Leonard Plitqi, Chapter 1
Chapter 1. The Real Goals of Education
When I watch kids walk into the building on their first day of school, I think about what I want them to be like when they walk out on their last day. I also think about what I want them to be like on the day I bump into them in the supermarket 10 or 20 years later. Over the course of three decades watching kids walk into my schools, I have decided that I want them to
I want students to learn to use the resources around them. I want them to read something or see something they are interested in and follow up on it. I want them to have an idea and then get on the phone and call people they can talk to about it, or pick up a book and read more about it, or sit down and write about it. When I imagine one of my students as an adult, I imagine a person who is a thinker and a doer, and who follows his or her passions. I see an adult who is strong enough to stand up and speak for what he or she wants and believes, and who cares about himself or herself and the world. Someone who understands himself or herself and understands learning. Creativity, passion, courage, and perseverance are the personal qualities I want to see in my graduates. I want them to come upon things they've seen every day and look at them in a whole new way. I want them to feel good about themselves and be good, honest people in the way they live their lives. And, catchphrase or not, I want my students to score high on the “tests of emotional IQ” that life will inevitably throw at them over and over again.1
Finally, I want my students to get along with and respect others. Someone once asked me, “What is the most important thing a school does?” I replied that everything I believe about the real goals of education is not possible if the kids in the school do not care about and cannot get along with each other or with the people they meet outside of school. I believe that this is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about celebrating and respecting diversity, and it is at the heart of what makes a school and a society work.
When a kid leaves my school, I want her to have the basic life skills that will help her get along in the adult world—like knowing how to act in a meeting or how to keep her life and work organized. Basic stuff that too many schools forget about in their rush to cram in three sciences, three social studies, four maths, and so on. But I also want her to be the kind of person who will keep building on what she got in my school, who will keep developing skills, keep learning, keep growing. Each of us, if we live to be just 70 years old, spends only 9 percent of our lives in school. Considering that the other 91 percent is spent “out there,” then the only really substantial thing education can do is help us to become continuous, lifelong learners. Learners who learn without textbooks and tests, without certified teachers and standardized curricula. Learners who love to learn. To me, this is the ultimate goal of education. W. B. Yeats said it this way: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”
In 1999, the school board in Howard County, Maryland, removed two criteria from its official policy on determining high school students' grades. You know that neither of them were standardized tests. No, they were, and I quote, “originality” and “initiative.” This school board decided that those two qualities of a student's work were no longer important. They decided this because, they said, it is “impossible” to measure how hard a student tries or if a student's work is original. What they were really saying, and what way too many school boards are now saying, is this: If it can't be measured easily, then we can't care about it, we can't teach it, and we certainly can't determine if a kid has learned it. The solution? Take originality and initiative completely out of your educational goals and just teach to the test. It makes me scream.
Ernest L. Boyer, the renowned education expert and then-president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, once gave a speech entitled “Making the Connections.” In it, he said (beautifully),
I know how idealistic it may sound, but it is my urgent hope that in the century ahead students in the nation's schools will be judged not by their performance on a single test, but by the quality of their lives. It's my hope that students in the classrooms of tomorrow will be encouraged to be creative, not conforming, and learn to cooperate rather than compete.2
Boyer said this in 1993. He died two years later, after a long battle with cancer. Boyer knew that schools were headed in the wrong direction and he made that clear by saying that his hope was “idealistic.” It is so sad to me that if he were here today, he would not only see how idealistic this hope still is, but how far we have gone since then in the exact opposite direction.
I remember in the 8th grade, my science teacher had us do these posters that he put up all around the school. Though it wasn't exactly a test, it was a major project, and we all knew our grade depended on it. So there these posters were, hung all over the walls, and they were beautiful, and the teacher looked good to his boss and colleagues, and he probably felt pretty good about himself, too. I think this was the first time I realized how much of my education was total bull. I knew I hadn't learned anything about what was on those posters, including my own. And the teacher just hung them up. We barely talked about the posters, we made no connection with them to anything else, and he never went any deeper with the learning than that final project. My classmates and I had simply copied pictures and words out of the encyclopedia, and for that we not only passed the test of poster making, but were also assumed to have gained the predetermined “set of knowledge” for that quarter. Never mind that none of us had learned very much about science, let alone about initiative or originality. We did exactly what the “test” required us to do and nothing more—and so did the teacher.
Today, tests as meaningless as that test of poster making are determining the goals of education. Tests are dictating what we as a society hold valuable in our young people. Our addiction to testing is blinding us to what we believe in our hearts are the important lessons our children should learn.
If we worked backward, and thought first about the kind of adult we admire, we would not name characteristics that could be measured on a multiple-choice test. No single measurement or tool can get at what's really important in any area of learning. And the current push for one test that every kid has to pass in order to move to the next grade or graduate makes the whole situation even sadder.
