Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"A Failure of Imagination" -- My Education Manifesto

Call this my opening salvo in the discussion regarding education and education reform.

If you're familiar at all with the ongoing debate over education in the United States then you've probably heard the word "standards" at least once or twice. By itself, it's not a harmful word. Heck, we should have standards. Our collective standards should be very high, especially when we're considering something like education, which is so vital to our nation's stability. My problem is not with the idea of standards, nor is that the case with many of my colleagues (much as their being the du jour boogeymen in the media might have you believing otherwise); it is instead with how we are defining the term.

Briefly described for the uninitiated, "standards" as I refer to them above generally reflect the notion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or more specifically, at least in my case as an Illinois educator, Illinois Learning Standards (ILS). And for example, in the state of Illinois, an English Language Arts standard for an "early high school" student reads like this, verbatim: "1.A.4b Compare the meaning of words and phrases and use analogies to explain the relationships among them." There are many more, for all grade levels. Take a look at them here, if you're interested. As a teacher my responsibility might be, then, at the beginning of a given class, to transparently elucidate (ideally by writing it down on and then reading it aloud from the whiteboard) that "all students will know how to compare the meaning of words and phrases using analogies by the end of class." I might write those exact words for them to see and hear. The reason for my doing so being, according to various studies that have informed ILS standard setting, "students learn best when they are clear about what they are expected to know and do." An idea that at face value is reasonable. And yet I reject the notion that students invariably learn best when they are clear about what they are expected to know and do. It helps, certainly, and of course as an educator my goal is to be as forthcoming as possible, to assist my students in understanding subject matter to the fullest extent of my abilities.

But what I've also found is--and perhaps these two things aren't mutually exclusive and maybe I'm being nitpicky about one line from what is, in effect, a sprawling educational framework but bear with me--students learn best when there is anything about subject matter that engages them even remotely. An air of mystery about expectations of knowledge and implementation might lead to actual curiosity. But hey, don't take my word of it, here's some cognitive science from Daniel Willingham, Ph.D, from his fascinating book Why Don't Students Like School? -- "Solving problems brings pleasure," which I think we all understand and agree with the truth of this statement on some level. On the following page Willingham further explains,"Even if someone doesn't tell you the answer to a problem, once you've had too many hints you lose the sense that you've [emphasis his] solved the problem, and getting the answer doesn't bring the same mental snap of satisfaction." So then I might argue it's better for the teacher to know the goal of the day's lesson (and I kid, it's not better but absolutely essential). Students' being clear about what they are expected to "know" and "do" is something that could reasonably be assessed by the educator, without need of a spoiler telling them what happens before the task is already begun. They'll know what the expectations were by the end of a lesson because they'll have learned them for themselves, rather than been spoon fed information.

There are a lot of assumptions that come with the murky world of mandated standards, organizing classroom materials to provide a model that all teachers need to follow (and I don't just mean that from the standpoint of teachers' and their teaching methods being as variegated as their students' learning habits and tendencies). I think the cookie cutter approach to education is well-meaning at best and a concerted effort by cynical politicians to say they're "doing" something about education to their constituents at worst. As far as improving education in America, the implementation by my own school district of such standards leaves me hard-pressed to determine any such value.  

Indeed, what I've observed over the last five plus years I've been working in the realm of public education (roughly coinciding with the year Illinois adopted its version of the CCSS (2010)) is that so much of what people are doing to improve learning standards is entirely empty and rote and, most importantly, devoid of any sense of the art inherent to teaching. This isn't sentiment; it's rational. It's acknowledging what should be obvious to anyone who truly desires the success of his or her students and isn't motivated by some, sorry, self-serving desire to advance their own position, be it on up to an administrative role or building an impressive resume as a classroom teacher (in my experience it's usually the former and not so much the latter; people who truly want to teach, teach).

But fine, let's look at the argument on its own terms. I hear things like the following by Fredrick M. Hess, a so-called education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "...[I]n schools, unlike in financial markets, there is a lot of sentiment." In schools, unlike financial markets, there's simply no room for failure. You're allowed to lose a hundred thousand dollars here and there in the financial market provided your overall return is greater, spending money to make money. With something as amorphous as the academic success of a generation of people, you're not likely to have as much wiggle room. Which is to say you can't discard anybody if the system is working properly. And so also unlike money (or more specifically product), you have to work with whatever you've got available, even if that's students from difficult circumstances who are unlikely to be the "ideal" student with that zest for learning that certainly makes an educator's job easier. If I were in the education business, I'd simply get rid of these students and find new ones who are "willing" to learn. And some, usually callous, folks with nary a shred of empathy for anyone and conversely a huge narcissistic bent, might say that's just their loss and so be it, can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs or some other empty, trite phrase. And as we already know, at many non-public and charter schools around the country, the "bad eggs" are discarded, are dumped, expelled, left to find some other situation. I can't imagine that's good for anybody, and if you're like me and you believe there's more good in people than bad, it's also insane. It kills a sustainable society and further aggregates power in the hands of a very select minority, because what is education if not, in our late capitalist society, cultural currency, a means by which an individual's value can be quickly determined.

And so leads me to my philosophy educationally speaking -- imagination = needed. Good teachers have it in spades. They've got imagination coming out of the wazoo. They'll say things like you've never heard before in ways that will surprise and almost always challenge a young mind. But for those of you misguided folks who consider it necessary to clog said young mind of a student with whatever "standard" you consider necessary in a long and pedantic and often rote manner of learning, just remember: like all bad medicine it will not go down. Students will want to die, and who could blame them? Learning doesn't have to be boring. We choose to make it that way with our failure of imagination or various failures of various imaginations.

And I get it. You want to be organized and teach kids skills they'll be able to use for a lifetime, both professionally and maybe beyond (because people are more than their jobs, maybe?). That's great but students are also humans, and like all humans, they feel it in their marrow when someone has sucked the life out of a given piece of subject matter, for the sake of simply meeting a "standard," instilling a skill, booking some learning.

Or maybe I don't get it. Maybe you're someone who has one singular interest: how might I profit off of the potentially lucrative and certainly untapped realm of American education, while also maybe teaching some kids some things because that's the kind of lip service you have to pay to people you're trying to sell your education reform to, whose kids will actually have to be educated by it? Where caring is just window dressing, lies in advertisement, marketing? To you I'll be more unequivocal: you're horrible human beings.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with mandated education and core requirements is the stuffing of knowledge down students' throats with no real comprehension of what they are learning. They regurgitate info for a test then forget it. This isn't learning because they will never actually put the information to use. Reaching kids, speaking to them in their language and helping them find their strengths as well as address their weaknesses is what education should be about. I'll step down from my soapbox now.