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Education innovator puts focus on teachers getting to know students

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 12:27 AM

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- In Elliot Washor's opinion, it doesn't matter if you spend more money on education, do more training for teachers, or reduce class sizes -- unless you're doing the most important thing in education. That, he says, is getting to know each student.

Washor believes schools should do more to discover each student's interests and gifts, and give them credit for real-life experiences in those fields outside the classroom. He heads up 60 schools in the United States that operate under that model. He shared his educational theories and the outcomes they've produced Thursday with business leaders gathered at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's Annual Meeting and Business Summit.

Washor is co-founder and co-director of The Big Picture Company and co-authored a book with Charles Mojkowski titled "Leaving to Learn: How to Increase Student Engagement and Decrease the Dropout Rate."

Some of the greatest minds didn't finish the education programs they started, whether high school or college, because they got bored, he said, citing Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates of Microsoft.

"If you have talent -- rich, poor, man, woman -- there's a push to leave school to do what you love," he said. "In school, we measure what kids can't do and not what they can do. They have a lot of assets outside of school."

Schools need to focus on the students in front of them. Ask them what they're interested in, he said. Ask them to assess themselves, he said.

"They say we have to assess students, and I say the most powerful form of assessment is self-assessment," he said. "They have to trust you and there has to be a fiduciary relationship. ... That child is an agent in their own world. And yet we don't have a system like that. ... We have schools where you are frisked, where you can't get up to go to the bathroom. What are we telling children?"

If we're going to teach children how to learn, we can't restrict and regulate the environment they're in. We can't keep asking questions with the answer in the back of the book. Ask them a question with no answer other than the one they have to determine themselves, he said. Research indicates that 9 percent of adults use the quadratic equation in their lives. The rest learn it in school, as required, and then forget it.

"Some of our young people have incredible capabilities that schools don't know," Washor said. "I speak to people all the time about creativity. ... We're fascinated how people get to solving problems we don't know the answers to, but they do (solve them)."

Research indicates students drop out because of academic failure, disinterest, life events or behavior problems.

"I say, 'mattering, fitting in, unrecognized talents and interests, and restrictions,'" he said.

Schools with his model, which are located throughout the United States and in places like Australia, New Zealand and Europe, focus on the following: relationships, relevance, authenticity, application, choice, challenge, play, practice, time and timing.

Two days a week, students are out in the world. They've chosen a mentor around an interest, and they're engaged in that field, he said.

"The other three days, they are back in school getting what they need, tutoring, online courses, college courses," Washor said. "Every student has a learning plan. Parents or an advocate ... represent on that learning plan. Every quarter, students have to present learning to parents, their school community and mentors.

"The school day is long, and if you're learning outside the school, you're getting credit for it," he said.

Post-graduation follow-up on their students indicates that up through age 29, 70 percent are employed in the field in which they did their internships, Washor said.

"Relationships outlast the four years of high school," he said. "They know how to network. Get them on Facebook. You don't have to teach them."

Learn more at leavingtolearn.org.

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