“First Day” of School

Many schools across the country and around the world are getting started. Teachers are getting ready for the “big day.”

Matt Scully in Charlotte recently posted a nice piece with advice for new (and old) teachers for the first few weeks of school. The essence of the post is that the three most important things for teachers to do are to: “(1) build community, (2) establish (and use) expectations, and (3) frame relevance and have your students set goals for the year.”

In the middle school I plan to open in 2013, we will devote the first 4-5 weeks to these three topics as we make a local history (and in the process learn about each other and what drew us to the Triangle).

Meredith Stewart writes that the school year is a marathon, not a sprint, so even though she’s battling a cold, her students will have a full year to discover how fortunate they are to be in her class.

But what if we shift focus away from how teachers prepare for the first day of school, and look at how students prepare for the first day of school. There’s this odd notion that “summer is over” and it’s “time to get back to business,” but in today’s world, where we can learn 24/7, it seems odd — and indeed, potentially harmful — that students need to rely on teachers to tell them when to start learning.

Indeed, the notion that adults who have written a curriculum map for others to follow know what students need to learn is antiquated. We live in a world where “65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.

As Sir Ken Robinson eloquently puts it in his popular video about how schools kill creativity, “we have no idea what’s going to happen, in terms of the future. No idea how this may play out.”

So here’s my thought:

If you are a student, and you are waiting for the first day of school to start learning new things, you are missing the whole point of being a life-long learner. And while you will undoubtedly learn wonderful things from your teachers, they are not your only source of information.

Will Richardson, quoted in a recent USA Today article about Personal Learning Networks, said “I really believe that the best teachers in (students’) lives are going to be the ones they find, not the ones given to them.”

My worry is that we are teaching students to rely on teachers to learn, and that when you remove the teachers from the equation, students lack initiative to be the sort of life-long learners we all need to be in today’s world.

Alan November noted some years ago that there are three skills students need in the 21st century:

1) Deal with massive amounts of information — sift through it, make meaning and move on;

2) Work with people all over the world — learn global communication skills and how to make teams;

3) Teach people who are self-directed and don’t need a boss to tell them what to do.

If teachers direct learning, and students wait for teachers to tell them what they need to do in order to get the good grade, how can students learn to be self-directed?

I also worry that a set curriculum cuts off opportunities to fully explore the first two skill areas. But that’s another post (or two).

For now, I’ll question the idea that there is any such thing as the “first day” of school — in today’s world, if you are not learning all the time, you’re in trouble.

Finally, Alan November noted an alarming statistic a few years ago: students who graduate from college are increasingly living at home with their parents — he calls them the boomerang generation because you send them out and they come back…

If we want to reverse this trend, we need to re-examine what we’re doing in our schools. Indeed, we need to examine the whole notion of “school” — because if “school” is a place where people go to learn information, that’s not what we need today — give me an internet connection and a computer (or even an iPhone) and I can swim in all sorts of information. How am I transforming the information and being creative and making meaning?

What is the purpose of school in the 21st century? What sorts of learning opportunities does the digital revolution make possible? How well are traditional schools taking advantage of the possibilities?

To be continued…

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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One Response to “First Day” of School

  1. MsStewart says:

    On the first day of school, I’m also asking students to tell me what they enjoy learning about. Sometimes it’s an in school thing (French Revolution), and often, it’s not (whittling, horses, fashion).

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