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Education Reform: Welcoming Strangers

Education Reform: Welcoming Strangers

Wil Tilroe-Otte /

These days, people talk about xenophobia—the fear of strangers. In the ancient world, though, people had xenophilia—the love of strangers. Locals were expected to welcome travelers into their homes and offer them food and entertainment. After all, strangers brought news from far-off places, gifts of precious spices, music, art, and ideas.

Five Strangers in the Classroom

As we strive to create student-centered classrooms, we need to invite certain strangers into our midst. These strangers may make us uncomfortable, may rock our routines—but they also introduce the wonders of the world. Make sure to welcome the following strangers into your class:

  • Uncertainty: In the teacher-centered model, you control everything, minimizing uncertainty. The problem is that you have to control everything, and that’s a huge burden. In the student-centered model, you and the students share the burden. That means there will be moments of uncertainty. Welcome them. Uncertainty creates space for students to step up, propose a direction, and learn leadership.
  • Shared Responsibility: Oddly enough, education reform has stripped students of responsibility for their success or failure: A bad test grade is somehow the teacher’s fault. Students used to cheat on tests, but now teachers do because they have more at stake. This has to change. Students need to actively seek their education, not passively receive it. After all, they’re the ones who will suffer the consequences of a poor education. Empower students by making them responsible for their own failures and successes.
  • Disagreements: We’ve come to believe that disagreements should be quelled, but a disagreement about ideas is a beautiful thing. If half the class thinks the Westward Expansion was a triumph and the other half thinks it was a tragedy—let them argue! Let them support their positions, use logic, answer objections, and appeal to their opponents. Arguments require engagement, critical thinking, and communication.
  • Failure: In our “No Child Left Behind” model, we’ve come to believe that failure is not an option. But eliminating failure means passing up a learning opportunity. When failure occurs, acknowledge it: “That didn’t work. Why not?” Get students to analyze the reasons and brainstorm solutions. Through this problem-solving process, they will overcome their failures and learn how to succeed.
  • Play: We tend to place the rigors of the classroom in opposition to play. If students are laughing, smiling, moving, interacting, and having fun—that’s recess, not class. But all mammals learn through play. Fawns frolic to practice evasion techniques, and cats chase yarn so that one day they might catch mice. Baseball fans learn every fact about their teams without ever once “studying.” Fun can open every pore to learning, and that makes purposeful play an important part of a rigorous classroom. Use play to engage students and open them to learning.

A Case Study of the Five Strangers

What happens when all five of these strangers come to visit a single class at the same time? A bit of chaos, but even more learning. On the blog Powerful Learning Practice: Professional Development for 21st Century Educators, inquiry teacher Shelley Wright chronicles just such an experience. She shows how she assumed five different roles to welcome these strangers and help students learn from them.

Teacher Support:

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Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.