Monday, February 26, 2007

A Lesson Remembered

An old professor of mine at Missouri State (back when it was just a region university), Dr. Alen Crider, once said in one of my principal classes: "Never pick a fight with anybody who buys their ink by the barrel." Sage advice. By the way, ink was selling at $43 a barrel this morning in Europe.

One Size Fits All

We all know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. A vain emperor was convinced that he had the most remarkable clothes ever, when in reality he was stark-raving naked, the victim of a clever con. It took the courage of a small child to finally say what everybody else was afraid to admit, that the emperor was, indeed, naked. Now there’s a mental picture I didn’t need. The story goes on to say how the child was lauded as a hero. But we really know how the story ended. If the child received a quick death it would’ve been merciful. Nobody wants to admit they’re wrong. And the more they invest in their failure, the more strongly they will hold on to the belief that they are right. After all, they have research backing them.

The school district that I work for is in the process of completely overhauling its curricula. Or rather, I should say, the teachers in the school district are in the process of rewriting the curricula. Never mind that there are PhDs who specialize in writing curricula. We’re the ones who are going to do the job. What? Are you kidding? It would cost a fortune to hire experts to write this stuff. And we can be trained to do it in just a few short hours.

Our goal is a noble one. One that keeps the best interests of the students in mind. One that recognizes what the students need and then coordinates all the teachers to work toward those common goals. Seriously. It also is one that will improve our test scores, or so we hope. After all, the goal of any district is not necessarily to teach the students anything, but to show improvement on test scores. Some will argue that we can only show improvement on test scores by improving our teaching, but when kick comes to stomp, it’s the test scores that truly matter.

Here’s the logic of our district. And it’s good logic. Really. A wonderful outfit for the emperor. There are certain things that we want every student to know when they graduate. Not using collective pronouns with singular subjects should be one, but it’s probably not. Generally, these are things that assure that our students will be successful in life, and overall not embarrass the district should Jay Leno ever approach them on a busy city street. Math skills. Language skills. Using complete sentences. That sort of thing. The idea is that if every senior should have this collective knowledge upon graduation, then every junior should have a somewhat lesser amount at the end of their junior year. And every freshman should have a relatively lesser amount on the 2nd of March during their freshman year, and so on. Skills build upon skills. A good idea. So how do we achieve this? By making sure every teacher is teaching the same thing on every day. If it’s February 26th, then this must be polynomials.

In theory, this plan works. In theory we should be able to build a bridge to the moon. Never mind that once the lesson plans are created, once the test bank is made, once the curricula is finalized, anybody could theoretically teach anything. All you have to do is read the lesson plan, assign the class work, and then administer the test. After all, it’s not going to matter if any individual student can’t keep up. You’ve got to move on. So much for no student left behind. There is no creativity. Teachers will become autotrons. But what difference will that make if the majority of our students are learning? After all, we shouldn’t be concerned with the teachers’ happiness. Truly, schools don’t exist for the happiness of the teachers, but for the benefit of the students. And that one student that got left behind? He probably was going to be left behind regardless. It’s a rough lesson, but not everybody can be saved. We can thrown him a lifesaver, but the ship’s not coming back.

So why is this wrong, other than the fact that it just sounds creepy? For starters, once creativity is taken out of teaching, we move the instructional process to the least common denominator. Yes, every student gets the same, and we can prove it with our common assessments, but it’s not very much. There is no room for those teaching moments, for getting off the subject. For letting the mind wander. In essence, for nurturing curiosity.

But more insidious, it assumes that every student is capable of learning at the same rate. Anybody who has children knows this isn’t so. What about learning impaired students who have Individual Learning Plans? Or gifted students, for that matter? In reality, nobody learns at the same rate. Truly, every child should have an IEP. And there is more than ample research to back that. Just look at Edwards or Gardner. Heck, go all the way back to Piaget.

And what if the teacher is bored? What if the teacher approaches every day like I used to when I made TVs on the assembly line? Just bolt on the subject/verb agreement as the children pass by. Does it really matter? Heck, yes, it matters! For a good deal of our students, the only people they see on a daily basis that have more than a high school education are their teachers. If we are trying to convince these kids that an education is worthwhile, then we darn well better be enjoying ourselves. We’d better be living the good life. We had better be coming in every day as excited to be here as we want these kids to be excited to learn. I mean, would you put any faith in a personal trainer that was overweight, smoked, and was overall sickly?

And finally, what is it that we really want our students to learn? The capitol of Assyria? (It’s Nineveh, by the way.) The air speed of an unleaden swallow? Your favourite colour? The majority of what we teach kids is trivia, especially from junion high on. What do you remember from your freshman History class? Chances are, if you remember anything at all, it wasn’t anything that had anything to do with the curriculum. But yet you learned. Or you didn’t. Either depended on whether or not you taught yourself. Whether you had the basic information to finally seek knowledge when you saw a purpose for it. It was whether you ever learned how to learn -- how to teach yourself. And that probably depended on whether or not you ever learned to value education. And how did you learn to do that? Someone modeled it. Someone who valued education and you valued as an individual. Someone who made education enjoyable...dare I say fun?

Unfortunately, that’s really hard to measure. Good luck writing a multiple choice question that will tell you that your students truly value education. It’s easier to grade split infinitives. It’s easier to pretend that the emperor has a wonderful new outfit. Let somebody else be the fool that gets reprimanded for having the courage to stand up and say, “What the hell?”