Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Child Can Be a Master, If We Allow It

Mastery: It Takes Time
Hoping students will become geniuses, prodigies or exceptional students while we change what they learn every few weeks is like hoping your children make strong, meaningful friendships while you move to a different town every few weeks.
Mastering a skill takes time. Malcolm Gladwell claims that it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill, a benchmark used by many to be the amount of time it takes to master something. This comes from research and studying such people who have great skill such as athletes, musicians, artists or academics.
When we take a look at the classroom, we literally take this opportunity away from children.
In each subject in elementary school, students are expected to change units every few weeks. For example in science students might study 'Hearing and Sound' for a few weeks, then they must move on to 'Rocks and Minerals' and then to 'Building with a Variety of Materials'. In gym class, students will spend a few weeks on soccer before they move on to volleyball and then later on basketball. In math students may learn about fractions for a few weeks before moving on to geometry and then a few weeks later on to algebra or division.
Although there is some review, chances are they won't spend any substantial time on a topic again until the next year, plenty of time to forget the information or skills. This pattern can be seen in all subjects.
This is like asking a child to build strong friendships, but moving their family every 3 weeks to a new town. Imagine ten year old Jeffrey moving to a new town in northern Alberta. After a few weeks he has been riding around with Chris and Adam, playing in the Wednesday night street hockey game and just got asked to a sleep over at Juan's house. After just two and a half weeks, he finds out he is moving to southern Montana. He will have to start all over again.
The same thing happens in a classroom. Every few weeks things change. Mr. Whitesmith's class was learning about 'Flight and Aerodynamics' but soon they will take a test and move on to 'Crime Scene Evidence'. Mrs. Redwood's class was learning about the 'Fur Trade' but are now moving on to 'Native American History'. Mr. McKenna's class was playing soccer, but now the gym is used for badminton games. Though students get to 'try' a lot of things, they don't get to master anything, at least not in class.
In some cases the only children who can excel at something are the ones that have the 'hockey mom' attitude and are willing to give up their time and money for such things as team fees, equipment and travel costs, not to mention the hours spent in arenas at 5 in the morning. Keeping in mind in order for someone to be successful, they don't just need time, they also need a place to practice with the proper equipment and guidance or instruction from a qualified leader. A hockey player needs ice time, hockey equipment and a high level coach. A musician needs a music room, piano or violin and a music teacher with skill and passion.
During these precious years of a child's life when they are in their highest developmental phase, we restrict their hours to learning about Tunisia, Rocks and Minerals and Sarah, Plain and Tall. When they could be developing their skills in something they love, it has already been decided what they are to spend time on. I'm not saying that some topics or concepts aren't important, but do we need to spend every waking second in school covering as many units as possible so that at the end of school we have knowledge on every possible concept known to man?
We are not considering what a student like Amanda might be good at, what she loves or what she might have the opportunity and desire to do. It's like being on holidays in Italy, excited to try new foods, and being told you are going to have a peanut butter sandwiches for the next while. Maybe you don't like peanut butter, or are allergic to peanuts or maybe you just want to have some pasta. After all, it is Italy. You are told not to worry as you will only be given peanut butter sandwiches for about two weeks. After this you will be given tuna fish salad for two weeks, then ham omelets for two weeks and so on. As an adult you might be able to deal with this once or twice, but imagine this happening to you for twelve years or more of your life. A child's entire school year is mapped out like a bad holiday itinerary.
Imagine having the opportunity for an hour a day to do something you love. Uninterrupted time each day spent with the time, space and tools to follow a passion. Most people would start dreaming, possibly about practicing a sport, playing an instrument or creating art. Imagine how good you would get after a short period of time if you could dedicate an hour each day. Imagine being able to do this when you were younger, starting in grade one. By the time you reached grade seven you could easily have more than two thousand hours of training or practice. You could then continue finding coaches and teams, classes and professors or projects and mentors to connect with on your journey. By the time you graduated you could have five thousand hours of practice during a time in your life when you carry the most potential. Everyone has heard the story of the 'greats' starting when they were young. Now you are ready to enter the world of adulthood with these amazing skills that people call 'talents'.
Now to address the question "Wouldn't this be a waste of time if it didn't turn out?"
First of all it can't be anymore irrelevant than a grade three student learning about Tunisia. But even if you spend a great deal of time doing something you loved, then you changed your mind, would it be a loss? Many of us have played volleyball when we were younger. As time goes on our knees get weaker and teams get scarcer. At some point in our lives we give up the sport but most of us cherish those times we had playing a sport we loved. We would reminisce about great plays, close games and bad referees. If it was something we loved, we would never consider it a waste.
Second, many of these endeavors would have connections to core subjects and address them at the highest level. Take Sarah who wants to learn an instrument. Learning the lyrics to a song would connect to her language arts. She would learn high frequency or Dolch words, common phrases and word patterns. She would learn to read and pronounce words clearly. She would have to use an expressive voice that matches the feel and meaning of the song. She would be exposed to hundreds of poems (as each song is one) each with a different style. She would experience the use of metaphors, alliteration, symbolism and other literary devices first hand. She would have to read with a steady, fluent rhythm. She would have to learn to research information such as finding song titles, artists and albums. She would also have to read, comprehend and apply information from text such as music books, websites or articles if she is going to continue to learn about music. If only every language assignment had this many benefits.
Imagine a school that had the academics in the morning. Students would study math, science, language arts and history with the expectation that if they behave and do well they can pursue other interests at the end of the day.
When the bell for last class sounds, the students begin to migrate. The musicians grab their instruments and head to the amphitheater. The athletes head to the locker room to change. The computer experts start setting up their equipment. The writers congregate in the atrium and start discussion their work. You can feel the energy in the air.
This is not an unchecked, independent journey like an Australian walkabout that would take them into dangerous territory like a swamp or busy intersection with no permission forms. The drama and music students are a part of a club that will perform a musical version of "Robin Hood". The computer club is preparing for a tech competition hosted by a technical college in May. The indoor soccer team is part of a league that hosts a tournament every few weeks.
All the students are aware of the rules: First, if this time is not respected or used, it will not be given. This is a privilege not a right. Second, time spent must be constructive. It can be spent practicing, researching or developing a skill in any form. Third, the more work, effort or respect given, the more opportunity, responsibility, time or materials are given. This list could be longer, but you get the idea. If students work hard and show they can be trusted they can work on higher learning and great things would be possible.

By Darren Michalczuk

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