The phrase “build a better mousetrap” turned into a metaphor about the power of innovation and is frequently taken literally, with more than 4,400 patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office for new mousetraps, with thousands more unsuccessful applicants, making them the “most frequently invented device in U.S. history.”
Five “better mousetrap” books have come across my desk in the past five months and they all have similar messages about schools, teachers, students and parents. Here are the five books, not in any particular order. I also read a few others outside of this domain that I could recommend.
- The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey
- It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching by Tom Rademacher
- What Schools Could Be: Insights and Inspirations from Teachers Across America by Ted Dintersmith
- Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura Sandefer
- Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools by Ira Socol, Pam Moran & Chad Ratliff
First of all, thanks to those people who have done the research, who have put in the hard and thoughtful work of writing and whose commitments to making learning better for all come through loud and clear. When I say learning for all, I mean all. All students, all teachers, including administrators, and all parents. The bottom line, perhaps it should be the top line, in all of these books is change. If you’re not willing to change, it’s possible you should consider surrendering your role as student, teacher or parent. As radical as that might sound, since few are either willing or able to do that, at least step back, look at how things are and see if you’re satisfied with what you see.
Schools are simply the structural and organizational part of the education equation and we know from the evidence that these authors present, that schools can change and the best ones are leading the way toward creative, responsible and exciting changes. Teachers and parents can help facilitate these changes whether in design, content, or pedagogy. Many have said that we have to unlearn in order to relearn that which we need to know in order to do better. It means giving up old ways in favor of doing things differently and creating a better learning experience for both children and adults. Maya Angelou may have said it best: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Here’s my brief summary of what I have gleaned, not only from the books, but also from my own observations and experience.
Students – They come to us with curiosity intact and it’s up to us to feed and nurture that in as many ways as we can. Students thrive on autonomy, responsibility and collaboration so it’s incumbent on the adults to create that kind of optimum learning environment. Invite the students into that process and be ready to be amazed with the results. It might take a little more time and be a bit messy, but so what? If you want to see students take on more responsibility for their own learning, know that they can and that they will.
Teachers – These are the super-heroes, the role models, the sources of inspiration, guidance, love and support for our kids and their futures. These are the overworked and underpaid professionals who deserve a better deal than they’re currently getting. They give generously of themselves every day and they serve with passion and purpose beyond themselves. They know that teaching is an awesome and noble profession and they stick to their core values and beliefs in terms of helping students to become independent, lifelong learners. We owe them more recognition and appreciation as well our gratitude for their presence and their commitments.
Parents – They love their kids and want what they believe is in their best interests. Parents, like their kids, come in all sizes, shapes and flavors. They can be great partners with teachers and schools in a conspiracy that challenges and rewards students in the most appropriate and productive ways. That’s worth investing the requisite time, energy and resources to help create opportunities for exciting growth and change. It won’t happen overnight but it can happen through a spirit of cooperation for achieving some common goals.
As we all chart one more year, we might ask a couple of questions. What could I do to help create a better learning experience and outcome for students (and colleagues) than has existed previously? Go ahead and write down two or three possibilities and pursue them with others. What could I do for my own personal growth that would help support others in this enterprise? What kinds of conversations would enrich my role as teacher, administrator or parent? Where could I make some new connections that would help nourish and sustain me? In order to do that you might have to consider letting go of some as there is only so much time.
Finally, remember to be kind, honest and grateful in dealing with these wonderful human beings. They need that and so do you.