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Students and Teachers at Risk

It appears that attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, misbehavior, and even violence are on the increase in classrooms not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. See the latest additions to Child Research Net (at http://www.childresearch.net), and their discussion of these problems in the schools of Japan. The reasons for these problems have been widely discussed. Are they caused by poverty, inadequate parenting, violence in the environment, societal problems, lack of appropriate role models, and the media? Students who are bored or frustrated often turn readily to these behaviors, and whatever the causes, schools must deal with the results.

As standards rise, teachers and students need the tools to meet them. So it is no wonder that many schools all over the world are recognizing the need to activate learning for all students through the appropriate use of technology, the arts, and environmental projects integrated throughout the curriculum. As a result, essential academic learning requirements become attainable for many who would not otherwise succeed. The following report is from an U.S. perspective.

Report on Teacher Preparation

Needless to say, teachers must be well prepared not only in their subject matter areas, but also in the forementioned highly effective strategies. They are not always part of teacher preparation programs, yet they are essential skills for today's educational systems. The U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics recently published a report entitled "Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers (For the full report, 74 pages, see http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=1999080). This report notes that in response to a national survey only one in five teachers said that they felt wellprepared to work in a modern classroom. Only 20% said they felt confident in using today's technology or teaching students with diverse backgrounds, with limited English language proficiency, or with disabilities (now required by law to be in "least restrictive environments," usually interpreted to mean regular classrooms). Overall, fewer than half of U.S. teachers feels well-prepared to meet the challenges in today's classrooms.

A combination of inadequate teacher preparation and new kinds of challenges in schools urgently require ongoing, intensive staff development and mentoring. Let us consider three of the specific skills and strategies that are important for effective teaching and learning:

Multimedia Technology

Electronic technology, as one of the most recent tools for learning, has been found to turn around the behavior of many at-risk students, as they become engaged in the learning process in new ways. They are able to learn more efficiently when abstract information is turned into concrete form before their eyes, as happens with physics being demonstrated in Videodiscovery's "The Physics of Auto Collisions" and "The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse." They learn to solve extremely complex problems through real-world situations as they become fascinated with "The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury" developed at Vanderbilt University. As a result of such anchored instruction, learning is also turned into understanding that can be applied.

Teachers and textbooks are no longer the primary sources of information in classrooms equipped with multimedia technology. Students themselves take responsibility for some of their learning by accessing up-to-date materials from the Internet or other electronic sources. Teachers guide the process, and often learn along with the students.

Unfortunately, most funding for multimedia technologies in U.S. schools does not include money for staff development. Without this essential training, most teachers use high-end technology for drill and practice or other activities that are no better than workbooks. This kind of use does not begin to tap the power of technology or engage the human mind in challenging ways. Intensive training is needed to help teachers not only to understand how to use these new tools, but also how to integrate them throughout the curriculum to enhance learning.

The Arts

The arts also engage the most difficult students, as they are able to identify and learn through their strengths or areas of greatest interest. Their behavior may change dramatically when they act out scenes from history, or make up songs synthesizing the most important points of a recent lesson, or make an illustrated chart of the results of pollution on their own environment, or do a group dance explaining DNA, or do interviews and document the history of their own community in an oral or multimedia report.

Many teachers today have not had training in the arts, which at one time was a requirement in teacher preparation programs. As in many public schools, university schools of education have frequently eliminated these programs as a result of budget cuts. The effectiveness of the arts as tools for learning has been well-documented, however, (see New Horizons for Learning's Web site, Center for the Arts in Basic Curriculum, at http://www.newhorizons.org). The arts offer avenues to reach the growing diversity of students in today's classrooms. They are languages that all people speak, and offer symbol systems for communication and understanding that go beyond letters and numbers. They allow many students who might otherwise fail at learning to discover strengths and abilities that they can use to think, learn, comprehend, and utilize throughout life. The arts also humanize the classroom, as electronic technologies become more available.

Once again, all teachers at all levels need these tools to develop their own and their students' means of self-expression and creativity. Educators will also be able to use them in helping their students to learn math, communication skills, reading and writing, science, and social studies. In short, the arts help students to learn all subjects more effectively and in greater depth. Intensive, ongoing training and mentoring are required.

Environmental Education

Environmental projects outside the classroom offer learning that can contribute to adult knowledge bases or to solving real world problems. In the process, students who become restless and hyperactive doing "seat work", may learn with enthusiasm and with unusually focused attention. Students who have the opportunity to examine the natural world with real scientists through the internationally recognized Jason Project, may explore the bottom of the Mediterranean to understand how the tectonic plates move, or look down from the rim of an active volcano in Hawaii, or see different flora and fauna in the Amazon jungle--communicating directly with the explorers! The accompanying curriculum takes on new meaning and so does learning! See as well the myriad possibilities for real learning in the Grounds of Garden area of our Web site.

Students and teachers work and learn together on environmental projects, often producing results that are tangible contributions to the world around them. More training needed? Yes, of course, but there are useful guidelines and curriculum available to all on the New Horizons for Learning Web site in the Grounds and Gardens area of our virtual Building at the previously cited Worldwide Web address. These may be used to develop training and mentoring programs.

Clearly, what we are suggesting in this article requires additional funding or reallocation of financial resources. From our perspective, there can be no greater investment in the future of our children, and the future of our and their world. While educators struggle to solve the problems of human behavior, schools have no choice but to find ways to help students to become responsible, civil, contributing members of society. Creating exciting, active learning opportunities may be a starting point.

Profile

Dee Dickinson
Dee Dickinson is CEO and founder of New Horizons for Learning, an international education network based in Seattle (Web site at http://www.newhorizons.org). She has taught on all levels from elementary through college, has produced several series for educational television, and has created nine international conferences on education. She is an internationally recognized speaker, author, and consultant to educational systems and organizations, community colleges and universities, policy-making groups, and corporations. Her publications include Positive Trends in Learning (commissioned by IBM), Creating the Future, and she is co-author of Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences, just published last fall in a new edition by Allyn and Bacon. New Horizons for Learning http://www.newhorizons.org
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