Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Switch

The Switch
by David Gentile

Every child begins their life with a natural curiosity about the world around them. This innate quality results in a learner who is essentially a sponge. Did you know that 90% of a child's brain develops during the first five years of life? I have been fascinated by early childhood brain development and consequently read more on this single topic than is probably healthy. In my own children, my wife and I began reading while they were in utero because a baby's brain begins development in the early embryo when cell division proliferates into millions of neurons in the brain. We continued to embrace their natural interest in virtually everything around them. Although taking the time to explain, show, and reexplain every phenomenon can be overwhelming. You have likely heard a child ask their series of "why" questions. You have also likely experienced, as I have, a "why" question that causes you to be at a loss for the answer. Such as, "why doesn't the sun burn out? or why don't we fall off the Earth since it is spinning?"Most of us would dismiss these questions with answers like "because" or "gravity" but if you have ever been in a debate with a four year old you know that will not do. As such, my wife and I came up with our unique answer, "why don't we research to find out why". This allows us to encourage their curiosity while also buying much needed wikipedia time. My eldest child, David, will turn 7 in October 2012 and my youngest, Grace, will turn 3 in April 2012. David began reading fluently before his 5th birthday and my daughter is well on her way. So far, both of their "Switches" are still on. There appears to be no end to their curiosity and interest in learning. David's Kindergarten teachers have been awesome in feeding his interest in the world around him. Grace's preschool has also fed her curiosity through discovery learning. My wife and I receive fantastic comments from their teachers in support of what a great job we did as parents or your children are so intelligent. We are almost embarrassed and feel compelled to explain that we did nothing extraordinary. We simply kept their "Switch" on and went with their innate need to learn. Every single parent can do what we do. There is nothing exceptional about our children's intelligence.

I want every child to experience the support my children have. I want every child to feel confident that there are no challenges to great nor any concept to difficult to learn. I want all parents to feel empowered by the knowledge they have everything they need to create a super learner despite their economic status or educational background. Frankly, my time pursuing my doctorate was not necessary and everything I have learned about learning came through personal research in a subject that fascinated me. I fed my inner child and followed my natural curiosity about the brain. I wanted to know why do some children succeed in school while others struggle to the point of surrender. I was enraged by the fact that some teachers created amazing learning environments while others turned their students' "Switches" off. The simple metaphor describes perfectly the first stage of any learning experience. Picture a dark room - no light coming in from anywhere in the room. Then imagine what happens when you switch the lights on. The room, regardless of the size, is filled with light immediately. I developed the comparison to learning to illustrate that regardless of how complex the topic may be if a child's "Switch" is turned on there is no limit to their ability to gain deep understanding of the concept. The vast majority of the time teachers or parents do not even need to turn the "Switch" on they must simply avoid turning it off! This picture is one I have seen far to often in my career. His "Switch" is clearly off, at least regarding the topic or concept being covered in this class. Why does this happen? When you ask people this question, you get a variety of responses depending on who you ask. Mostly responses assign blame either to the parent or the school but rarely does this make anything better for anyone - especially the child. If you can get everyone to simply refrain from the blame game and instead just agree that none of us want bored students we can get to keeping the "Switch" on.

"SWITCHON" is my way of explaining the picture to the right. This image was taken in one of my elementary schools, Bacon School, in a first grade classroom. Mr. Hudson is committed to keeping his students engaged in the learning process. The principal of the building, Dr. Cook, is a relatively new administrator but completely understands the importance of supporting students natural curiosity and interest in learning. All students can learn - more importantly all students want to learn. If we can simply use methods, techniques, and tools in the learning process that are in line with what kids are naturally interested in there is no limit. Our students' brains are like a flash drive that never runs out of space. If we foster learning environments that give students choice in their pursuit of learning a new concept we can keep or turn on their "Switch".

