How many teachers complain that their students don’t want to be in school? Most? What if we could change the way students value learning? Maria Montessori said that “The goal of early childhood education should be to activate the child’s own natural desire to learn.” I happen to agree with Maria. I want to create lessons that ignite the way students view education so that they love learning.
My goal in my most recent lesson was to help students build aspirations for postsecondary education and training, describe the benefits of education for career and life satisfaction, and help students articulate the belief that postsecondary education and lifelong learning are necessary for career success. No pressure, right?
Despite the difficulty of this lesson, I was extremely excited because I value education so deeply. I know that the educational landscape is changing and college as we’ve known it is likely to change quite a bit in the next few years, but learning never goes out of style and has immense benefits for wages and life satisfaction. I had hoped that when students learned about the 264 million kids around the world that don’t have access to education and that 61 million of those kids are their age, they’d see the gift, not the burden, of going to school.
I began the lesson by asking the question, “If you had the chance not to attend school ever again, would you take it?” They were hooked! In a class of 18 students, 7 readily agreed that they would stop going to school if they had the chance. Then we transitioned and listened to a 2015 NPR news story about a young girl living in Zimbabwe who was turned away from school because her family couldn’t afford the fees. I listened to their reactions and outrage with the realization that she had been turned away because she couldn’t afford to attend. I shared the cost of their own education that the state pays for them and what that averaged out to each day; they were shocked, suddenly each day they missed had a dollar sign attached to it.
I transitioned students into their “chat stations” (thank you very much Cult of Pedagogy for the idea!) which were six topic stations on poster boards around the room that students rotated to every 2-3 minutes. The chat stations had graphs showing the wages and lifetime income based on education along with questions to spur thinking. The students were tasked with discussing and then writing the answers in the corresponding boxes on their answer sheets. It took a little redirection for some students, but I was able to listen to and take part in some interesting conversations as I circulated the room.
We reviewed the basic statistics regarding median weekly earnings by education and compared the $493 brought home by a person without a high school diploma versus the $1,623 weekly income for a person with a doctoral degree to see what type of inferences they could make. Of course, I’ve had a few students who pointed out all of the successful people without a high school or college degrees. I heartily agreed with them that non-traditional education is an equally valid option. However, those without formal education didn’t just sit around doing nothing; they went out and learned what they wanted to learn through books, mentors, teachers, and the internet.
As a large group, we worked through the answers together, and because the students had already had discussions about the topics, the large group conversations were rich and thoughtful. I then shared a more personal story with my students. I shared how my incredibly loving and intelligent grandfather was forced to drop out of school at the tender age of 8 years old because his mother had died and he was left to tend to his three younger siblings. I asked them to imagine what their adult lives might be like if they hadn’t been able to go to school after they’d turned eight. They predicted lives of hardship and embarrassment; I assured them that they were right. I shared with them my recollections as a little girl of watching my grandfather learn how to read. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time how difficult his life must have been, but it was clear to my students.
In my original draft of this post, I excluded the part where I told my students how I’d lost my scholarship in undergrad and nearly had to drop out of school. I almost left out the part where my mother worked extra shifts to help me afford tuition. I didn’t want to share with any adult that I’d blown it, that I haven’t always been as put together as I am now. It’s funny because I’ll be vulnerable and share my flaws with my students because I want them to see that the path isn’t always easy, that making mistakes is just part of the journey. I shared with my students but didn’t want to share with any of you that losing my scholarship and nearly losing my chance at an education changed my entire perspective. All at once, learning mattered; I saw it for what it was, it was the doorway into my future.
I hoped that telling them my story would help tap into the rebel inside of each of them. The rebel inside of all of us that ignites when we’re told we aren’t allowed to do something or when we nearly lose the chance and then get it back. In the end, I asked them the same question that I’d asked to start out my lesson, and the response was clear; 18 of 18 students said they would decline the opportunity to drop out of school if given a chance. In every class I taught this lesson, the results were clear, they had shifted their thinking from education as burdensome to education as a gift.