What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.
~ George Bernard Shaw
With their focus on end results, too many schools and education policymakers forget how much the process influences how a kid takes in knowledge and then uses it. Too many forget how intrinsic motivation and desire are to learning. So much of our entire approach to education in the United States cheats kids out of the chance to become lifelong learners.
I want students to be able to find the information they need, to be able to go through the process of finding learning. And the key is that they are motivated to do it. I care more that a student is excited to go deeper in her exploration of the history of women in her native country than I do about that student's ability to answer every question on a standardized U.S. history test. I care way more about helping kids learn to apply knowledge than I do about presenting them with knowledge and finding out if they have memorized enough of the facts to spit them back at me. Most schools just give out the knowledge and then test it. They explain photosynthesis and then ask the kid to spit back photosynthesis. In between, no photosynthesis-like process happened inside that kid! He didn't take in that knowledge and then go to the library to find more books about photosynthesis, call a local greenhouse to go see how it works, or speak to a scientist who studies plants. And he certainly didn't grow at all in between receiving the knowledge and being tested on it. He took it in and spit it right back out—the information and himself, unchanged.
How do we know if our kids are becoming lifelong learners? If they are learning right now? If they are becoming “educated people”? I give a lot of speeches around the United States to people who walk into the room thinking they know what it means to be an educated person. They're ready to learn from me about how to educate, but they feel pretty confident that they know what an educated person looks like. And then I show them that famous scene from the movie My Cousin Vinny. You know the one I'm talking about. Marisa Tomei is on the stand proving to the jury that it couldn't possibly have been the defendants' car that left the tire tracks found at the scene. She spews out all kinds of facts and theories and historical knowledge about cars to demonstrate her case. She generalizes, she pulls things together, she teaches what she knows to the courtroom. It's an awesome scene. And then I stop the tape and ask the audience if they would consider her to be “an educated person.” If I see that there are still people who think, “Well, but she's a hairdresser, so she can't really be educated,” I sometimes ask them, “If she had the same knowledge about and passion for cars, but was a doctor instead of a hairdresser, would we consider her educated then?” Of course we would.
Regardless of who you are, if you can get up and be passionate about something and tell others about what you know, then you are showing that you are educated about that topic. This is what an exhibition3 is: It is kids getting up and talking passionately about a book they've read, a paper they've written, drawings they've made, or even what they know about auto mechanics. It is a way for students to have conversations about the things they have learned. Exhibitions are the best way to measure learning because they put the kids right in the midst of their learning, which makes a lot more sense than asking them to sit quietly for an hour and fill in test bubbles with a pencil. And because exhibitions are interactive, they propel the kids to want to learn more. That is what matters.
I remember one time when I was taking a group of 8th graders on a trip to Washington, D.C., by train. The conductor was really having fun talking with them and hearing about their plans for the trip. The kids told him about the research they had done and the decisions they had made together. Then the train conductor told them he wanted to find out how smart they were. So he started quizzing them on state capitals. It is so sad to me that after everything he had learned about them—their unique personalities and skills—and after seeing how passionate they were about learning, he still wanted to know if they were really “smart kids,” and he, like so many, thought a memorization test was the way to determine that.
Another example that I use to show people what learning really is is a segment of a videotape on math and science learning called A Private Universe.4 The video was produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and shows all these quick interviews with Harvard students, faculty, and alumni on graduation day. Most of them look so “educated” in their caps and gowns and flowing academic robes. And then the interviewer asks them one of two questions: “What causes the seasons?” or “What causes the phases of the moon?”
Twenty-one of the 23 randomly selected Harvard folks give the wrong answer. What's more, their wrong answers reveal the same misconceptions about these things that the answers of grade schoolers do. Then the interviewees are asked to list all the science classes they've taken over the years, either at Harvard or in high school. When I show this video to audiences, I say, “Come on, they've taken every kind of science course possible and passed every one of them, and done this and that, but they can't apply it to something as basic as the change of seasons!?” Because of their Harvard diplomas, these grads are going to become some of the most powerful people in our world, but what kind of power is it when you can't apply the knowledge that the diploma stands for? Elliot Washor, my longtime friend and the cofounder of The Met and The Big Picture Company, points out that this says a lot about how too many schools view learning. He relates it to what we are doing at The Met and our Big Picture schools in this way: “They say knowledge is power. We say the use of knowledge is power.”
My point is that learning is about going beyond the knowledge given to you in a class or in a book or at a museum. Learning is personal. It happens one on one, it happens in small groups, it happens alone. Sure, a conference, a speaker, a lecture is motivating—but the real learning happens after. It's what you do with it, how you integrate it, how you talk to your family, friends, and classmates about it. That's what learning is. As noted psychology and education expert Seymour Sarason reminded me recently, it's similar to psychotherapists' belief that patients don't get better during the hour, but between the hours.
