Saturday, March 31, 2012

Children as Sculpture?

From Tony Wagner's website:

Glowing reviews of Creating Innovators from USA Today and more…

USA Today recommends the book as “a road map for parents who want to sculpt their children into innovative thinkers” (March 19, 2012), and Kirkus Reviews calls it “a seminal analysis promising hope for the future” (March 13, 2012.)

Anyone else want to throw up at the idea of sculpting children? I mean, I'm looking forward to this book as much as anyone, but we REALLY REALLY have to stop a looking at children as blocks of marble, with twitching chisels in our hands.

Do we really believe we can "sculpt" children? Do we think it is a desirable thing to do? Do they get a say?

How about by letting them become the people they want to be?  Be an innovator, be a poet, be a software engineer, a father, a teacher.  Make furniture, build houses, plant trees.

I have faith in Tony Wagner and I believe that I will find his book to be an exciting contribution to the education ideas I believe in. I doubt Tony talks about sculpting. The way to foster innovation is to open the world up to kids. The way to open up the world to kids is to discover and honor who they are, and devote time, support and resources to helping them become the people they want to be.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What "respect for kids" is NOT.

 I am so grateful to the makers of this video! It makes explaining my position so much easier. I've been saying for what seems like a VERY long time, in every arena in which I discuss education (from Twitter to the school board table) that we need to understand what it means to respect children.

See, I know that adults in the institution of public education believe that they respect children, so it is natural that they might resent my implication that they do not. So I try very hard to make clear what I believe respect to be.

Recently I heard the term, "authoritarian respect." That clarified the issue for me: that is what kids get in schools. But in my view, that is not respect at all, and further: it is not working.

I believe that high up on the list of reasons why public education is failing is the mistaken definition of respect for kids.

Take a look at this:

I've taken part in some Facebook discussions about this video and one thing is clear and impressive: the passion of these teachers.  But there is something so obviously wrongheaded about how this passion is directed that makes the video a parody of the thing it's trying to say.

This is "authoritarian respect." This is what we all commonly know as demanding excellence, demanding hard work, and letting kids know that you believe in the best that they can do. But what is missing?

3/27 Addendum
Today I learned that this video is actually a poem.

Does this change its message? He's made a big deal out of the play on words: "Make" money and "make" someone do something. I don't think it's one of those wordplays that sheds light on a situation. I hate to make light of something that he clearly puts blood, sweat and tears into, though. There are passionate teachers who believe holding kids up to high standards and making them do all that they are capable of doing is the best thing they can do for them. Who am I to put them down?


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Questions...A Work in Progress

Questions are all I've got.

What can we do to change education into an institution that honors the drive to learn that is within each child?
What can we do to help kids understand their own identities as learners?
Are we teaching kids the right things? How can we find out?
What can go wrong when adults pick children's topics of study for them?
Can kids learn what they find to be truly irrelevant?
Instead of “making” kids care about what we're teaching, why don't we find out what they care about and go from there?
What is the role of trust in the classroom? What is the role of respect?
Why is "passion" such a difficult word when applied to children?
How can we take the learning path children have started at birth and make it joyful and engaging for the rest of their lives?
Can we change how people regard school?
Could the consequences of allowing children to follow their own interests in school be worse than what we have now?
Is it possible for teachers to take on a completely different role at school?
Why do the adults in schools have so much power over children?
What do they do with their power?
Do kids benefit by having no power over the direction of their education?
Why do we allow our children to go to school to get bossed around, disrespected, and disregarded?
What would happen if we turned the tables?
What are the rights of children?
How would school change if children had their rights respected?
How can we nurture the next generation of innovators while teaching kids to comply?
How can we educate for responsibility when all we teach kids is compliance?
How many similarities can we find between school and prison?

What are your questions? What's bugging you? 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Same old same old, all over again.

The education battle as I see it, as we go into a budget process that looks very grim, is to get perspective on two issues.

1. Do we really need to kids learn stuff they don't care about?
2. How do we make kids care?

OK, the two questions are important, but the order in which they are presented is also critical. I put them in that way because I think it's important to grapple with the outdated idea that all kids need to learn this list of facts, concepts, skills. What people generally think is that I don't think we should teach kids to read if they don't want to, and that I don't care if they learn the times tables. (Why does it always come down to the times tables? I don't know my times tables! I function!)

But the second question can address the first. I do care whether kids can read and do math. I do think it's important--I'm traditional in that sense and the misuse of the good old apostrophe makes me absolutely crazy. But forcing kids to learn is what we do now, and forcing doesn't work. It may look like it works, it may be "good enough for government work," but good enough is not good enough.

It is so critical that kids learn to read and do math that it is absolutely out of the question that we force them to learn it in such a way that they react against it. (Which is what's happening now, wholesale.)

I used to say, we need to help kids find the on-ramp to learning, let them follow their passions until they love to learn and each new thing opens doors to a whole beautiful world.

I don't say that anymore. We don't need to help them find the on-ramp; we need to make sure our schools are not an off-ramp. Read, write,do math, yes, these are all things that go with the normal course of the pursuit of interests. But do all kids have to know chemistry? Do all kids have to know the battlefields of the Civil War?

