Education in the United States of America is sub-par at best. American children are expected to be quiet and sit for long periods of time while stay alert absorbing all of the knowledge that is being presented to them. If you have children, you know that this is a very unrealistic expectation. As a former teacher, I found the expectations of my students and my teaching practices to be too rigid and ultimately driven by an unrealistic test at the end of the year.
I started my teaching career in a preschool classroom where it was encouraged to have my students play to learn. It shocked me when I switched to teaching middle school to see that this technique of teaching stops after kindergarten. Instead, it has been replaced by hard desks, neon lights, and PowerPoint presentations.
What shocked me is that when given the chance middle school students wanted to play and be engaged with their learning. Why were teachers not using this as a tool for teaching? My preschool classroom was set up to be extremely engaging, but the middle school classroom that I was given was filled with hard, uncomfortable desks and computers.
Coming from a preschool background, I immediately had to change this environment to promote comfort, fun, and engagement. Since I could not replace what was given to me, I had to add with my own money. I started by adding pillows for each desk to create a sense of comfort. Then I added a sense of fun and engagement with a basketball hoop and Velcro dart board. Lastly, I added a wall of adhesive dry erase boards for students to engage with the daily lessons.
At the end of the year, I asked my students what they liked best about my class, and most of them said things I had added to the environment. Once a student is engaged and comfortable, they are more likely to retain what is being taught to them. I know that when I went to teacher’s conferences my first complaint was the fact that I had to sit constantly in uncomfortable chairs while someone talks to me for hours. If as an adult I find that difficult to do, why am I, in turn, expecting children to be able to do it? It made no sense to me.
Changing the environment is only the first step to improving our countries education. The next step is how we teach our students. Teachers should be engaging their students with hands on activities at any level of education. I had my students answer questions, and if they got the question correct, they got to shoot a basket. Instead of just reading, my students got to act out what they were reading. Also, I loved to bring in technology by using different online platforms to engage students with learning. Incorporating technology in the classroom can turn a normal lesson about vocabulary words into a fun competition.
The third step to improving our education is to implement more time for free physical play time. Students of all ages could benefit by having multiple breaks during the day to have the freedom to move and engage with their peers. This should not be a time where there is any structure other than a time frame. Some schools have already seen the benefit of this. My own children’s current school district gives four different free play times a day. Now if only this could follow with them once they go to middle and high school. Older students could really benefit from this too.
More time in the classroom does not always mean it is effective learning time. Once you have lost the attention of your classroom, what is the point in spending the rest of the time being frustrated and trying to get them to pay attention? This time should be when students are allowed to have a short break in or out of the classroom. You will see the benefit when students come back ready to learn again.
The last step towards improving education is to stop teaching to an impossible test. Schools put students into categories based on test scores. Then they spend the year teaching them to take an impossible test. Instead of focusing on skills and building upon prior knowledge, many times teachers are told to teach test-taking skills. Even tutoring for students who are struggling is inefficient. Instead of building upon the skills that they already have to get them towards the skills they need to know, they are taught how to take a test. If a student is behind, teaching them how to take a test will not improve their knowledge.
Education needs to change for the benefit of our children. Learning should always be fun and engaging.