Serious Reflection on Education

In this reflection on my year of online interaction and PLN building, I’m going to dig a little deeper and uglier than normal. I would like to preface this by acknowledging how our pedagogical practices and values are deeply embedded in our political ideologies and hope that my readers will engage me even if they do not agree. [Note: I actually wonder if there exists any universal pedagogical truth or if all "it's just common sense" is so effected by our other convictions that we struggle to understand the beliefs of others.]

For a year now, I have been reading and questioning and engaging and observing conversations about change. “We need change in education” is nothing compared to the “we need to flip education as it stands today upside down for the sake of our kids” revolutionary talk that is prevalent in my PLN.

Me? Always the balance girl, I cannot decide. I feel very much as though I am sitting comfortably in the beliefs that my background has afforded me and yet I feel I am being pulled unwillingly some days and drawn curiously other days to this idea of revolution. I would like to share my tentative thoughts as of today in this fresh new year.

#1 – Capitalist ideas are not the enemy of all. Countries who have educational systems that are producing critical engineers and who are focusing on progress and innovation do not have easy educational systems. It’s hard to get through their programs.

Competition is not inherently problematic and I cannot accept that the bell curve is meaningless. I, too, have limitations of ability and that’s ok. In fact, I believe it’s preferable to understand one’s own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses objectively. I am terrible at spatial relationships. I could never be an engineer or physicist as a result. That’s good for me to know before I apply for college, right?

Well, what if I were a high school student trying to decide where to apply? I need to know if I need to be at a school offering remedial courses in math or language to get caught up before I transfer to a 4 year school or if I should aim higher or if I should be looking at vocational school instead. This is not condescending or cruel if you have the right filter. ALL of these paths have merit and will benefit the individual and the world around him or her.

Not everyone should be aiming for a four year college. It will be a waste of time and money for some and it will set some students up for failure. It’s OUR problem that we have decided this is what everyone should do and that anything short of this path is not “successful”. WE need to change this perception that educators have created in our culture. A country full of lawyers, philosophers, and English majors would not be able to sustain itself. Show some respect.

#2 - A good education is a privilege. We cannot force anyone to value this against their will. Just as attempting to go in and force a nation to adopt democracy is artificial, so is telling a student that they have to care about what we teach them (and then not letting them reap the consequences of poor choices). If we had more special programs as some magnet schools do where students want to be placed in them, students might work harder to reach that immediate goal. College at the end of 13 years of school is not necessarily a motivating goal for many students. We need to find rewards that are actually educational (rather than ipods and bonus points). And I think that a lightly structured, highly flexible form of tracking might be more beneficial to respecting the vast array of career and future choices of our students than insisting that future doctors take science classes with future welders. For both, science is critical but each requires a different angle.

#1 + #2 = #3

#3 – Change must be organic. It cannot be top down, whether top refers to the federal or state governments or school boards or principals. That does not work, we’ve been watching that all along. There may be top down strategies that could be beneficial, but the change we are seeking must start smaller and simpler.

I’m not sure where. I absolutely believe that our networks online are a starting place to an extent, but how do we get parents on board? My entire life I feel that I have watched the school system usurp parental responsibility with good intentions. “They weren’t doing it/learning it/exposed to it at home, and they need to understand this therefore we must do it for them.”

Fair enough. Punishing the kids for problematic parenting issues seems wrong.

But rather than just say, “give me that [child], you’re doing it wrong!” maybe we should have exhausted ourselves trying to “empower” [I know there are those who dislike this term, but you get the gist] parents. As teachers, we would never do this to our students and try not to do this to our own children, right? I mean sure, it takes five times longer to watch and model and try to help our kids tie their own shoes and it would be much easier to just do it for them – after all, we’re shoe tying experts- but the kids would be dependent on us forever if this was our reaction.

This is what I feel schools have done, and I can only imagine that it distances the school from the parent even more by belittling struggling parents who have often felt mistreated by schools in their own youth.

