Monday, November 15, 2010

Letting My Mind Romp

I recently had the good fortune to attend a conference where workshops gave good information and new skills. It reminded me, however, of how many conferences I’ve attended where the value was in the networking and flow of ideas that took place on the breaks and at the hotel bar at the end of the day rather than during the actual conference agenda.

All of this in turn had me thinking about education, and by comparison, how much did I learn as part of the curriculum and how much did I learn (really learn) from the non-regimented aspects of school; such as a teacher who told a life anecdote, or during free library time, or even recess?

A few years ago, about this time of a year, a kindergarten teacher told me of a concern. She wanted to have the children trace and color turkey pictures and cut them out. However, she expressed genuine concern that her administrator would witness this activity and discipline her for being off the pacing of the curriculum.

Many children are being denied art time, library time, recess time, gym time, and self-study time all in the pursuit of more structure, more control, more testing, and more accountability. Why? In the hopes that children will perform better in ways that can be quantified (tested).
That is a sad statement about the pursuit of measured performance at the expense of child development. It makes one wonder if the education reformers are even speaking to the cognitive development scientists. Cognitive scientists have told us that children need more time for self exploration and unstructured play time. Please note, unstructured play time does not include sports, enrichment, or music. In unscientific terms, we need to lighten up.

The idea of “lightening up” on our kids is not a popular one nowadays. We have gone back to a “spare the rod, spoil the child” outlook. Much of this is about our own middle class anxiety of the last few decades. We see, hear of, or have experienced the decline of the American middle class. We believe that we can save our children from a life of struggle with a “good” education.

However, there has not been deep thought given to what constitutes a “good” education. Is a good education one that teaches you how to think and gives you a life- long appreciation for learning? Is a good education more like a trades school that gives you skills for the future economy? The perception and direction of country would seem to indicate the latter.

Even in the case of viewing education strictly in the economic utilitarian sense, we do not seem to have given much thought to a “good” education. Currently, we are pushing all kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). There is nothing well thought out in this pursuit. Today, for every three STEM graduates, there is just one US STEM job available. Even if every Johnny and Mary were capable of being a rocket scientist, we just do not need that many rocket scientists.

Yet, acknowledging these unpleasant realities would require us to move beyond pushing the kids, driving the teachers to madness, and condemning the public schools. We would have to think about systemic change to the economic and social structures of our country, first; and then build an educational system that compliments the new order.


  1. Ah, jeez, Tim. Rethinking the economy and social fabric of America? Social justice for more folks, not fewer? Full employment? What are you thinking? More than that--what are you proposing? Whose side are you on?

    Und, vat do you mean by ze term "new order?"

    I remember the snowball fight in 4th grade--probably because my teacher scored a direct hit with an iceball and cut my cornea--I wore an eye patch for a week. And the art projects in 5th grade--decorating the classroom display window in the hall every month. And my 6th grade science teacher, Cliff Brown, engaging me in science demos and setting me on the path to becoming a science teacher who DID science with the kids instead of just reading about science. Plus--he was the first teacher I ever heard swear: "God-damn son of a bitch!" when he burned his hand in class.

    I think that you have made a very interesting point here.

  2. You said: "It makes one wonder if the education reformers are even speaking to the cognitive development scientists."

    I am pretty convinced that the reformists care not one fig for what educational psychologists, education philosophers, or the cognitive development people have to say about learning and learners. Probably think that it is all hogwash. "Why, if what they have to say and what they believe were true, then why are so many of our schools under-performing?"

    I have recently come to realize that in 6th grade science, I had 5-6 students last year (and a few this year) who never made it past some of the basic developmental stages described by Piaget, including conservation of matter and delayed gratification. No wonder they were struggling in math and science classes. No wonder they were causing so many disruptions and having so many discipline issues. They may have been 12 years old, but in many ways they were functioning cogitively and socially like 6-8 year olds.

    What these guys needed was intervention that would reinnforce the conservation issues in an apprpriately concrete and explicit manner so they could get over that hurdle. They also needed practice in delaying gratification so that they could learn ways to compensate for their feelings and frustrations. Maybe then they could sit through a 45-50 minute class session, understand the concept that one eventully "earns" the grade by doing the work now, and that wants and needs can be managed and temporarily suppressed for the good of all.