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 I put them in that way because I think it's important to grapple with the outdated idea that all kids need to learn this list of facts, concepts, skills.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.


  1. Let's try this - imagine if your questions were:

    1. Do we really need to TEACH kids stuff they don't care about?
    2. How do we decide what to teach?

    A teacher or school can never make decisions about what kids learn, they can only make decisions about what is taught. And it's not a new problem that people don't always learn just because someone stands up in front of them and tells it to them.

    And we know that people only learn things they actually need and care about. Sure, you will find some kids who are compliant and good at memorizing who are the exception, but by and large, teaching things no one cares about is a waste of time and money, and worse, as you say, creates those "off ramps"

    Hopefully the key is to not just focus on discovering the identity of each child, but to help each child focus their own identity as that of a learner. Kids will learn about apostrophes or how a bill becomes a law if they care about it, and there are lots of ways to that end - but most often, it comes in the form of a passionate, professional teacher who can light the fire in each kid, challenge and guide them, and care about them.

    It's not easy to convince others of this, we are way too used to the "delivery" method. But a bite at a time....

  2. Thank you so much for your re-framing of these questions. Your insight is really helpful as I go into our first budget meeting Wednesday. It's very hard to hold onto this kind of clarity after you step into a meeting room with the "reality" of public education. The thoughts and ideas that were crystal clear before entering find those air vents and fly away. But the reality of learning is what you and I are talking about, not what we see in the lines and columns of the budget, the sustaining of a busted system.