#4 - One size will never fit all. We are terribly complex as humans. Educational, psychological, and sociological sciences will never be able to be right because they can only create theories and generalizations. They will always be wrong for *someone*. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to learn, research, and understand. It just means we have to accept that we can only try to offer the most options feasible to most adequately help the greatest number of students. I believe this might be related to the charter school format being adopted on a larger scale where parents can choose schools based on what they offer (heavier in the arts, or maybe technology, maybe math and science, maybe different schedules, etc). This seems more ideal than tracking because it would be student/parent driven choices rather than schools deciding that students should study at the same time and in the same course as other kids who happen to have the same birthyear and zipcode. [Note: because our physical walls are shrinking, I believe students would still have plenty of exposure to students from notably different backgrounds through online and cooperative activities. And really, diversity by interest versus diversity by geography- either way, you are not necessarily being offered diversity.]

Please share your thoughts (good or bad) or if you’d rather, this might be a good conversation for Google Wave… Thanks for reading!

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Good food for thought. I will have to digest some of it a little longer before I could give an elaborate response. But you have me thinking about things, and that’s really the idea here, right?

    Reply

  2. I think that “one size fits all will never fit all” has it’s place in some areas. I like the notion of a standard way of writing a paragraph or solving an equation. However, there needs to be room for students to customize their learning from one-size-fits-all into a more personal “this is what works for me” model.

    The biggest tragedy is that American education has gone from a one-size-fits-all model (which isn’t horrible if that “fit” allows room for customizing) to a one-fit-sizes-all model where we have found one “fit” that might work for one student in one class in one subject and standardize it for every student in every place.

    Reply

  3. It strikes me that #4 actually is an over-arching component…CHOICE.
    Choice can be the big motivators where everyone…..students, teachers, parents, are all empowered to have consequences based on choices they’ve made. Finding ways to make our offering more learner centered…. driven by choice…. is a key to organic change that would emerge.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Kim McCollum-Clark on January 3, 2010 at 5:49 am

    Hey, Candace! I esp. like #3: Change must be organic. It cannot be top-down. So many times I see the greatest of ideas IMPOSED from above. Teachers MUST use graphic organizers EVERY DAY. Teachers MUST . . .blah-blah-blah. Seems like to me that is asking for trouble. I have a lot of Cardinal Principles for my own teaching, but I can’t impose them on you. Or I shouldn’t, anyway.

    But how do we help change happen at the classroom level without instrumentalizing the structures and Cardinal Principles that work for us? This is the problem #3 leaves us with.

    Kim

    Reply

  5. I agree with most all of the points you make in this post. I find myself watching kids who have been slapped on the hand for a fairly serious infraction and wonder what we are doing to them in order for us to receive that all mighty dollar from the state. Are we really doing them a favor? Could we save the children from suffering more serious, possibly even life-threatening consequences if we caused them to truly accept consequences for their less severe infractions? This would be regardless of who their parents were or how well they played any certain sport.

    To be perfectly honest, this question that has floated through my mind over the course of the past 16 years as a professional was firmly hammered home this past week by an event that perhaps seems unrelated but in my mind, they are perfectly aligned. One of our best and favorite students was killed in a car accident the week before Christmas. He was not wearing a seat-belt; the man he hit was wearing one and lived, albeit with serious injuries. Wearing a seat-belt is law in our state but it is not enforced on its own. It is only enforced if the authorities pull you over for another ‘more serious’ infraction. What if he had been pulled over at some point and the ‘law’ enforced properly? The world would be a better place – this young man had enormous potential.

    I also agree that ‘one size does not fit all’ in education but I have seen how children who are not “academically compatible” in the same class react to each other. One student reacts with disdain toward the other because he is held back because of the other’s lack of ability or behavior. The second child sees the first as a snob. No one wins in that situation, especially the children.

    Reply

  6. Posted by hrmason on January 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    I think you have quite neatly summed up the differences between those who make policy and those who actually teach. Policy makers always want to mandate something…even if what they are mandating is differentiation. Teachers see kids.

    I agree with wholeheartedly with your comments about parents. Before I had kids, I truly felt that I knew more about my students than their parents knew about them. As a parent, my feelings have changed greatly. I think most parents want to help their children, but we need to respect them as individuals just as we should respect out students. Parents come to us with their own sets of expertise and concerns.

    Reply

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