of lasting impression on our students we must make education relevant. So next time a student asks “when am I ever going to use this?” you can confidently answer “Likely never. But that’s not the point”