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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Long Road Trips & Education: An Analogy

This summer my wife, my 4 kids and I traveled from Colorado to Virginia to help my mother-in-law move. Several days before the trip I asked (my youngest - age 4) if he was excited about riding in a car for 3 days straight. His response was genuine and full of excitement, enthusiasm and energy. My older 2 children (ages 11 and 9) responded much differently. They told him that it wasn't something to look forward to, because it was going to be boring and there would be nothing to do.

That got me thinking about how a student getting ready to start kindergarten and an older student reply to being asked if they are excited about the upcoming school year. I think their responses are very much the same. They start school in kindergarten full of wonder, excitement and energy. And they lose that excitement and enthusiasm for learning along the way.

Then, I started thinking about why my oldest children felt the way they do about long road trips. In reflection, our previous road trips had always been about getting to our destination in as little time as possible. "Stop now? We still have half a tank. We'll be cutting our miles per hour average if we have to stop now. Didn't you pee at the last stop? Yep, that looked interesting, but we don't have time to stop and look at it. We have to get to where we are going."

In essence, our road trips had always been about the product to the detriment of the process.

The focus on high stakes testing and other mandates in education cause us to focus more on arbitrary and unauthentic products to the detriment of the process. Our students and teachers lose their enthusiasm for learning and teaching (the process).

Albert Einstein had a sign hanging in his office that read, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." That sign was used to remind one of the world's greatest mathematicians that qualitative measures are just as important and sometimes more important than quantitative measures.

I think the climate of accountability has brought about an imbalance in qualitative and quantitative measures. Qualitative measures are more expensive and less objective. So, quantitative measures have become the yardstick of choice for accountability. But, in education where the process (as in the learning process, 21st century skills, life long learners and all that) is our product, qualitative measures of the process are just as important if not more important than the quantitative measures of the product.

Also, while I can focus on the destination to provide the necessary motivation to push me through my long road trip, my children have a much harder time staying motivated by a concept that involves delayed gratification.

Our elementary age students can't look ahead to 2017-2021 when they graduate to keep them motivated. They need to enjoy the process along the way to keep them motivated until they can see the end in sight.

We will never reach our product of capable, life long learners, if our processes turn our students off to learning. We must stay focused on processes that cultivate our true visions of 21 century learners. If we do, I strongly suspect our student achievement scores will go up as a byproduct. And, when they do it will be in spite of the high stakes tests and accountability not for or because of them.

We must hold ourselves accountable to our children and the future, before we answer to federal mandates. Only then can we achieve excellence.

On our trip back to Colorado, we decided that we would focus on enjoying the ride and not on getting to our destination as soon as we could. We stopped for half a day at Monticello, for 2 hours at the Brown vs. Board of Education historical site in Topeka, KS, and at a water park in Denver on our way. My kids said that it was the best trip we had ever been on and that they couldn't wait to go on another 3 (or more) day road trip.

I want our students to say that they enjoyed what they learned and that they can't wait to learn something else.