I'm not suggesting we throw out everything schools do now or everything those Harvard kids learned. I'm suggesting that we look more deeply at what we define as learning and be honest and try different things and see what works. Learning is about learning how to think.
My new friend Tom Magliozzi, from National Public Radio's popular show Car Talk, has a lot to say about what learning really is in the book he and his brother wrote, In Our Humble Opinion. One of my favorite parts is when Tom, a man with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from MIT, says this:
It seems to me that schools primarily teach kids how to take tests (a skill one hardly uses in real life unless one is a contestant on a quiz show). Elementary school prepares kids for junior high; junior high prepares them for high school. So, the goal—if we can call it that—of schools is to prepare kids for more school.5
Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg has written about the dichotomy between his “real world” success and the difficulty he had studying psychology in college. Here's a quote from him that reminds us that, even in higher education, there is often a huge split between what we are taught and expected to learn, and what is actually important “out there”:
I have now been a psychologist for 21 years, and one thing of which I am certain is that I have never—not even once—had to do in the profession what I needed to do to get an A in the introductory course, as well as in some of the other courses. In particular, I've never had to memorize a book or lecture. If I can't remember something, I just look it up. The way schools set things up, however, they reward with As the students who are good memorizers, not just at the college level but at many other levels as well.6
Learning is not about memorizing. Learning is about being mindful. Mindfulness is a concept I learned about a while back, and it really makes sense to me as something we are trying to develop in our students at The Met. Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of the books Mindfulness7 and The Power of Mindful Learning.8 In these books, she talks about how cultivating mindfulness is helping people realize that the world is full of interesting possibilities for learning, and that the world will always look different from different perspectives. Our education system should see creating mindful learners as its goal. Learners who are mindful of all that surrounds them and all that is inside them. Here's Langer, quoted in Parade magazine:
Too often, we teach people things like, “There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything, regardless of the circumstances.” What we should be teaching them is how to think flexibly, to be mindful of all the different possibilities of every situation and not close themselves off from information that could help them.
I love tennis. When I was younger, I went to a tennis camp, and they taught me how to hold a racket when I served. Years later, I was watching the U.S. Open, and I realized that not one of the players held the racket that way.
The problem comes in the way we learn. We are rarely taught conditionally: “This might be a good grip for you.” Usually, we're taught: “This is the right grip.” Being mindful—using imagination and creativity to learn what works best for you—is what makes the difference between an average player and a champ.9
Teaching is Listening, Learning is Talking. ~ Message painted on a Met advisor's truck by his students
When I lay out my vision of the real goals of education in an orderly looking list, like I did on page 1, I worry about what people, teachers in particular, will do with it. I worry about what they will interpret it to mean about teaching. I don't believe that you can separate teaching from learning. Please don't look at my list and say, “OK, I agree that these are the things kids should learn, so now let's set out a rigid point-by-point curriculum that can be taught to a class of 25 students.” To me, the act of being a teacher is understanding these goals of education, understanding how learning works, and figuring out how to apply all this to each student, one at a time. I know that it would be pretty easy for someone to take the goals I believe in and contort them so they fit nicely and easily into a lecture-based curriculum designed to be assessed with a standardized, multiple-choice test. But being a teacher—and building a system of education, for that matter—is about taking these goals and creating the best possible environment for supporting kids and learning. It is not about taking these goals and finding a way to fit them into the traditional methods of schooling.
Here's an example of how educators can miss the point: There are people who believe that learning to be a moral human being is the most important goal of education. So all these curricula have been developed around teaching moral character. There are textbooks with “moral conflict scenarios” that sound good on paper, but may have nothing to do with where a particular kid is at right now. Then there are multiple-choice tests to assess whether the kid knows what is moral and what is not. Morality is this huge, hands-on, real-world issue, and well-intentioned schools are taking the students' hands and world right out of the equation.
Just having the right goals is not the answer. It is how you reach those goals—the act of teaching—that is so critical. Another example: If we say that every student in the United States should understand democracy, which I think we all agree on, most people think, “OK, well, kids learn about democracy by reading the Constitution and talking about how it was developed, and so on.” Yes, this is very cool stuff to know. But while they're learning these things, most kids are not making one democracy-inspired decision throughout their entire 12 years of schooling. Most kids either aren't allowed to or don't believe they have the right to make decisions about anything significant during the years they are in school. So, to me, if we're trying to teach kids about the importance of democracy and being good citizens and about voting and all that comes with it, we really should be giving kids the opportunities to make real decisions and take real responsibility for what is going on around them. They should actually be voting, not just talking about it.
