Student Voices: School Failure, Reform, and Hope

I believe student voice is important. How can it not be? Students are the consumers, customers, participants, and targets of our educational system.

Today, there was a buzz via twitter about Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech. This sparked me to post a Blog of some of the student voices that have resonated deeply for me. I included those segments of their messages that I believe should be heard by educators.
  • Erica Goldson's Valedictorian speech about how school failed her and her peers.
  • Tim Ludwig's TedxEdOntario TED Talk about how schools could benefit from "unmotivated" and underachieving students like him.
  • Dan Brown's letter to teachers after he quit college.
  • Adora Svitak's TED Talk: What Adults can learn from kids.
Erica Goldson's Valedictorian's Speech
I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system.
While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed.

I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.

We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective
. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, "You have to learn this for the test" is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

Tim Ludwig at TEDxOntarioEd
The steps that teachers or administrators should take to help get more kids motivated to come to school for learning is to get more relevant learning. You can’t be teaching students something that they’ll never use.
Please don’t forget students like me because we can do things that others might not be able to do. We are motivated just not in the way in the way school tries to teach us to be motivated. We can benefit the school system and make positive change because students like me are the ones that school is not working for. We know how to change it and know how to improve so we can have a good learning environment.
Dan Brown's Open Letter to Teachers
We are in the midst of a very real revolution and if institutional education refuses to adapt to the landscape of the informational age, it will die and it should die.
With the advent of Internet, the monetary value of information is fast approaching zero. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It is the best thing to have ever happened to human beings. Because of the Internet, information is now free. By free I don’t just mean doesn’t cost money, I also mean it has been liberated.

I was a student at the University of Nebraska and most of my classes went something like this. On my first day I would show up and there would be a lecture hall of 40 to 200 kids and one professor. Professors rarely made an effort to learn anyone’s names and almost never encouraged any sort of interaction amongst the students. I would be required to spend anywhere in the neighborhood of a hundred dollars on textbooks per class that I would never open – not because I didn’t care – but because better, easy-to-find information was online. Classes would drag on for an hour and all they would consist of is the professor standing in the front with a powerpoint telling us facts. We’d frantically scribble down those facts. Test time would come around and we would memorize our scribbling. We’d take the test and we would receive a grade based on how many facts we memorized.

But society no longer cares how many facts we can memorize because in the information age facts are free. Any educational institution based solely on facts not preparing students for the real world. In the noble quest to provide education to the masses, we have lost site on what education really is. Education isn’t about teaching facts. It’s about stoking creativity and new ideas. It’s not about teaching students to conform to the world as it is. It’s about empowering students to change the world for the better.

Two weeks ago I dropped out of school not because I am a deadbeat, not because I was failing, not because I am not just as motivated as anyone else to make a difference in this world. I dropped out of school because my schooling was interfering with my education.

To the educators of the world, I am here to say, “You don’t need to change to change anything. You just simply need to understand that the world is changing and if you don’t change, the world will decide it does not need you anymore."

Adora Svitak's TED Talk: What Adults can learn from kids
In order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first. In many ways our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility. Now our wisdom doesn’t have to be insider’s knowledge. Kids already do a lot of learning from adults, and we have a lot to share. I think that adults should start learning from kids. It shouldn’t just be a teacher at the head of the classroom telling students “do this, do that.” The students should teach their teachers. Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal.
Now, adults seem to have a prevalently restrictive attitude towards kids from every “don’t do that, don’t do this” in the school handbook, to restrictions on school internet use.. And, although adults may not be quite at the level of totalitarian regimes, kids have no, or very little say in making the rules when really the attitude should be reciprocal, meaning that the adult population should learn and take into account the wishes of the younger population.

Now, what’s even worse than restriction is that adults often underestimate kids’ abilities. We love challenges, but when expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them.

Kids grow up and become adults just like you. Or just like you, really? The goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adult, but rather better adults than you have been, which may be a little challenging considering your guys credentials, but the way progress happens is because new generations and new eras grow and develop and become better than the previous ones. It’s the reason we’re not in the Dark Ages anymore. No matter your position of place in life, it is imperative to create opportunities for children so that we can grow up to blow you away.

Adults, you need to listen and learn from kids and trust us and expect more from us. You must lend and ear today, because we are the leaders of tomorrow. We are going to be the next generation, the ones who will bring this world forward. Now, the world needs opportunities for new leaders and new ideas. Kids need opportunities to lead and succeed. Are you ready to make the match? The world’s problems shouldn’t be the human family’s heirloom.

Translation to Practice

What these students (and others) reinforced for me is that if I am to be an effective and ethical (yes, I think the ethics on how we interact with others - especially our students - comes into play) educator, I need to practice the following:

  1. Take the words "teach" and "teacher" out of the educational vernacular as it implies a power-over position.
  2. Give students a voice and to listen, really listen, to what they have to say.
  3. Encourage student voice in all its forms - speech, writing, drawings, and media creation.
  4. View students as producers of learning in addition to being consumers of learning.
  5. Give students the power, permission, and opportunity to create their own learning experiences.
  6. Structure school more like camp and their natural play time.
  7. Encourage experimentation and risk-taking.
  8. Open up all forms of social and educational networking.
  9. Become a co-learner with the students.
  10. Practice, model, and love lifelong learning.
  11. To be continued . . . . always.

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