Do we even have to teach facts at all? Information is plentiful and free; working with information, determining why something is important or unimportant, being able to figure stuff out for yourself, that's a lot more important, but still, here we are, teaching kids how a bill becomes law before they ever figure out why they should care about it...except that we told them they should care.

How does this relate to our budget? We are still "delivering" education based on what we have decided kids need to learn, without reference to who these kids are. What we need to fight for is an education system that puts as a first priority to discover the identity of each of these kids, and fashion an education program that will keep kids on the learning highway  that started at birth.

I call it "the identity imperative."

I have to have these two questions on my mind at all times. This is the frustration. I can see myself letting yet another budget go forward without addressing the off-ramp. The institution is unmovable. Kinda like an elephant. It doesn't move unless it wants to move. But I did see this great, upsetting footage of a pack of lionesses bringing down an elephant the size of a small dump truck.  It took every one of those cats to bring that animal down. But in the end, the elephant was lunch.

So we need to gather as a crowd, attack, bring down, and eat this idea. The institution of school makes the decisions about what kids should learn, and when, and how, and why, leaving the identity of kids out of the picture entirely.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Yes, I really mean it.

I've been getting some push-back lately on one of those ideas that I keep questioning, and keep coming back to. How seriously, really, do I take the idea that people should not be made to learn stuff they don't care about? If I don't really believe it, if I believe it with exceptions, then should I keep trying to push the idea? If I talk about it just to make my point about establishing the on-ramp to learning through what a child enjoys, through interests and passions, does it necessarily mean that I truly believe no student should ever have to study anything they aren't interested in?

It's a point of view that's very easy to misinterpret, skew and distort; it's easy to set up those "straw man" arguments against it that make it possible to avoid addressing what is important about the idea ("You  mean kids shouldn't learn to read unless they want to?"). So I start to wonder if I'm digging in to this point of view out of stubbornness. I think I need to come out of the closet and say....I really do believe it.

Do I mean, therefore, that I don't believe there are things kids need to learn in order to live successful lives?

I'm pretty traditional that way, actually. I have what I call educational "sacred cows" of my own. I do believe there are things kids as individuals need to learn. I also think there are things that our next generations will have to do that will require collective knowledge and abilities, values, responsibilities. So it is not out of a willingness to sacrifice something essential that I advocate for a system of education whose curriculum begins with the tudents themselves.

It's just that the way it's working now...IT'S NOT WORKING!

There are so many reasons why,  it's hard to list them, but I'll try.

Kids have a completely different relationship with information now; it's entirely free, no longer the property of the teacher until they hand it down to waiting children, and kids know it. What they don't know is why they need to sit and be taught what they can look up on Wikipedia. Motivation to learn is entirely left out of the traditional education equation. It's all based on "because I said so," a parenting technique that is tenuous at best, and simply useless as a teaching tool.

Kids have an interconnectivity today that we could never have dreamed about. They have to power down for most classrooms, leaving out of the room the entire world that they know perfectly well is open to them when they leave the school building.

Kids also know that the promise of jobs and prosperity that we make to them as a return for knuckling down and getting to work is a myth. (If they don't know it, if they believe in that prosperity, then we are guilty of lying, aren't we?)

A lot of kids simply don't believe the institution cares a fig for them. I should say, some kids have a funny feeling that their needs don't matter...others know it for sure. Giving children the respect they deserve doesn't just mean simply treating them nicely, which I believe most teachers try very hard to do. It means giving kids the kind of attention that lets them know that who they are matters to the adults in their lives. It matters so much that adults will devote time and attention to finding out who these kids are, what they enjoy, what they love, and what they most want to do, and learn, and be.

There are more reasons. Reasons of family and home life are among them; reasons that a school system cannot control. But we do have control over that which we control, don't we? As Seth Godin says in his new book, Stop Stealing Dreams,

"I can’t think of anything more cynical and selfish, though, than telling kids who didn’t win the parent lottery that they’ve lost the entire game. Society has the resources and the skill (and thus the obligation) to reset cultural norms and to amplify them through schooling."

To those of you who think we can't possibly structure a school system around those principles, I have good news. It is most definitely do-able. First we need to let go of most of the preconceived notions about education, and open our minds to a new idea.

So I'm not saying kids don't need to learn to read, to write, to do math. I'm saying that kids need these things most desperately.  Learning that is coerced is ineffectual. Kids' natural desire to learn is their most powerful tool.

The best way to shut it down is to make kids learn stuff they don't care about.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Good question, #4

If we learn the most when we are on a detour, instead of the intended path, should public education provide paths or detours?

Good question, #3

Is there a connection between passion and productivity?

Is innovation something that you can practice and get better at?

If innovation is needed by society, do we have a responsibility to educate innovators?

OK, that's three questions.

Good question, #2

Does the generation graduating high school in 2012 know how many people are going to jail in their 20s in America?

Should they care?

Is it the responsibility of public education to teach them about society's problems?

Good question, #1

Are we educating a generation of kids who will be able to figure out if global warming is man-made or the result of CO2 emissions? And will they be able to take appropriate action on their conclusion?