• September 2012

A New Generation Needs a New Way to Learn. Just Ask Aleta Margolis

By Beverly Schwartz
Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World

Ever think about how you became an entrepreneur? Where did you learn to take risks? Who taught you to think out of the box, and to solve problems on your own?

It’s a fair guess to say that creative thinking and taking calculated risks was not on the teaching priority list of your elementary school, junior, or even senior high school.

More than likely, you learned how to sit still, be quiet, color between the lines, and not be a disruptor.

Sound familiar? Well, not a whole lot has changed over the past 20 years. Teachers teach to the test, kids learn for the tests, and reading and math are still king.

But there are those who know that things can be different.

Meet This Month’s Changemaker: Aleta Margolis

One woman who, at one time in her life had taught inmates how to write plays while they were imprisoned, saw what a difference it made in their ability to think creatively, about themselves and the world.

She knew there had to be a way to transfer what she was seeing in inmates in prison to kids in classrooms so they could achieve their full potential at an early age. And she figured out that it wasn’t so much about what the kids were learning in school, as much is it was how they were being taught.

So Aleta Margolis created the Center for Inspired Teaching to help teachers figure out how to encourage and mentor students to think creatively, to anticipate problems, and to devise solutions for complicated problems.

The underlying philosophy about children and all people is that they are inherently curious, and each one deserves to be valued. Everyone is born intellectually curious and eager to learn. The school’s job should be to fuel that curiosity, not to dampen it, and never to extinguish it. If you want to fuel kids’ curiosity and you want to channel that curiosity into learning, you have to teach in a very different way than is currently being done now.

If you are a smart, thoughtful person, you didn’t go into teaching to read a script, or to become a traffic cop in the halls, or to become the enforcer of a system or rules, rewards, and punishments. You became a teacher because you thought science was fascinating, because you thought kids’ brains were fascinating. It’s not about getting the right teachers—the schools are full of them. It’s about having them do the right things when they’re in the classroom.

Aleta well understands the tough accountability challenges that teachers and school districts face, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Everyone agrees that professional development and teacher training is important, but what’s really important is getting it right. It’s not about giving a new teacher a bag of tricks to survive, or a random workshop here and there that is disconnected to the realities of the classroom.

It’s about helping teachers develop the mindset and the practices that are going to sustain them for a long time in the classroom. It’s about internalizing teaching as a profession.

Margolis feels that teaching actually is rocket science. It’s challenging, it’s stimulating, and, like rocket science, it can be learned. She understands that teachers don’t just wake up one morning and figure out how to teach. They can learn how to do it, and possessing that knowledge inspires them to grow as a professional.

The traditional school model dictates that the teacher knows everything, the teacher provides the information and the correct answers, and the student’s job is to absorb it all.

Inspired Teaching sees that picture differently. They see the child coming to class with ideas and experience, questions and knowledge. They see a teacher with exceptional skills for building, refining, focusing, expanding, and directing the knowledge the child already possesses.

In fact, the picture sometimes doesn’t display the teacher at all, because they believe that a great teacher is, at times, invisible.

Once the teacher devises the lesson, which includes problems for students to solve, the teacher is occasionally offering his or her voice to ask a question, and the question might be, “Why did you do it that way?” Or, “What have you learned so far? Or, “Have you tried that one?”

Asking challenging questions prompts students to articulate and synthesize their learning and coaxes them to the next level, especially when a child seems like as if he or she is taking the easy way out.

How can you teach your children, nieces, and nephews to think like entrepreneurs?

Here is the crux of the issue. It’s not the teachers who aren’t exceptional—its the way they are teaching that makes them unexceptional. Center for Inspired Teaching’s role is to help everyone in the education chain, including students, become exceptional at changemaking.

This would create such a profound and sustainable impact that cities and school districts wouldn’t have to tear down their school systems and build new ones. They wouldn’t end up creating economic suicide by getting caught in the cycle of firing and then hiring teachers as a way of improving student performance.

If teachers are partners in reform, instead of being targets of reform, that adjustment in itself will create a more sustainable system, and an entire generation of children will grow up with a very different proclivity for figuring out solutions when before, they might only have seen problems.

It’s possible to change the entire system just by changing what we ask teachers to do, how we ask them to do it, and how we equip them to teach. If we are lucky, maybe in the future it will be more about how well students can solve real-world problems, rather than how well-behaved they are, and how long they can sit in their seats.

For more information about Margolis, and other social entrepreneurs who are creating change, pick up a copy of Rippling.

Portions of this post were reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World by Beverly Schwartz. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

About Beverly Schwartz

Marketing VP and author Beverly Schwartz joined Ashoka as senior marketing counsel from Fleishman-Hillard, an international communications agency. At Fleishman, she built and helped manage its social issues portfolio. She also developed and directed Fleishman’s domestic and international social-impact portfolio and was project director of the non-advertising portion of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s “Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.”

Schwartz´s interest in social issues spans most of her career. In the mid-70s she was executive director of the Minnesota Association for Nonsmokers and was instrumental in passing the nation’s first state law banning smoking in public places.

Subsequently, at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she helped design and manage the first U.S. education/prevention campaign for HIV/AIDS, and simultaneously directed the Office on Smoking and Health’s public information function. At the Academy for Educational Development, she worked globally on the problem of education reform.

Schwartz is dedicated to promoting the field of social marketing. An associate editor of the Social Marketing Quarterly, she is also a Steering Committee member of the annual “Innovations in Social Marketing Conference.” Learn more here: www.ashoka.org.

Follow Schwartz on twitter@beverlyschwartz and Tweet about the article and become a Rippler! You can also fan her at Facebook.com/RipplingTheBook.