Learn To Change/Changing To Learn

Next week I’m speaking at a large teacher’s conference in Illinois.  I was asked to write a little piece for local papers about the talk.

Let me know what you think?


For the past ten years I’ve been in schools, classrooms, tutoring centers, special education rooms, youth detention centers, barbeques, choir practices, and senior centers listening to people talk about learning–their experiences of learning, and their memories of critical learning experiences.

I love learning, and I love to hear people talk about it, so this has been an enormously pleasurable “research”–an adventure in which I’ve been transformed and shaped by almost everyone I’ve had conversations with.  As a researcher and writer, these are the conversations that lead to my latest book, Wounded By School.

Through these conversations, and my work as a teacher and professional developer, I am wowed by how powerful teachers and administrators are in the lives of their students, and how a chance comment by a teacher like, “When you apply to college,” can change a kid’s life.   But I am also acutely aware of how an offhand negative remark like, “Some kids never learn math,” or “You’ll be flipping burgers all your life,” can also confirm a student in a path of hard-bitten academic failure.  That’s what I talk about when I go out and consult in schools: how powerful our work as teachers is, how important and vital that work is, and how much it needs to be transformed and reconfigured as we face a brand new time in learning.  As adults in school, we need to learn to change, and to change to learn.

As most of us know, we are in a time of crisis in education, of intense and painful transition.  Our “old school” ways of teaching don’t reach our students as they might have before, and our old ways of educating, which were designed in the early 20th century and were about preparing people for a world of work in factories and one-career lives, don’t exist anymore.  Our educational system was built for a time when assembly line work, and relatively low-level cognitive skill jobs were much more the norm.  Our educational institutions were designed to “socialize” large groups of immigrants (like you and me), and teach them mainstream, white, middle class values.

But the students who appear in our classrooms everyday aren’t the same as they were twenty years ago.  They aren’t going to have lives like our grandparents, or their jobs.  Students, even kindergartners, are people who have lived connected to the Internet, and in information abundance, all their lives.  They’ve changed, and the lives they are going to have have changed–but our systems of education still, mostly, haven’t.

Of course all this is transition is happening at a time when there has never been so much pressure on schools and districts to perform in particular ways, to get kids to score well on standardized tests within state-mandated curriculums.  Education has never been scrutinized so intensively.   Some teachers say to me they feel like they live in a policy world that seems to almost actively mitigate against doing what they think is best for kids, a short term, results-oriented mindset about teaching that is contrary to everything we know about how children learn, and how to do our work effectively as teachers.

So while we know our work matters more than ever, it’s also become more difficult and complicated, and our ways of doing our work more contested and less sure.  What are we going to do about it?  What are some things we know that work?  (You have to come to my talk to hear more about that…)

A few things we know for certain are that you have to know your students to educate them well.  In the words of Gary Howard, a wonderful writer and educator, you can’t teach what you don’t know.  If we look at our own lives, very few great teaching and learning experience have occurred in the absence of relationship between teacher and student.  As teachers we need to make sure that that’s at the center of our work, no matter what grade we teach or kind of school we’re in.

But its not just relationships between teachers and students that matter, but whole schools having positive, caring climates in which EVERY child is expected to do well and achieve something marvelous for him or herself.  Those old days of letting some kids fail because “they don’t care” or “they’re not going to amount to anything,” are over.  I’ve never met a kid who deep down really didn’t care at all about pleasing others, and doing well for him or herself.  And we can’t afford to let a single kid down with low expectations, or giving up on “some kids” because it is too hard.

The reality I face in my work is that many of our schools aren’t designed to help all kids be successful.  We still let a lot of kids drift, or flounder, or crash, and say there’s nothing we can do about it.  In all the really successful schools I work in, everyone feels responsible for all the kids in the building, from the superintendent and principal to the physical education teachers to the bus drivers.  It’s everyone’s job to help kids succeed.

Finally, we have to give kids work that matters.  So much of what we ask kids to do in school is boring, low-level, meaningless, task-oriented, assembly line kind of work.  Teachers are bored assigning it, and they don’t want to read it or grade it.  How can we ask a student to be engaged in something we don’t find engaging or important ourselves?  It doesn’t make sense.

So I encourage teachers to take charge of their work environments, and not wait around for someone else to change things.  I ask teachers not to complain about policy or the conditions of the job, but to begin to design interventions that will help them be more successful at their work.  All around the country I see teachers forming personal learning networks and collaborative work groups and book groups with each other, where people can learn together, and get active together, to make their work in school better.  And then they get to it.  Because there is no time to waste.

Fundamentally, we have to change the way we do business in school, because it matters so much.  We have to move beyond shaming and blaming each other, and kids, for what isn’t working in education, and discover (or showcase what you’re already doing right) to improve our work.

Because the world, and our kids depend on it.  Let’s get started.

Our future depends on it.


Kirsten Olson, Ed.D., is a writer, speaker, and a national-level consultant to school districts and school leadership teams.  She helps schools, teachers, and students create more engaging educational environments for all learners. Her latest book, Wounded By School, was one of the top-selling books at Teachers College Press last year.  She holds a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.


5 thoughts on “Learn To Change/Changing To Learn

  1. I really like what you are saying here about the relationships learners and teachers need to engage in for empowering learning moments to take place. I also agree with what you are saying about the relevance of learning, it needs to ‘matter’ to students and relevance is different for each individual.
    We have to keep dreaming about where our learning will take us. We need to have hope as learners because otherwise there is no point. And as educators when our students have forgotten how to dream, we have to encourage them to realise it once again.It’s necessary for the teacher to always give their students a taste of their true potential. I love the word pedagogy.It’s about guiding. One of my Greek friends told me that when thinking of this term, she visualises the mid wife guiding the child out of its mothers womb. It’s the same way with the child guide (teacher), we are facilitating our students to develop their own ideas, directing them in their learning and also encouraging them that learning is not solely a classroom activity.
    In this new technological age collaberation is the way forward. Students and teachers working together, forming peer support and other networks.Learning from each other in the new ,accessible, global learning environment is truly transformative and the way forward.

  2. Hey I am a university student and I totally appreciate what you are saying and trying to do and know exactly what you mean.

    The education system does indeed need an extreme makeover.. it is turning into a system to generate income for the government rather than anything else (at least in my own country)

    But then there is also the lack of teachers… few people are willing to step up to become teachers now, so in the end certain schools have to settle for less.. that’s why

  3. Hey Manifesting Abundance (great name!),

    I love the idea of the system getting an “extreme makeover.” I just spent the whole weekend with a group of activists putting together the bones of an organization that really is designed to support folks who are trying to transform the system, right where they are as teachers, students, parents or administrators. Check out IDEA http://www.democraticeducation.org/.

    Maybe you’d like to post something up there about what you think should be done?

    There isn’t (demographically) a LACK of teachers–plenty of people are seeking employment and would accept jobs, except in the “hard to staff” schools of high poverty or geographic isolation. The issue, from my point of view, is are the teachers in the system right now being supported and emboldened to make change? To step out? To become agents of transformation? I don’t see that enough.

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