Back-to-school Interview: Aleta Margolis on why a dynamic classroom leads to greater learning
Aleta Margolis, founder and executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching, believes all kids have an innate desire to learn. She also believes our schools are beating it out of them. As a teacher, Margolis rejected the idea of trying to motivate kids with rewards – like stickers and gold stars. Students should be motivated by the work itself, she reasoned. So Margolis developed a teaching model that emphasizes engagement over compliance, and now she focuses on spreading it. Teachers who have been trained by her center regularly see test scores rise and drop out rates fall. Here, Margolis explains why classrooms that are messier and louder can be more fulfilling for everyone.
Dowser: Inspired Teaching wants to reform public education in America. How can one organization impact something so big?
Margolis: By putting a teaching model out there that makes school the opposite of boring. The top reason kids drop out is boredom. Most are getting C’s when the leave school. They’re not failing; they’re bored.
What does the opposite of boring look like?
If you see a classroom on TV or in a movie, you see half-awake kids at desks and a teacher at the board. That’s the least effective way to engage kids in learning. Yet it’s the norm. Schools could look different. They could look like a NASA lab, with people experimenting, solving problems, working together. That’s our ultimate goal.
Where do you begin?
With the teacher. It’s not the subject matter, it’s not even the testing. It’s the teaching.
Aren’t we already asking a lot from our teachers?
We ask teachers to deliver a curriculum as efficiently as possible to a passive audience: the kids. It’s called the transmission model. Inspired Teaching is trying to change the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to instigator of thought.
By helping teachers bring the student into the work. We show them how to start lessons by giving the student a question to answer, then a hands-on project to discover the answer on their own. It’s actually that simple.
Doesn’t that take longer?
It takes about 20 minutes to turn a kid on. You give any child, from any background, work that is interesting, work that is important, and the child will want to do it. Once they want to do it, you’re off and running. They will work harder and understand it better.
Are you measuring academic results?
We track grades and test scores, which go up quite a bit when teachers adopt our model. More important, the nature of learning changes, which means kids are hating school less. They’re less bored.
A recent study showed that when teachers use our model, participation more than doubles, and the number of interactions that involve critical thinking and analytical reasoning increases. Another huge bonus is that time spent on discipline drops significantly.
What’s the catch?
It’s messier, it’s louder, and it’s hard work. But every teacher using our model reports deeper job fulfillment. To them, it’s worth it.
Do you remember that moment as a teacher when you realized the power of engaging kids in this way?
I do. When Bill Clinton first ran for president, we held a school election. Our kids polled everyone in the school, graphed the results, then supervised voting in the lunchroom. One teacher was upset because it wasn’t part of the curriculum. She didn’t let her kids vote. Some risked punishment and voted anyway.
Later, when we talked about countries where some people aren’t allowed to vote, the kids were furious. They understood on a deep level the power and importance of the vote in a democracy.
What made you decide to leave the classroom and start an organization?
I love teaching but I was overwhelmed by the general acceptance among my colleagues that kids hate school. It turned out that starting an organization was the best vehicle to change that dynamic on a bigger scale than my own classroom.
Did you hate school when you were a kid?
I loved learning, reading and getting A’s. But I do remember one time, getting my enthusiasm kicked out of me. I was in first or second grade and discovered, on my own, that if you add two odd numbers, you always get an even. I was so excited, I told my teacher. She said, ‘Everyone knows that. It’s right here in the book. Besides, we’re not on that yet.’
- Aleta Margolis on Comcast Newsmakers: In this video, Margolis talks about investing in teachers.
- Center Focuses on Teachers, Not Test Scores: This Washington Post article relates the importance of Inspired Teaching to the No Child Left Behind law.
- Ashoka Fellow Aleta Margolis: Check out Margolis’ Ashoka profile.
What did you take away from that experience?
Everyone has a story or two like that. I’ve been reading quite a bit about changemakers, people who have done great things to make our society better. Just about all of them were taught, by their school experiences, that their ideas didn’t fit in. If society valued divergent thinkers, we’d not only have more problem solvers, we’d have more problem preventers.
Can you recommend a good read for someone thinking about starting a social change organization?
Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. It’s phenomenal.
What advice would you give someone thinking about a career as a social entrepreneur?
Find work that fascinates you and that also makes a difference in the world. I don’t do this work because it helps people. I do it because it is the most intellectually stimulating job I can think of to do.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser