The Importance of Lifelong Learning: Creating a Tone and Climate for Student Educational Exploration Beyond High School Graduation
“I remember visiting a high school just after the last spring exams and before graduation. As I approached the school grounds, I saw a group of students standing around a roaring fire, to which they were heartily contributing. I went over and asked, ‘What’s up?’ ‘We’re burning our notes and our books replied one. ‘We’re outta here!’ Upon further conversation, I learned that these students were not occupants of the bottom ability group, but rather A and B and C students, many headed for college. That little incident continues to trouble me. I wonder how many students not so labeled are in fact at risk, with little possibility of continuing learning? How many graduate from our schools and exult in the belief that they have learned all they need or intend to know? One reason why those youngsters burning those books, literally, and why so many other youngsters burn their books, figuratively, at the conclusion of our treatment of them in schools is that, lurking beneath the culture of most schools (and universities) is a deadening message. It goes something like this: Learn or we will hurt you. We educators have taken learning, a wonderful, God-given, spontaneous capacity of all human beings, and coupled it with punitive measures. We have developed an arsenal of sanctions and punishments that we inextricably link with learning experiences. ‘Johnny, if you don’t improve your multiplication tables, you’re going to have to repeat fourth grade. Mary, if you don’t improve your compositions, I’m not going to write a favorable recommendation for college.’ ‘Sam, if you don’t pass this next test, I’m calling your parents in.’ ‘Tom, if your state administered standardized test scores don’t improve, you don’t graduate.’ And so it goes. What the students burning their books are really saying is, ‘You can’t hurt me anymore.’ But so closely have we coupled learning and punishment that the students throw one into the fire with the other. School cultures in which students submit to learning, and to the threats of punishment for not learning generate students who want to be finished with learning when they graduate from school.” (The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership, 2007 pp. 165-166)
While teaching an 8-week educational leadership class to doctoral students 4 years ago, I introduced the book/reader listed above and the narrative contained within. The descriptive terminology and student experience resonated with me immediately and continues to be part of my educational process of retrospection. The described student encounter forced me to question my interactions with students. There are a multiplicity of subliminal and undercurrent messages that lurk beneath the intended tenets of the practice of education. Dr. bell hooks describes education as the practice of freedom and as adult educators, parents, grandparents, and guardians, we purport and support the notion of lifelong learning. We pride ourselves in the continual praxis of reflection, personal refinement, the deployment of effective pedagogical/instructional strategies, important home visits, the construction of strong student relationships, ethical and relational leadership, and cultural competence. However, as exemplified in the student behavior and systems-resistance described in the Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership, educators – in all forms – must continually guard and detract from the covert notion of connecting punishment with schooling. In no way is the aforementioned statement an abandonment of discipline or student consequences. Quite the contrary! Consequences are not rooted in the essence of school punishment!
Most if not all educators, at some point, have been guilty as charged of creating environments that resulted in the metaphoric premise of students burning their books. Instead of cultivating an environment that provides restorative opportunities for deeper growth and reflection, some have been more concerned about applying the severest levels of counterproductive disciplinary sanctions. Such actions are really codified as punishment and do nothing to support and promote an institution designed to impart and set ablaze a course of lifelong learning.
In response, some students have subscribed to the philosophy that school is an obstacle course, maze, and taxing rite of passage to be navigated and survived, as opposed to an institution designed to spark an epistemic that results in a craving and pursuit of critical consciousness, analysis, endless questioning, wonder, and exploration. True enough, if a culture does exist that unconsciously, yet institutionally, promotes a school or district dynamic that says, “Learn or we will hurt you”, an antithetical student response would be appropriate and astute. Why would a student want to continue with practices of learning associated with punishment? The notion is subtle, but definitely worthy of consideration.
Our goal is to create an atmosphere that compels students, after graduation, to use the books and knowledge poured into them and personally discovered as springboards, catapulting into deeper forms of educational prowess. As my Superintendent (Dr. Dennis Byas) always indicates when we are meeting with students and families, “Our goal is to create the next wave of brilliant minds that will develop the cure for cancer, other terminal diseases, new technological advancements, and more.” If the instinctive attitude of “Learn or we will hurt you” prevails, such futuristic accomplishments will not occur. Although a harsh statement, if such success does occur it might not be because of us, but in spite of us. Even some reading this article (while trekking through k-12 education years ago) may have used the inflicted forms of the “Learn or we will hurt you” concept contained within the walls of your previous schooling, as fuel to push harder and reach for the stars – proving all naysayers wrong.
As an example of the slow unconscious creep of this attitude into the portals of k-12 education by frontline practitioners, it is important to continually internalize the reality that the methods deployed regarding truancy, Student Attendance Review Teams (SART), Student Attendance Review Boards (SARB), and family/student referrals to the District Attorney – fall within the range of interventions and not punishment. The goal is to create an environment that restores or reconciles students/families to academic success, personal accountability, and educational transfiguration.
Again, as an example, reflect for a moment on the pure process of Student Success Team (SST) meetings. All such transformative efforts are designed to start with a dedication to the far left column, which is formulated to build upon and identify student Strengths. Every person participating in the SST meeting (parents, teachers, admin, psychologists, CWAs, clinicians, etc.) are given an opportunity to address the strengths of the pupil seated at the table. It is supposed to be a time of student empowerment. However, in some cases, it starts with someone grappling to pinpoint student strengths, but before completing their sentence, moving one or two columns to right on the SST form, they prematurely express student weaknesses and or concerns. Perhaps it goes something like this, “Mary really is charismatic and a 7th grade leader, but she really has difficulty remaining in her seat and entering class ready to learn.” The purist SST facilitator – in protection of the student – then redirects the team participants by saying, “We are only dealing with strengths at this time. We will address concerns when we get to that section. Right now we are only dealing with strengths. As we continue to go around the room, stick with the strengths of Mary.”
The insidious notion is that when we are not careful, we can be more concerned with punitive corrective-action and elements of punishment, before unearthing student gifts and assets. I recall an administrative colleague, years ago, walking into the SST – roguishly crashing my meeting, informing the student and family of a 2-day suspension, with suspension notice in-hand and familial copies. In that moment the holistic goal, climate, and spirit of a Student Success Team meeting exited the room. In theory the administrator was efficiently operating on auto-pilot, attempting to capitalize on an opportunity to address the family in person. No harm was intended and we had a bold conversation about the incident later, but it exemplifies the metaphoric notion of book burnings by highly functioning and underserved students.
A reflective educational lens is imperative so an atmosphere is created where systems and adult attitudes are evident that foster student partnerships with learning, as opposed to an aversion to the institution of school. We do not want our students to develop a thread of consciousness that compels them to operate under mere school toleration and compliance, coupled with a deep desire to exit because of the premise, “Learn or we will hurt you.” We want students to envision k-12 schooling as one major stepping stone in the continuum of being a lifelong learner. With precision and purpose, we shall continually strive to cultivate and create a tone/climate for student educational exploration beyond high school graduation. If we survey some of our students, several may have identical experiences as those in the narrative. No longer do we want to graduate students with an instilled desire of wanting to physically or metaphorically burn their books.