Voices in Education

The Key to Change: Teachers Working Together
American education has come in for criticism for decades, much of it withering. The majority of it stems from the same desire: most of us want all students to leave PreK–12 schooling knowing how to learn, how to think deeply and critically, and how to be capable of communicating ideas and information. We want them to leave school with better-than-basic skills and knowledge in many disciplines. We want this because these competencies are required to maximize their potential in later education, in the ever-changing landscape of work, and in the complications of contemporary life in general.
What the criticism continues to call out, however, is that we are far from reaching these goals with all children, especially those who live in poverty, a vastly greater number than makes sense in this enormously wealthy country. Success stories are all too rare in the bulk of urban and rural public schools, where students are plagued by deprivation not limited to economic hardship. When we listen to teachers in higher education and employers, it’s impossible not to think that even affluent students arrive on their doorsteps without deeply rooted thinking skills, curiosity and motivation to learn, and the kind of communication skills required for productive interactivity with others. If this were not so, the Common Core Standards initiative wouldn’t have seemed necessary.
I live in Baltimore, and, listening to educators there, it’s easy to think that unless large systemic challenges are finally acknowledged and addressed, we will make no headway in delivering the learning that all students deserve. Traveling around the country working with teachers interested in adopting a discussion-based method that nurtures thinking, language skills, visual literacy, and collaboration, I’m clear on how broad the need and desire for change is.
It’s unfortunate that we have no consensus about how to change our culture at large and attain equity, and as a result, no forward consensual action. Quandaries exist within education as well: how to change teaching to make it more effective, how to determine if the desired knowledge and abilities are in place within students, and how to ensure it’s in place in all of them. Approaches in all three categories—how to teach, how to assess, and how to ensure equity—have been disputed for decades. The ways and means intended to resolve the challenges have been at least as misguided as they have been unsuccessful. In my view, a central reason for this is that they have come from outside the classroom—from the likes of politicians, publishers, pundits, and bureaucrats—and they have omitted the intelligence and knowledge of the people asked to enact them: teachers.
It’s time to put teachers in a decisive role in determining how to teach the students they face every day. It’s teachers working together to create what have been termed “learning communities” that will lead to successful change—working within individual schools, across all grades, and cooperating among like-minded others. To do so, they need support, ideas, and tested strategies from many quarters. Easy communication among them can be enabled by the Internet, also the source of a previously unthinkable array of visual and textual information useful as starting points for learning, answers to questions, and means to present and share what is learned by both teachers and students. Supportive, enlightened leadership will always be essential, as well new information as it comes along, but it is teachers sharing their intelligence, experience, love of children, knowledge of teaching, and day to day interactions with others–as they discuss teaching, learning, and assessing–that will bring about a new and better tomorrow.

About the Author: Philip Yenawine is a cocreator of Visual Thinking Strategies, and, as creative director of the Watershed Collaborative, helps figure out ways to provide online professional development that sticks and enables teachers to easily share ideas, strategies, and information. He has written books for children and adults to aid looking at art and has two books published by Harvard Education Press: Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Strengthen Learning Across School Disciplines (2013), and most recently, Visual Thinking Strategies for Preschool (2018).