As Lieberman spoke about the challenges of schools in meeting the increasingly complex needs of students in an age of globablization, I was struck by a thought I had just recently had while reading "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (Richard P. Feynman)
The author writes of being a university student and observing his peers using a tool in another class, and not applying their allegedly already-existent mathematical knowledge in that context:
They were all excited by this "discovery" -- even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already "learned" that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn't put two and two together. They didn't even know what they "knew."
I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way -- by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!
This passage totally drives home the absolute necessity for teachers to move from rote memorization to teaching for understanding! It’s not a new concept, this need to ensure deep learning; we’ve known for years that we need to do this, but how? HOW?
We learned of Yvonne, a 40-year teacher working in a high needs neighbourhood in south LA, who invited her very resistant group of students into a conversation about the use of the word “nigger”, a very relevant issue for them. Rather than a lecture on the novel they were about to read together, this teacher posed a few strongly worded questions/statements and invited students to respond in small groups. The level of student engagement was high; they were actively involved in constructing their own knowledge, making meaning by “doing” the work, rather than listening to an “expert” download her interpretation. Once the students were hooked, the teacher more easily moved to facilitating learning through the originally intended novel study.
Lieberman shared the stories of other teachers who have also struggled with this paradigm shift in teaching, and have documented their learning online. Many success stories included an emphasis on active involvement of students and teachers as co-learners. Rather than “solo artisans”, these teachers have become members of a professional community. It doesn’t mean one has to talk to large groups as people; it could be as easy as publishing a website of learning, so that others can benefit from one’s discoveries and apply them to their own classrooms.
It was very self-affirming to hear Lieberman recognize that systemic leaders often forget the daily grind of teaching, and that it is the classroom teachers who hold much of the knowledge, and therefore a necessity exists to create systemic structures that allow teacher leaders to learn and lead effectively in the concept of their role.
District leadership needs to encourage principals and teacher leaders who are expanding beyond their own comfort zones by providing time and support for these individuals to reflect on identity and learning, to pursue deeper learning, and to share their learning with others.
One size does not fill all, and recognizing this with an open spirit and a readiness to build in structures that allow for multiple entry (and exit) points can support the sharing of knowledge and ideas, even when different from one’s own.