Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What Happened Next (And Why It's Important)

In the first workshop at the primary school conference, participants went around the room offering names, experience, grade level, and reason for attending.

As the other teachers introduced themselves, it became clear that they all knew each other either because they taught together or because they shared colleagues elsewhere. Typical dialogue went something like this: "Hi, my name is Sophie, I teach third grade in Bedford, and I'm here to find out how to get my kids to like writing." You'd then hear, "Oh, Bedford -- I worked with your first grade teacher on phonics." And so it went until it was my turn.

Crossing Silos

I was the only attendee who consulted to teachers rather than who currrently occupied a classroom of my own. I gave my name, and said, "I taught at Brown for five years and am here to investigate the reasons for which my students were so sophisticated in certain thinking skills and so weak in others."

For a moment, I was afraid I had insulted everyone in the room. However, I was immediately flooded with handshakes and enthusiastic welcomes --none of these primary school teachers had ever spoken to someone who taught on the college level.

I was stunned -- and it raised this question:

How can a primary school teacher prepare her students to be effective writers and critical thinkers if she has never spoken to a university teacher about the standards and demands for which her students are headed? And worse yet for employers, how can future workers gain the skills necessary if no one is talking to them from the beginning of formal education?

Although there are exceptions, the situation turned out to surprise me even further: No teachers of any age group speak about common goals to the teachers in the next school to which they directly hand off their classes.

In other words, pre-school teachers don't seem to talk to primary school teachers. Primary school teachers don't talk to high school teachers, high school teachers didn't talk to university teachers, and university teachers don't talk to the people in business who would provide the context for these graduates learning lives ever after.

Sir Ken Robinson claims that our current education system is an elongated preparation for university -- to create university professors. I would agree that this is the implicit principle, but even without taking into consideration preparation for employment, even Sir Ken's idea is not well executed.

Cultural Silos are the Norm

According to these teachers and some in England with whom I've worked, there are exceptions on the academic level. Districts sometimes bring teachers together, although their priorities are often so different that there need to be special meetings just to find common ground.

Businesses, too, create forums in which they speak to students -- about careers, about particular business needs, and other topics that concern them. But these business leaders don't speak to teachers.

In fact, it's administrators who remain the only connections among learning environments -- from primary school through their first jobs.

A Sustainable Solution: Start with Culture

To understand the obstacles to conversations among key stakeholders, it's first essential to investigate the cultures that keep each group of isolated from the others when it comes to developing sustainable practices for innovation. The language high school teachers use to express successful thinking is quite different from that of business management, but the concepts are strikingly the same.

Once cultures were studied and investigated, what if there were regular conferences to which college professors and business leaders came together with primary, middle, and secondary school teachers -- and employers -- to discuss their expectations, needs, and challenges?

What if the cultures were discussed explicitly -- and common challenges and needs translated into common terms -- to leverage the resources of multiple fields all aiming toward the same goals?

If we could keep the conversation going among the key stakeholders perhaps we could crack this dearth of critical and creative thinking. Understand how to translate process among cultures, and this problem can be solved.

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