Currently the policy makers state that all students must graduate high school College and Career Ready. While I support the general concept of preparing students for the "real world" I get a bit hung up in the details of their quest.  Utah Governor Jon Huntsman once coined the phrase "sound-bite campaigning". He criticized a fellow GOP candidate for delivering "easy sound bites" rather than serious policy analyses in order to "get an applause line." My concern with the educational policy makers is that they too deliver "sound-bites" that on the surface sound extremely sound. If we get beyond the surface however, we discover that defining College and Career Readiness becomes increasingly difficult with each step backward from current high school seniors down to our current class of 4 year old preschool students. Reflecting back to Mr. Hudson's first grade class for a moment, ask yourself what will these students need to know and be able to do in order to be College and Career Ready? If you find yourself with a quick answer - "DANGER WILL ROBINSON" I fear you are lost in "sound-bite" space. It is impossible to know - scratch that - guess- what the world will require from this future class of 2023. Therefore, I chose to focus on the few things that we do know for sure. First, schools need to engage in "Switchon" learning by allowing students to incorporate their natural curiosity into every learning experience in the classroom. This may mean the use of technology, art, music, physical activity... whatever kids are naturally interested in should be used in the pursuit of learning any concept. We must move away from "drill and test" methods that are designed to prepare kids for high stakes testing. Regardless of whether the policy makers ever get around to creating authentic assessments to gauge student learning. The most inexpensive way to "test" students is the current multiple choice or short answer response assessments that currently define our public schools. We must embrace the use of current technology in our schools regardless of whether or not the grown-ups understand the importance. Think back eleven years when the current class of 2012 was in a first grade classroom and if we actually could have looked into the crystal ball and known that Jack Dorsey would unleash Twitter on the world...what would we have asked our students to know and be able to do? The students in Mr. Hudson's class were using clicker technology that allows the teacher to assess their learning on a 1:1 basis. I problem is shown on the smart board and each student works at their own pace to record their answer on the clicker when finished. No fear of calling out the wrong answer, the students do not have to worry if they are slower than their peers, and the teacher can determine in real time whether each student learned the concept. This sounds like we are preparing them for 2012 as the truth is in eleven years Twitter will be as dated as the first "bag phone" we may remember using for emergencies only. For all of those readers who can't remember a world without smart phones the first "cellular phone" came in a big black bag and plugged into the lighter in your car. It sounded terrible, analog, and was extremely expensive - thus why it was only used in an emergency.

So today's first graders face a world that is unknown, but we can keep their "Switches" on by using their natural curiosity and interest in the world. We need to celebrate teachers like Mr. Hudson and leaders like Dr. Cook who encourage risk taking in the classroom. The safest teaching methods, such as lecture, have their place in the classroom - but they can't be the only method if we hope to keep the light on in each of our students!

Switch On! Parents read to your children in utero and continue to support their interests for as long as you can. Although as parents we may not always "get it" we must consider that we may be raising the next Jack Dorsey.

Try something different today...

Recently, we visited New Milford High School. Eric Sheninger is the Principal and he tried something different a few years back. He embraced Twitter as a valid educational tool. Today all educators are trying to catch up with Eric because it is easy now for most of us to see the uses Twitter provides educators - Professional Learning or as a classroom instructional tool. When Eric embraced Twitter, however, it was new - strange - something only Hollywood Stars like Ashton Kutcher used. Most of us dismissed it as a fad, something that would come and go. While it may eventually go, while it is here it has revolutionized education (and the world). It has changed the way we view professional development and has opened countless new exciting doors. I want to thank the New Milford staff, students, administration, and especially Eric for responding to my random Tweet a few months back which read "cld we bring a small team (4) to visit your campus. i promise we will wipe our feet and clean up after ourselves. ur work is inspiring" For those who do not yet Tweet, I know there are typos and misspellings and my sad attempt at humor, cleaning up after ourselves was corny- you only have 140 characters to express your thought and capture the reader's attention. This was my first direct message and at the time I was completely new to Twitter. Eric Sheninger and I did not know each other. He works in Bergen County and lives hours from me. Without Twitter, this opportunity for learning from each other and sharing new ideas in order to keep improving education for our students would not have happened. Everyday, people like Eric and I from all across the world use Twitter in a meaningful way to learn. You can follow your natural curiosity and interests as far around the globe as you want.

Remember, it is not the destination but the journey that matters. College and Career Readiness for the Year 2023 is a complete unknown - but along the journey the final destination becomes a bit clearer. Enjoy the journey-

Follow your interests and dreams...