Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Do you want to play golf, or....?

It amazes me how much effort — in time, money and resources — people will devote to not changing education.

Evidently, adults want kids to continue to be powerless in school...but we're going to go through Herculean efforts to make it look like things are really going to change.

That's why I'm turning to Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing in the HBO series, The Newsroom. Take a minute to listen. I'll wait.

Now, do you want to change education or do you want to fuck around?

I'm sorry, I know foul language is offensive to some, but Leona Lansing hits the nail of my impatience, frustration and growing anger right on the head. I've been repeating the punchline to myself for days. It just keeps popping up in my head.

Let's look at the standards-based or proficiency-based system that we are "moving toward" in my district, Maine's RSU 3.

Here's the model that's being held up to us as the One True Way out of the mess we send our kids to every day:

It looks good. We're getting kids through important learning goals by letting them decide how to go about learning it; and at their own pace they "level up," achieving goals and moving on until they have all learned what they should learn, in their own individual way.
What could possibly be bad? 

Just that we're dismissing the one thing that can get kids to believe their learning belongs to them. We should be teaching kids that they are the only ones who hold the ticket to their own learning. That's exactly what we fail to teach them, when we cling to standards, or "learning goals."
Ultimately this is a failure of adults to understand who children are and what they need; a failure to respect children. This failure occurs despite the fact that children are perfectly constructed learning machines; turn them on and they go.
They are force-fed learning from the time they are 5. Occasionally a teacher reaches a kid, but a stopped clock is also right twice a day. The successes don't negate the overall failure.
That's the missing message of the Chugach Miracle. What has been lost?
  1. An chance to explore what is most meaningful to them and see where it leads.
  2. The opportunity to build the self-respect that comes from accomplishment.
  3. The ownership of what they learn.
  4. A sense that learning might be something more than "having been taught."

Every parent I've ever talked to says they want their kids to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers. They want them to learn to make good choices, to collaborate, to create. But with the standards-based or proficiency-based system, they are getting a long march through a state-mandated, 12-year course of study. Kids are the very last consideration in this education model.

The standards-based system is built to support the profit juggernaut of the Common Core, standardized curriculum and standardized testing. It's not built for kids. It's built for bureaucrats. Wait....who are schools for, again?
Distressed that so many kids don't know anything about basic civics? Do you think the answer is to have them sit in a room and learn the branches of government? Of course not. Get kids involved in issues that are meaningful to them, let them find out who to talk to about making the changes they want made. They will be able to imagine their own place in their community. That's the only thing that will get them truly interested in civic involvement and democracy.
And if they choose not to get involved, if they aren't interested in issues, that's ok.

We need to just repeat that until we believe it. It's OK!
What they are learning is that when they choose to care about something, they will be able to go after it, learn it, master it. We all talk about the importance of life-long learning; why do we feel we have to stuff kids full before they leave public school?
Either we support kids or we don't. Honoring student self-determination is the only thing that will really "work;" and when I say work, I mean work for kids, not for whatever preconceived ideas we harbor about what kids need.
So do you want to play golf, or do you want to fuck around?


  1. So well put. I think the extended version of that clip holds some clues as well -- including Lansing invoking the notion of "context."

    On that note, check out this post from Michael Wesch --

    1991: Who we were and Who we need to be

    I've engaged in a similar process for years, digging through memories, and with much time passing without having the ticket to active learning or agency, and without knowing who to see about the problem. It's an ongoing process, but the question is, how can others get a better head start on self-determination?

    My answer to your "what could be bad?" question regarding such "miracle schools" is that "the bar isn't set high enough" with the "standards-based" approach. That sounds strange, because a "bar" is a kind of "standard." As Ken Robinson says, "of course we should raise standards." But how are they determined?

    I think part of what's needed is a change in how people see life as unfolding. Everyone can grow and change throughout their lives, which is what lifelong learning is about. But if living and learning is a life-long process, what's the formal education part of the puzzle? Arguably, it's important for people to be "prepared for life" in some manner, and that's part of what school is about, as well as filtering people into particular life paths.

    But that raises a key question -- the conflict between the notion of making everyone equal, with the fact that each person, in practice, does have to become themselves, and differentiate in certain ways. Making clones of everyone doesn't benefit the economy, if it were even possible. And, the path anyone goes down -- whether a sequence of web pages or stroll in the park, whether in the course of a day or through a series of years, is a complex interplay between the individual and context.

    On that note, I think one of the most important things in the learning process is being able to have engaging, meaningful conversations. This is something that's rarely possible in school contexts, and as you point out, just memorizing branches of government is not the same understanding civics.

    Sherry Turkle makes a key point in her TED talk, "Connected, but alone?" She's making a point about communicating with technology, but the underlying concept has long been true, and it's extremely relevant to education and how people learn to know themselves:

    "I was caught off guard, when Stephen Colbert asked me a profound question. He said, 'don't all those little tweets, don't all those little sips of online communication, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?' My answer was no, they don't add up. Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information, they may work for saying 'I'm thinking about you,' or even for saying, 'I love you.' ...but they don't work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. We use conversations with each other, to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So, a flight from conversation can really matter, because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development. Over and over, I hear, I would rather text than talk. And what I'm seeing is, people get so used to being shortchanged out of real conversation, so used to getting by with less, that they become almost willing to dispense with people all-together."

    Just as fragmented tweets and texts alone don't add up to an in-depth conversation, fragmented memorization and multiple-choice test questions don't add up to the ability to really think and understand. Reading and writing are part of "standards," but conversation engages and develops the mind in ways that reading and writing alone can't do.

  2. I would rather text than talk. And what I'm seeing is, people get so used to being shortchanged out of real conversation, so used to getting by with less, that they become almost willing to dispense with people all-together." golf stat tracker