Want More Rural Students To Be Lifelong Learners? Give Them More Opportunities.

One of the best baseball movies I’ve seen is Moneyball with Brad Pitt. There’s this scene where Pitt’s character had just brought in an economics wiz and baseball fanatic from Yale, played by Jonah Hill. Using statistics, they were going to build a winning team. It was unconventional at the time.

During a tense conversation, one of Pitt’s employees, a seasoned vet who’s been scouting talent for a long time, tells him he’s going to ruin the Oakland A’s season.

“You’re discounting what scouts have done for over 150 years. Even yourself,” he tells Pitt.

At that moment Pitt throws up his arms and says three simple words: “Adapt or die.”

As a school teacher, particularly one in a rural area where there are a lot of this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it strongholds, this concept of adapt or die seems particularly relevant to my students.

A popular stat suggests that many children entering elementary school today will end up working in a job or career that doesn’t even exist yet. We need to be giving our kids the skills they need to adapt to these changes, or we risk letting the world pass them by.

Adapting means that we’re always learning, and fortunately, loads of educators, leaders, and activists are taking note of that. That’s why we’re seeing such a big push for lifelong learning in education right now. It’s everywhere — it seems like just about every book I read or conference I visit has a focus on lifelong learning.

I’m thrilled that there are thoughtful people out there trying to revolutionize education and make it more relevant for kids. This push for lifelong learning is valuable and important, and I’m thrilled by some of the successes we’re seeing with it in our public schools.

I just wish it were easier to achieve in rural schools like mine.  

Our students face unique challenges inside and outside of the classroom. The harsh reality is that rural communities don’t tend to be very affluent, and there aren’t a lot of kids who get to go on a family vacation during the summer or who even have an Internet connection at home.

It’s part of a phenomenon we call the opportunity gap, where students who aren’t privy to these sorts of resources begin to fall behind other students who are. When students don’t have those built-in learning experiences in their everyday lives, it’s harder for school to seem meaningful and relevant.

So what role can us advocates, teachers, administrators, and parents play in helping rural students overcome this gap in opportunities?

Well, in the short-term, it starts with making education relevant. If students can see parts of their own lives reflected in what they’re learning or build upon their own lived experiences in the classroom, it creates buy-in on their part and makes them want to learn.

Right now, we’re seeing that being expressed in some interesting ways across classrooms. Strategies like Genius Hour, a practice which I’ve now adopted in my classroom, place the responsibility of learning squarely within students’ hands as they research and create their own passion projects. Game-based and culturally responsive teaching are having their day as well, giving kids some freedom to express themselves and even have fun while they learn. And here in Kentucky, work-based learning and co-op experiences are giving students hands-on job training before they even graduate high school.

And while all of these opportunities are great for students, they’re still not enough.

Teacher shortages are still chronic across rural school districts, making it hard for rural students to get the quality instruction they need. 19 million Americans still lack access to broadband Internet, many of whom live in communities like mine. And higher education deserts abound in rural areas, posing challenges for many who wish to pursue a college degree.

Tackling these problems will be the key to promoting lifelong learning in our rural public schools. I suspect that, just like the Oakland A’s, we may have to adapt along the way.


Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures/IMDb

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