If you haven’t been in a K-12 classroom in the last several years, you might be surprised at the changes in education. When my children went to school, it felt familiar. I could sit confidently beside them and help with their homework. I understood the assignments and why they were given and I knew how to work with them when they struggled. When I visited to set up for class parties, it was what I expected. The students were lined up in neat rows quietly working and raising their hands to answer when called upon.
When I stepped back into my youngest grandson’s elementary school, I quickly discovered that things were different. By fifth grade, math involved what looked like taking a simple problem and making it complicated. Writing was a folder filled with unfinished stories and ones that had been done over after they’d been graded. What sort of alternate universe had I stepped into?
After thoroughly interrogating a 9-year-old child, who obviously didn’t have answers that could appease me, I decided to go to someone who did. I reached out to his teachers and they reached back. That was the beginning of what felt like a journey down the rabbit hole of education.
The math teacher showed me how they were learning to think conceptually instead of memorizing rote math facts and procedures and stopping there. The problems she gave them to work on became interesting when you took your focus off just getting the right answer. How they arrived at that answer became optional after they experimented with different ways of getting there. Like driving, we don’t all choose the same way to get to the same place.
One of my favorite math teacher sayings was, “ Don’t erase so I can see where you went wrong.” That meant paying more attention to the thought process that got you there. In math, like life, we learn from our mistakes.
The writing teacher wisely decided on the up-close-and-personal method. There I sat, knees to chin next to a fifth-grader as he leafed through his folder deciding which unfinished paper he would put his effort into that day. I watched him read the comments, look over the rubric and improve upon his work. It wasn’t about a deadline or hurrying to finish and get his grade. It was learning to develop skills and get his thoughts on paper, not just trying to spill out what a teacher wanted to hear. He began to recognize his weaknesses as well as his strengths, and he wasn’t hating it! As a matter of fact, he seemed proud of his work and he knew when it was good.
A classroom is no longer a place of silence; thinking can be loud. Students collaborate, bounce their ideas off one another and surprisingly don’t misuse their power when they critique the work of peers. That alternate universe was beginning to look like a real workplace in what some call the real world.
That was five years ago. More has changed since then. I’ve had to ask lots of questions and think about learning in a different way. I’ve come to put more value on the process and the idea of thinking just to get better at thinking.
The world they’ll be working and living in is different. The knowledge is now easily accessible. Figuring out what to do with it is the new starting point. This rabbit hole now feels like home in an ever-stimulating and refreshing way.
Paula McPeake is the Coordinator for MENT2BE at Stephens Elementary, a GCIPL Fellow, and Parent Ambassador in Boone Co. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.