I’m feeling strangely reflective today. This time two years ago I was recovering from the back operation that changed my life for the better. To cut a long story short, I was 125kg pre operation and 6 months later I’d lost 30 kg thanks to my new ability to exercise and a serious change of diet. So why am I writing about this in my education blog? Well, it got me thinking ( strange though it might sound ) about how education is a lot like what I went through to lose all that weight. I think education is like the weight loss industry. You can treat the experience two ways – a quick fix, short term success crash diet, or a life changing lifestyle decision.
Bear with me, if you can, as I explore this analogy further. For three months after Christmas following the operation, I became firmly focused on changing my body forever. I studied everything there was to know – being a self directed learner, I wasn’t going to any weight loss centre. Just like learning anything else, I felt it was best that I do it my way. By mid April, I had lost 25 kg. I had all but achieved my goal. For the rest of the year, I felt comfortable that I had changed my lifestyle and had consolidated my learning. And how did I do it? The way we should be doing it as learners in the classroom.
- I set myself a long term goal to improve part of my life that wasn’t working. I didn’t make it unrealistic., though. A student in Grade 5 who has been assessed and diagnosed as 3 years behind in Mathematics is not going to be achieving a consistent, Grade 5 standard by the middle of the year so teacher, parent and child need to be realistic and set a goal for gradual but real improvement. You need to believe you can reach the goal or you won’t make the necessary effort. Sometimes, by making it achievable without too much work results in better than expected results because it wasn’t the struggle you expected. My goal was 30 kg by September – I’d reached 25 by End of April. Without stress but gradually working hard, I have taught students that have made huge improvements in a year.
- I planned achievable steps to reach my goal. I took away the foods that were a problem, then added in the foods that would make a positive change and then organised the daily menu plan that would become a sustainable, enjoyable diet for me long term. I started walking for 3o minutes after school, built up to 30 minutes before and after, increased one of those to an hour, added in some bike riding of gradually increasing durations until I had a daily program which was manageable, flexible and consistent. Likewise, with learning, we need to plan goals that gradually build to success. If a child wants to improve their multiplication skills, we don’t rush into the ultimate short cut algorithm without going through the stages of conceptual understanding. If we rush, we will think they can multiply but then find out when concepts become more difficult, that they don’t really understand multiplication, just a procedure.
- I monitored and tracked my progress. All the good nutrition and healthy living advice really stresses this. Once I was fully into my lifestyle change, I tracked the calories of each meal and snack to check I was maintaining my goal intake. I measured and recorded the distance, time and calorie burning result of each of my exercise sessions. I checked my weight regularly ( but not obsessively). This appeared over the top to some in my midst, but the methodical monitoring ensured my success and also enabled me to track my mistakes as well and plan for getting back on track. This is the same in education. Learners can’t just set goals and steps; they need to monitor their progress and level of achievement as well. Students need a journal to reflect on their learning and how it related to their goal. If they achieve some success, by recording what they did they can reflect back on those actions that worked. On the days they ‘failed’, they can think about what they didn’t do and plan what they need to make the progress they need. They can adjust the steps in their plan to catch up if they have fallen behind ( more revision, learn more strategies, work harder on editing, research a better way)
- Above all, it was my responsibility and I made the decision. I had advice from my doctor and physio. I received encouragement from family and friends. But in the end, it was up to me. For years I had found being healthy difficult to achieve because of something I had let happen. Yes I had a bad back but it was caused or sustained in a big way by my weight problem. The operation fixed the back. I now had the chance to change my lifestyle tof fix the bigger issue. In the same way, it is the student’s responsibility to improve. Great teachers, dedicated parents, fantastic, well researched educational programs can all help, just like the back operation. But if the student doesn’t really want to make the effort, the goal will not be fully realised. It is the same with education in general. School leaders and departments can have the greatest plans but the teachers and students have to buy into them.
So, why am I being so reflective about my lifestyle change? Unfortunately, because I have fallen back into bad habits. I’m like the student who comes back to school after summer vacation and forgotten everything my teacher ‘taught’ me last year. I thought I learnt. I thought I had changed my lifestyle permanently. But ‘one good year does not a great education make.’ Where did I go wrong?
- I stopped tracking my progress
- I lost sight of my goal
- I started taking shortcuts and stopped making the effort
- I stopped taking responsibility and let others affect what I was doing
- I decided near enough was good enough
- I chose short term success over life time success
- I ignored my mistakes even though I recognised them
- I stopped planning and put off what I needed to do to a later ( but never completed) date
This is bad learning but it can be fixed. I still know what worked and I am recalibrating next week when Term 3 holidays begin. I got too close to stop now and the plan is coming back.
On the larger scale of Education, there are lessons in this.
Learning is not an isolated year by year proposition. The aim is not to get all the work done in Grade 5 so we can go on holidays at the end of the year. The aim is not to ‘cover the curriculum’ and hope that next year’s teacher will start all over again from scratch. Learning has to be maintained. Learning has to be maintained. Learning has to be tracked. And as soon as cracks start to appear in EVERY student’s progress, we need to be able to identify what happened, what caused it and have a plan for doing something about it. We can’t find out in Grade 4 or 5 that a student can’t count past 100 or double numbers.
We can’t rely on a curriculum set in concrete. For the last 25 years, I have been told that our curriculum documents are guides, not prescriptions. It is the responsibility of schools and individual teachers to ensure that students’ individual needs are met. This has for a long time troubled me. There are gaps everywhere in our systems’ curricula. Mathematical concepts are being introduced in Grade 3 then not reappearing again until Grade 6. Then we wonder why our students aren’t making connections from year to year. It’s one thing to have a curriculum that adresses key essential learning for each grade level. It’s another thing to actually provide a sequential plan for getting from Point A in Grade Prep to Point B in Grade 8. This is too often lacking system wide. We rely too much on individual schools solving these problems. We are doing a great job planning our new Maths curriculum but I don’t get why the Education Department doesn’t do that in the first place so that EVERY school has access to what we will have by the end of the year.
Learning is not a superficial experience. It is not a set of disconnected assessment tasks and projects that result in a good or bad report card. It should not be guided by week by week handing in of work that is judged by a teacher and handed back to file away for parents to see three months later. It certainly shouldn’t be determined by a series of multiple choice questions on a given day that are then reflected on four months later. It needs to be meaningful, ongoing, flexible, monitored, altered, maintained, ‘owned’ and lifelong.
Just like my diet and fitness program.