School change: the shift from knowing to doing.

by Steve Wyckoff on September 30, 2010

As I talk with individuals about school change one of the issues that always arises is the sense that teachers get that they are being criticized for not being good teachers. I always try to point out when I talk about school change that teachers are doing the best job they’ve ever done, at what we’ve always done in education.

The issue is this, the needs of our kids after they graduate have changed dramatically. And therefore what we do in K-12 schools needs to change dramatically.

One of the fundamental changes that has occurred very subtly over the last several decades, is the need for our students to be able to do something with what they know, not just know something.

There are a couple of different aspects to this need. First of all, for decades and decades, it was sufficient to just know a lot of stuff. That’s what separated the educated from the uneducated. And that was okay because the uneducated could still go out, and if they were willing to show up every day and work hard, they could earn a good living.

And Americans are known for their work ethic. So that worked well.

But gradually the need to be able to do something with what you know became paramount. In 1950 65% of jobs were unskilled. They required no post secondary education. Just show up and work hard and you could be successful.

Today those numbers have changed dramatically. In fact about the same percentage, 65% of jobs, require the individual to have acquired some type of technical skills in order to successfully do their work. The real kicker is those necessary skills are always changing. So the need to not only be able to do something is important, but the ability to learn new skills and apply them is now extremely important.

Howard Gardner in his latest book, Five Minds For The Future, does an outstanding job of describing the need for our students to not simply know about a subject, but to practice the discipline of that subject. It isn’t enough to know about biology. We must allow our students to practice the discipline of a biologist. That same logic can be applied to any subject area.

Obviously, it’s impractical to have every student practice the discipline of every field. There simply isn’t enough time. So we need to be figuring out how to allow students to sample the various disciplines and then begin to choose those fields that are most personally interesting to them.

This solves another major issue that we face in schools. By my estimation less than 5% of our kids are authentically engaged in the educational process in our schools. And according to Gallup’s research, 50% of our students are either going through the motions at school, or are actively undermining the teaching learning process.

There is ample evidence to show that students who are given the choice to choose fields that are interesting to them, and are allowed to learn by actually practicing the discipline of that field, are dramatically more engaged than the students who were not.

This means that schools must begin to analyze their entire curriculum, and learning experiences, and figure out ways to move to a learning by doing model.

So I’m not criticizing teachers’ effort or results when I say they need to change. But I am criticizing leaders for not “leading” their schools to models that are more beneficial to our students. That’s what I mean when I talk about school change.–Steve Wyckoff

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