Voices in Education

Seize the Opportunity
It’s hard not to be aware of the challenges we face as a country and global community. Whether it’s terrorism, climate change, political and government dysfunction, poverty, shootings, underemployment, or bias-related violence—and this is the short list—it’s hard not to be pretty depressed by the news. Distressingly, the generations responsible for the state of our contemporary world—and this surely includes my own—haven’t had what it takes to avoid disasters, mend what’s broken, or even face the issues squarely.

Those of us involved in schools contend with our own specific trials amid the larger context of life as we live it:

• Too many kids don’t attain basic skills—much less ones that set them up to solve the problems with which we live—at our peril.
• Too many come to school ill prepared to prosper. 
• The public sphere provides constant negative critique without recognition of the difficulties faced daily by teachers in the classroom.
• The culture of testing dominates K–12 education despite a near consensus that it doesn’t have the desired positive impact on learning.

If that weren’t enough, as of the past few years, teachers have been told to meet demanding new standards—the Common Core State Standards—that unfortunately seem to exacerbate existing troubles rather than mitigate them.

But is there any opportunity in this? As I see it, the Common Core anchor standards—the overarching goals for K–12 education (not the often unreasonable, yearly, grade-level, subject standards)—set goals that enable students to become the people we need to fix our ailing world: people with habits of thinking deeply and reasoning with evidence. Ones who know how to solve problems and are aware of how they do it; people who, in fact, know how to learn. Ones who have the capacity to express themselves orally and in writing with clarity and precision to present what they know, think, and feel. Who engage with the world with curiosity and, importantly, have the confidence to apply what they know to master new and unfamiliar tasks. Who work with others easily, debate, think, and rethink complex issues. We need young people who are truly ready to take on the challenges of later schooling, work in fields that are still being invented, and tackle the problems that keep peace at bay and our environment unstable at present.

My question is this: are the ways we teach now sufficient to produce new generations ready and able to meet the challenges facing us? The one-size-fits-all curricula supplied by big publishers actually fit very few circumstances well. The methods they employ put too much emphasis on direct instruction and too little on teaching students how to learn—which is one way to summarize the Common Core anchor standards. I want teachers to seek new strategies to redirect part of their teaching to more learner-centered approaches, ones that result in capacities not now achieved—and that might, in fact, create a foundation for direct instruction to work better than it does.

In my view, to reach new goals we have to add new teaching paradigms. One of these is the use of open-ended discussions during which students explore unfamiliar material together, allowing for authentic discovery and scaffolding of abilities and knowledge among peers. I’ve had a hand in creating a discussion-based method that uses art to engage participation and spark curiosity, building on skills students have had since infancy: the capacity to observe and make meaning out of what they see. Enhancing visual literacy, image discussions also nurture oral expression, deep exploration, and exercise many arenas of thought and feeling.

On account of beginning with intriguing images, such experiences engage most—and often all—students. And once the method is used to discuss images, teachers can conduct the explorations of material of all sorts, from poetry to math word problems, to charts and maps, to primary source documents and scientific phenomena. By way of discussions where students build banks of observations and collectively hash out their possible meanings, they use what is known to understand what is not. Along the way they usually become curious and want to know more. Once curious, students’ teachers can help them pursue answers to questions and conduct research to find new information using available technology, counting on the rigor that comes from wanting to learn something—precisely what we need from the people who inherit endemic challenges. And what the State Standards hope to achieve over the course of K–12 education.

About the Author: Philip Yenawine is co-creator (with cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen) of Visual Thinking Strategies. He is the author of Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines (Harvard Education Press, 2013).