Guest post from Lausanne Learning Teacher Mentor David Yarborough

I recently had a very interesting exchange during a presentation on creating innovative student-driven classroom environments. The question I posed was, “Why Change?.” I asked the interview panel what might be some concerns of a faculty if change was being suggested and what responses they might have to the central question of why would a school change to more creative and project-based methods of instruction. One member of the panel responded that a reaction could very well be, “We don’t see any reason to change. We have been very successful, our students go to the best universities, and our enrollment continues to remain stable. We have done this by providing a traditional teacher-driven education founded in the most classical definition of education”.  A significant number of the panel members felt that in those cases if the school in question refuses to acknowledge the available research data on how people best learn it is better to move on rather than try to convince the institution that there was a reason to change.

My response was that my main target in trying to facilitate change was not the faculty, although their cooperation was crucial to any level of success. My main concern was the learning experience of the students involved and so it was worth my effort, even if I ultimately failed, to try to lead this particular faculty to an answer of why a successful school would change how it went about its business. It would be the students who would benefit the most by any new innovative change that enhanced their experience. Some faculty members would see the possibilities in change, embrace implementing the change, and eventually see hoped for benefits of the change. Those who refused to be a part of the change would either be so good at their current teaching methods that they could continue to be a part of the faculty or they would have to move on to another institution better fitting their style.

So what would be my answer to the essential question of why a successful school might make key changes in how they taught? My first answer it rather simplistic; Why not?. If you are doing something extremely well does that mean that it cannot be done better? If I am a coach of an undefeated state championship team, do I sit down with my coaching staff at the end of the year and tell them that we play the game as well as it can be played so there is no reason to evaluate our performance or even entertain the thought that we can be even better. Would I ignore that every other team that we defeated would take the same position and not try to improve to defeat us next year? The answer is obvious. No great coach has ever taken the position that their particular strategies and preparation is an absolute, that it simply cannot be done any better. There is always a better way and the only way to discover it is to try. I try to imagine what a parent might say to me in a parent conference if I told them that their student was doing everything as well as they possibly could and that they should accept their average grade as being the best the student can be. There is no need for the student to get extra help or review how they study. This is as good as it gets.

Education is the only industry, and it is an industry, that accepts what they do and have done for many years as the “right way” to educate kids. No other industry would ignore new brain research and statistics of below average achievement and stick to a method of delivery. As a cancer survivor, had it not been for the incredible work of doctors and researchers who remain convinced that treatment for cancer can improve and that eventually they will discover a cure, I very well might not be typing this blog. Certainly the surgery done robotically would not have been a possibility if in the 1950’s scientists would have determined that they had found the absolute right way to treat bladder cancer. And yet you walk into most classrooms in many of our schools and you find neat rows of desks with a teacher in front of a room and students dutifully taking notes on what the teacher has deemed is important for them to know. Oh we have moved from chalkboards to smart boards, but that is like getting the same Christmas present every year just wrapped in different paper and with a new ornate bow. Where would Apple be if they had stuck with the first IPhone? What would have happened to General Motors or Ford if they had determined that they cars of the early 1960’s were the ultimate driving machine. Every industry spends a great deal of time and money every year to create a better product.

At the beginning of the presentation I mentioned earlier, I asked the members of the panel to write down on the walls of the room where I made the presentation all of the characteristics and qualities they look for in potential new hires at their consulting firm. I had drawn a circle with the initials of the firm written in the middle and they circled qualities and then drew arrows to the firm’s name in the center. The answers were predictable; creativity, open-mind, knowledge, ability to work together collaboratively, perseverance, innovative, self-motivated were among the responses. After they were finished, I changed they consulting firm’s initials to the word, “School”. I asked the panel if these qualities were the ones they sought in new hires would it not make sense that they be the qualities we taught and rewarded in schools?

So how do I answer the question of why an institution might want to attempt to change? From a personal standpoint, I want to get better at what I do as an educator. I want to try change because I believe in the innovative and creative spirit of my students. I know I may have days where I fail, but I had those when I lectured. As a football coach, our staff made changes on a weekly basis to try to get better and to give our athletes a better chance to succeed. The classroom is no different. Call me idealistic, but I envision a school where students never think they go to school because they have to. They go because they want to. I want to try changes, even if what I do is already successful, because I want to get better and I believe I can. I want my class to be a place that students can’t wait to go to everyday because there is always something new and exciting that may happen. Schools change because they want to see the incredible things creative and risk-taking students are capable of. Student ideas are not yet jaded by adult cynicism, they are not impacted by political or social bias, and they are often new, original, and fresh. I never have a day that I do not learn something new from my students and that happens because I encourage them to teach me. One of my former 8th grade students wrote me a note at the end of the year. She told me that I did not teach her content as much as I taught her how to teach herself.

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