The Montana Constitution,specifically Article X Section 8, gives ownership of the state’s publicly funded schools, with the support and engagement of school staff and thecommunity, to each community through the supervision and control by its elected trustees. Section 1 of the same Article requires that the state’s education system to develop the full educational potential of each student a school serves.
This is exactly what the St. Regis School Board, elected by our community, is trying to accomplish in the district’s strategic plan. The move to the personalized learning platform is less about how the material is delivered to our students and more about the content we are teaching and the higher expectations we have for our students. The shift to higher expectations is what is causing the anxiety for some of our parents and students.
When I was in the classroom, I taught my students that there are three kinds of questions they had to answer, on the line, between the lines, and beyond the lines. On the line questions are questions whose answers you could find by opening a book and putting your finger on it. The answer was there in black and white - the dates and facts we ask our students to memorize for a test, such as when the Declaration of Independencewas signed. These questions don’t take much thought and are often quickly forgotten.
Then there are the between thelines questions whose answers are a bit more challenging to find because you have to take information from different sections of a book and create a response. For instance, how veins and arteries carry blood to the lungs in one section of a chapter and how the lungs then exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide during respiration, in another section of a chapter. While these are more difficult to answer, the answers are still in the book.
The last type of question is the beyond the line question. This question is the hardest to answer because you can’t put your finger on it, nor can you find the answer in different sections of the book. This answer requires that you process information, using what you know from the text, your own experience, and other resources to create aresponse from your own understanding of the information. Instead of “When was the Declaration of Independence signed?” (on the line), a beyond the line question would be “How did the opposing ideas of Thomas Locke and John Locke influence the founding fathers’ (Jefferson, Franklin, etc.) thinking for the Declarationof Independence?”
Because politicians and the media are more concerned with how our students stack up against students from other countries than whether our students can actually think, educators have allowed the education reform movement to develop an educational system that promoted on the line and between the line thinking. While tests that ask these questions are easy to prepare for and help our students move up in the comparative rankings,the tests do nothing to really demonstrate if our students can really think. The St. Regis School Board, through its strategic plan, has said enough. They have courageously taken back the control guaranteed them through the Montana Constitution to develop the full potential of the district’s students.
The teachers, administrators and board members are asking our students to become deep thinkers. I admit that this is a challenge to both our students and teachers. Teachers must learn how to develop deep thinking skills in our students. Students who are used togetting A’s because they could easily memorize facts or put information from two sections together are now struggling, because they find thinking beyond the line to be much harder. The struggle is to be expected. What we as educators have to do is provide the support for these students to meet the change in expectations. Blaming the platform or internet issues for the struggle these students are facing is easy fingerpointing. Recognizing and accepting that our students are not used to thinking beyond the line is difficult to face – for teachers, parents and students. We have to stop comparing our students against each other by placing them in groups according to a grade and start comparing them against their own capabilities and growth. Some students are not used to seeing their own shortcomings. Some parents and students are having a difficult time accepting the shift from on the line thinking to beyond the line thinking because the student is no longer bringing home A’s. The important piece is that our model allows students to show growth and develop the skills over the course of the year. The feedback they get from teachers help them learn how to think deeply and develop skills that allow them to respond to beyond the line questions.
Learning is Difficult
Education is meant to be hard. Learning to analyze ideas, break down arguments, use information to explain your understanding of an issue is difficult. Understanding that struggling is expected and provides for deeper learning is a new concept for many of our students. Our teachers have been trained, but teaching beyond the line is new to them as well and will take practice to master. We will continue to provide our teachers training so they can better serve our students. We will continueto support our students so they can master the expectations we have of them and help them grow as scholars. I ask for your patience and support as we make this transition. Change takes time and is often difficult, but we will overcome those difficulties. Students are already changing their thinking and coming to terms with these new expectations.
What we will no longer do is send students to college and into the work force without the skills necessary to overcome challenges, to think deeply, to think for themselves, and to solve problems. We have too many students who go on to college only to drop out after the first semester because they do not have the skills and deep thinking ability to be successful there. In the end, we will have students who will leave St. Regis confident in themselves, capable of thinking deeply, and prepared to face the challenges that await them as members and leaders of our state and country.