A diverse group of educators and parents may have found a way to get Utah off the bottom of the list in funding for public education. They suggest this simple concept: Switch from subject-centered to a student-centered system of public education.
Our conventional, compulsory system focuses on subject matter — what all students should know and be able to do in a limited number of subjects in each grade.
In sharp contrast to this, student-centered education focuses on students, including their unique talents, gifts, abilities, interests, needs and questions.
At an elementary school in Davis School District, when the teachers and parents united to focus on the unique learning needs of each student, parental support magnified immensely. Why?
The teachers decided to personally ask parents, at the beginning of the school year, what they thought their child needed and how they could work together to help the child succeed. These meetings resulted in strong enough relationships to lead parents to voting in favor of a bond to support the school district in getting more funding. When parents learned what it meant to focus on the needs of their child and when they were invited to help, they had a different attitude toward the school.
Because every student is different and has different needs, strategies were created to help students grow as individuals. One school used weekly in-class talent shows to help students discover what they were good at. They were provided with a “shopping list” of over 80 different kinds of talents that students could try on and present in the talent shows.
As students prepared a variety of talents for the shows, they started to fashion a positive picture of themselves. Parents and teachers often asked a student, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What will you need to do to get ready for that?” These kinds of questions reinforced what became the first priority of the school — to help each student develop an identity of worth in using one’s talents and abilities to contribute to the world.
Another strategy was invented to achieve the second priority, which is to develop the powers of inquiry. The strategy was called the “Great Brain Project” in which students were invited to become specialists, experts, masterminds or geniuses in self-selected topics. In this project, students learned how to ask big questions and parents acted as each child’s research partner.
A third strategy was invented by fourth-grade students — developing the powers of interaction. They organized a school post office to collect and distribute letters students wrote to one another throughout the school. The school post office became a significant strategy in helping students develop the powers of reading and writing. (In student-centered education, children actually learn reading, writing and arithmetic better than they do in subject-based education because they each have a personal reason for learning those subjects.)
These are just three examples of what happens when a school decides to shift to a student-centered approach. Recognizing that students are different from one another releases a flood of creativity. This kind of shift is exciting because it energizes teachers, students and parents.
If we want to help Utah rise up from the bottom of funding, we need to believe student-centered education is worth a try.
Lynn Stoddard, a retired educator, is author of "Educating for Human Greatness." He has two chapters in the soon-to-be published book, "Fixing Public Education." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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