Focus on learning, not paper clips

It was a truly remarkable discussion in Southold last week that’s likely to be the envy of other school boards. Putting aside the nuts and bolts that usually consume such meetings, the Southold Board of Education and school administrative team spent the better part of two hours exploring how to improve the learning experience for students.

The discussion arose from Superintendent David Gamberg’s initial question about what it means to function as a “professional learning community.”

He posed the question to board members and school administrators at the Aug. 19 work session, launching an open-ended discussion that could lay the groundwork for a creative approach to truly preparing students for an unknown future.

Mr. Gamberg has frequently said that today’s teachers are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. If that’s the case, then the skills students will need to prosper aren’t bits of information they can memorize and spit back on a test.

Students will have to learn to research and to reason. They will need to become discerning consumers of information. They will need to think. And, yes, students will need reading skills, but they’re best developed by encouraging them to spend part of each day reading books of their own choice, rather than those that are assigned, administrators told the board.

Too much of education is about building walls of information when it should be about building a foundation for ongoing learning, Mr. Gamberg said.

The goal, board member Judi Fouchet said, is to create lifelong investigative learners. It starts with teachers being creative and making learning interesting for students, she said.

Elementary school principal Ellen Waldron-O’Neill said there’s too much emphasis on testing and while it might raise scores, all students are learning is how to test. It doesn’t mean Southold is going to scrap the mandated testing, but the board and administrators aren’t satisfied that high test scores are an indication of their students’ abilities.

To change the learning experience to meet future challenges requires changing mandates given to teachers, the group agreed. If teachers are expected to spend more time on creative, imaginative lessons, they need to be relieved of some of the burdensome paperwork that consumes their time, Mr. Gamberg said.

That’s not to say that there aren’t teachers who challenge their students. But sadly, some take a lazy path, giving the same lectures year after year and demonstrating little or no creativity.

Administrators agreed they need to examine what chores can be eliminated to free teachers to use their time more constructively. Teachers at all levels need to see the bigger picture of what’s happening in classrooms throughout the district. Elementary school teachers need to assure that their students are getting the building blocks to create a foundation for lessons they will be taught in junior and senior high school. The secondary school staff needs to embrace what’s happening in elementary grades.

Those who sat around the table in Southold last week would be the first to admit that a single discussion doesn’t change the entire educational landscape. But identifying the challenge and focusing on ways to meet it makes an excellent start.