Originally published June 5, 2016 on CambridgeLearns.
I had the honour of attending a keynote presented by Dr. Gordon Neufeld a few weeks back. Dr. Neufeld’s work focusses on “attachment” and the power of relationships in the development of a child. We know intuitively that when a child has a strong bond with a parent, a teacher, or another trusted adult, they will do almost anything for that person. We also know that when that attachment is not present, children can be defiant, do the opposite of what is requested, and start to orient themselves towards their peers. One of the most profound statements Dr. Neufeld made during his keynote was, “We have to win our students back!” This statement resonates for me because I increasingly see students that schools have clearly lost. There are a few reasons why I think this is so.
In these times of increased accountability in education and with teachers saddled with the overwhelming pressure to “cover the curriculum” and prepare for standardized tests, school has become irrelevant to many students and disconnected from their reality. For these students, school is tolerated, school is something that is done to them, and school is something they try to survive. In fact, as a teacher reflected back on his schooling experience during a recent conversation I had with him, he said, “I didn’t really enjoy elementary or high school, and when I got out…” His words struck me. He was talking about his schooling experience as if he had just finished his prison sentence. He then went on to share that his educational experience changed after high school because then, he actually had some input regarding his learning. We clearly need to do a better job of incorporating student passions into the work we do in schools. Students do a tonne of incredible learning on their own, but because it doesn’t take place between 8:30 and 2:30 at school, we don’t seem to value it. Learning that takes place at school represents only a small percentage of the learning a child does.
A great example of this phenomenon is the recent fine arts performance at Cambridge Elementary titled, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. This play was about a magician and his assistant. Several times, the magician would send his assistant off with a task, such as preparing props, or finding items. Each time, the assistant would get side-tracked practicing and learning magic tricks because in reality, the assistant really wanted to be a great magician as well. The assistant learned so much each time she was sent off to do a task, but inevitably, the magician would return and become very upset because the tasks were never completed and because the assistant appeared to be doing nothing. I couldn’t help but feel that schools are very much like the magician in this play. We seem to think the learning opportunities we provide are the only ones that are valuable. The good news is that at the conclusion of the play, the Sorcerer acknowledges all the learning the apprentice had done and agreed to include one of her magic tricks in the performance. We need to make sure learning is relevant to students, places value on student passions, and that students are given the opportunity to learn through play.
Another reason “we have to win our students back” is that in our frenzy to “cover the curriculum”, “teach content”, and be accountable, we have lost sight of the fact that children need to be connected to people who care about them. Dr. Neufeld stated, “humans don’t do separation.” If a child comes from a busy home with working parents, has no other adult to attach to, and is surrounded by teachers who only focus on delivering content, that child will quickly seek help from people who are unable to really provide that support – peers. Dr. Neufeld shared that all children need to have a “home-base” at school and that person needs to be a caring and trusted adult.
Thankfully, all hope is not lost! I believe that schools are beginning to understand the important messages communicated by Dr. Neufeld. Some say that there is too much change in education. But really, can we afford to not change? Can we continue to live with the fact that almost half of high school students wait to “get out” of school so that the real learning can start? We are starting to see curriculum reform that focuses on the development of key competencies such as communication, creativity, problem solving and critical thinking, rather than a curriculum that is inundated with content that overwhelms students and teachers alike. Teachers are hearing the message that part of the important work they do in schools is connecting with students before directing them. And most important, those who work in schools are beginning to value and tap into the wide range of skills, talents, and passions that learners bring with them. Clearly, there is much more work to be done, but thankfully schools have started to fight the important battle to win back our children!