The act of being a teacher is the act of taking the goals I've described and then using your skills and love for kids to figure out how to create the best environment to help your students reach those goals. At the same time, you have to remember that every kid approaches learning in an individual way and will meet those goals in that individual way. And every kid is coming to you with his own personal baggage that may have to be worked through before he can even begin to learn what you are trying to teach him. The teacher's role is to find what that way is for each kid. Teaching becomes figuring out how to see and listen to each kid, one kid at a time, so that the kid can reach the goals for himself or herself. It is about finding the right relationship between the student and the adult, the relationship that works well for both of them. And, most importantly, teaching cannot happen in a vacuum. The community and the child's family must be included in every way possible. Parents are the student's first and most important teachers and they cannot, and must not, be left out of the education equation—not even when there are “professionals” around.
In the early 1970s, I was placing student teachers in schools with “open classrooms.” These schools were influenced by a big movement in the '60s that said having kids doing projects in small groups was a better set-up for learning than the traditional lecture format. One of my student teachers, a young, idealistic woman, turned to me one day and said, “This is great, Leonard, but when am I really going to learn how to teach?” She was standing there in an exciting, rich learning environment, but she couldn't see it because it didn't match her idea of what teaching was, which was standing up in front of the room, looking out at quiet rows of faces, and pouring knowledge into them.
Teaching is so much more than I ever thought it would be.
~ A Met advisor, after his first year
Unfortunately, to most people, teaching is the giving of knowledge. What are you going to tell the students? What is your expertise? But teaching is really about bringing out what's already inside people.
At The Met, we have completely redefined teaching. We've even changed the name from “teacher” to “advisor” to symbolize how we're breaking the stereotypes surrounding the profession. Our teachers are not simply givers of knowledge, but adults who inspire the students to find their own passions and their own ways of learning and who provide support along the way. Not by being a charismatic lecturer, but by being a great coach, role model, motivator, advisor, and, yes, teacher. Not by showing students where to find the knowledge in the textbook, but by helping them find the knowledge in the real world. Not by giving kids the answers, but by brainstorming with them about how to solve the problems. Not by telling students what they have to read, but by letting them choose their own books, based on what they are interested in. Not by getting students to write papers that meet a certain set of classroom, school, or state standards, but by working with them one-on-one to revise their papers until they feel good about what they've written and it meets their own standards. At The Met, advisors are an integral part of an environment that allows students the freedom to find themselves with the support and motivation of inspiring adults. This, to me, is exactly what a school should be.
When we hire teachers at The Met, we do it in this really democratic way, with all of the staff and some students involved in the decision making. Our main criteria for new teachers are that they love and are committed to kids, and that they themselves are lifelong learners. When I am interviewing someone, I ask myself, is this a person who can be a role model to a kid through his or her own excitement about learning? I also try to see how they interact with kids. Are they relating to them and respecting them? If I get a chance to observe candidates in a teaching context, I am more interested in where their attention is than I am in how good the lesson is: Are they more interested in the content or the sound of their own voice than they are in the kids sitting right in front of them?
We have plenty of people who can teach what they know, but very few who can teach their own capacity to learn.
~ Jon Sharp10
When a teacher loves kids, is excited about the act of teaching, and is a learner himself or herself, that is when the best teaching happens—whether it is in his or her “area of expertise” or not. I once had a teacher who taught a class on the Bible, not as a religious work but as a piece of literature, and she had never really studied it before. She told me later that, during that class, she was the best teacher she had ever been, because she was on the same level with her students—she was experiencing it all for the first time right along with them. This meant she wasn't saying things like, “Look at the metaphors in here and compare them,” but was actually asking questions that she herself didn't know the answers to, like, “What do we think about this passage compared to this one?” It was very exciting for her and very invigorating for her students.
Another time, I had a home economics teacher who had to teach math to a small group of students who were struggling. She herself was not very good at math. Some might say, “Oh, no, that will never work,” but it was some of her most brilliant teaching. I would watch her sitting with those six girls, and they'd be figuring out those problems together. She was comfortable with the students knowing that she didn't know everything. She was comfortable with the idea that she was not just there as question answerer, but as a role model who could show kids how to find the answers. She wasn't yelling at them about why didn't they understand it; she didn't get impatient with their lack of knowledge. She really went through the learning experience with them. And they went through it with her.
This is not to say that teachers shouldn't know content. The more knowledge you have, the easier it can be to learn more because you know which questions to ask. But I believe that knowledge can also get in the way sometimes. It's terrific for teachers to have depth in a certain area, as long as they don't just hand it over. They have to use that deep understanding to help their students discover the learning on their own. Teaching and learning are about problem solving. Education is the process by which you put teachers and learners in the best possible environment for them to do this together. And the best possible environment is one where people feel safe, supported, and respected, and where kids and adults are excited and passionate about learning.