How Schools Are Failing Our Kids with Lee Jenkins
“Teacher’ sounds like you’re supposed to teach when you actually need to lead the learning. Sometimes, we lead the learning by teaching, but there are more ways to lead learning other than teaching.”
– Lee Jenkins
I had the pleasure of speaking with Lee Jenkins, an author, speaker, consultant, and recognized expert in improving educational outcomes. Lee has spent the last 50 years learning from world-class experts while working as a teacher, principal, school superintendent, and university professor.
His mission is that every child has an educational experience that promotes and encourages their natural love of learning.
- The Jenkins Curve and the shortcomings of the modern school system
- Using data and student assessment to bring joy
- Teaching children how to be good losers and winners
The Jenkins Curve and the shortcomings of the modern school system
Dedicated researcher John Hattie of Melbourne, Australia, shares Dr. Jenkins findings—labeled the Jenkins Curve—all over the world, to champion the cause of bettering schools. The project was simple: Lee asked 3,000 teachers from various states and all grade levels, “What grade do you teach, and what percentage of your kids love school?”
When we take the average for the kindergarten teachers, first grade, and second grade, we have the data we need to learn the sordid truth of how classrooms feel for children.
“It was eye-opening to me because I believe, prior to collecting that, that schools kept the enthusiasm for learning pretty high in elementary school, and was lost in middle and high school,” Lee says. “That was not true. We start losing a few kids in kindergarten. We lose a few more kids every year who have no love of coming to school to learn.”
Where is the love of learning going? What are schools missing when it comes to fostering the natural curiosity in children?
It’s not individual teachers or administrators—nowhere in a lesson plan will we find a list of students a teacher aims to discourage—it’s the system we inherit.
“The basic problem in education is poor psychology, where teachers are told to motivate their kids to learn. That's terrible advice,” Lee continues. “The kids come to kindergarten already motivated; our job is to keep it. And if they've lost their motivation, instead of motivating them, we say, let's work together to restore you and put you back the way you used to be at five years old.”
It's not enough to say what's wrong—most teachers could tell us what’s wrong, and have—we must ask ourselves, “What are we going to replace it with?”
Using data and student assessment to bring joy
Think of a time in school when numbers divided students into average and exceptional, underachieving and high achieving. I’m sure we can all remember a time we fell short or were embarrassed by a grade. All of it was simply data, but it had the power to bring harm or joy in equal measures. Much like a baseball bat.
“Teachers don't know how to use data for joy. But when they learn, the kids are begging for quizzes to prove they're smarter than they were before,” Lee says.
What is data? It's the assessments, the way that we assess and evaluate kids. That is one of the chief issues across modern education.
“When you go into a classroom and look at the wall, it's very common to see things that compare kid to kid. Sometimes it's a contest,” he continues.
Every time these children walk into class, they are confronted with their placement in a hierarchy. What could be considered a motivational tactic is often felt more like a sticker marking someone as “dumb” or “less than” each time they enter a place of learning. A place meant to inspire and expand knowledge.
“The teachers aren't calling them dumb, they’re not saying that. They were convinced that this context would motivate the kids,” Lee says. “Well, it motivates the kids that least need it, and it demotivates the kids who most need it.”
What can we do instead? How can we motivate without ostracizing?
Schools that implement Lee’s ideas assess kids at random with what they want them to know at the end of the year. In the beginning, the graph is low—the kids graph their own graph—and as they go through the year, they learn more and more of the content. It goes up until whatever information is pulled out of the bucket at random for the year's content, they know it. The kids see their growth.
“When they do better than ever before, we call it an all-time best. Or shortened, ATB,” Lee explains. “We add the total up for the whole classroom, everybody contributes to the total for the class. It's heartwarming when a kid that's struggling knows that their few points on their quiz put the class total over the top.”
Not only does this encourage collaboration and leave comparison behind, but it shows real progress throughout the year, fostering an “I am capable,” attitude alongside a genuine curiosity for what they will learn next to fill in the gaps.
At the end of the school year, every single kid has a handful of ATBs to collect from the wall where they were displayed, and they always know exactly where they are because they were invested in what they learned to earn those spots.
Teaching children how to be good losers and winners
Losing is an important part of life—through athletics, games, and so on—but not in academics. Helping children develop a “thick skin” by embarrassing and berating them does not result in a strong child; it results in a discouraged child.
“We're doing them [the random quizzes] 28 times a year, that's seven times a quarter. Out of the 28, the typical kid will have seven to 12 all-time bests. They have to work for it,” Lee explains, “But when they don't get an all-time best—well, it was bad luck. Or they think, ‘I should have known that when it came up twice already,’ and ‘I can't believe I didn't remember it.’ They are getting some failure in there, but it's a short-term failure.”
These short-term failures build resilience in a way that encourages improvement instead of shame or fear. They know they will get another chance, and have the tools to succeed. This method works in adult education, as well.
A professor in Oklahoma taught a research methods course class on Monday and Tuesday nights—every student at the university had to attend his class, no matter what they were getting their masters in.
“If students couldn't be there on Monday night, they would always say to him, ‘I'm sorry, but I can't make it. I won't be there Monday night.’ He said, ‘Well, okay, you can't be there. Nothing you can do about it.’ Well, when he started this process, and you add the total up for the whole class, they didn't want to be absent because they'd let down the team,” Lee explains.
After incorporating Lee’s method, the students would ask if they could attend the Tuesday night class, take the quiz, and have their points moved to their Monday team. Team spirit runs deep no matter the age, and camaraderie is a strong motivator, even in a master's program.
The answer to our school system problem isn’t more tests or stricter rules. It’s incorporating joy. It’s encouraging collaboration. It’s short-term failures that compound into successes, not discouragement. It’s fun.
What do you remember most about school? What do you wish would have been different?