Bird Droppings June 22-23, 2011
The genocide of learning
It gets difficult to finish my daily journals entries lately running back and forth to North Georgia. As today as I write I am working on an idea that has been bothering me for some time. I used the harsh word of genocide in my title as I am working on this idea and many will perhaps object to the concept that we as a society are killing learning in our schools. All the talk of increasing rigor then combined with budget cuts and increased class sizes and testing and you have the making of decreasing what is truly learned. I will allow a student in school can memorize answers for a test and some will be learning but the joy and passion of learning are stripped away far too many times by over zealous teachers trying to succeed with their students test scores. I have offered numerous times that a test at the end of a class is not a valid measure of what a student learned with that teacher or in that subject without a baseline point of reference.
I am reading a book currently which is a compilation of essays dealing with Native spirituality, The Inner Journey edited by Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw writer and environmentalist. As I opened the book the first essay is by Vine Deloria Jr., Native author and activist. The title of the essay is, Out of Chaos.
“Whites acquire land through purchase and sale, and land is a quantifiable, measureable entity; their primary responsibility as landowners is simply to prevent loss of value; hence any responsibility the land owner may have is only to himself. Indian tribes acquire land as a gift from higher powers, and in turn they assume certain ceremonial duties which must be performed as long as they live on and use the land. Removing an Indian tribe from its aboriginal territory, therefore, results in the destruction of ceremonial life and much of the cultural structure.” Vine Deloria Jr.
One might ask what does this have to do with learning at all. I would say a good question if I had not witnessed within the learning field a similar situation. If we can substitute learning for land perhaps it will be somewhat clearer.
Over the years my room at the high school has been a in school field trip for the Early Childhood classes of four year olds and their high school student teachers. My collection of various snakes, lizards and turtles not discounting spiders and hissing cockroaches always amazes kids and questions can be almost infinite if allowed. On one occasion a four year little fellow asked me how do snakes go to the bathroom. Almost immediately his student teacher said that’s a silly question hush. I jumped in before another word was said not embarrassing the high school student but offering some advice that no question is silly and especially from a four year old. We proceeded to learn about the snakes cloacae. So often children are stifled by time and by constraints imposed with standards and a teachers understanding of what is to be accomplished in a given time.
“The gap is so great that the required subject matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young.” John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938
Children come to school as avid learners having just recently learned to talk, walk, play and laugh at humor. Little children are sponges absorbing all about them. Far too often we approach these children with our adult understandings and views and miss the fact that perhaps while avid learners we have gone beyond their understanding and even instinctual capacities to learn. We want straight rows and hands on the desk and quiet and no questions. It takes only a short time till children become robots and those that do not conform are labeled as behavior problems. I can not help but think of Geronimo when he petitioned Teddy Roosevelt to go to the White Mountains of New Mexico to die amongst his homeland and birth place, his ceremonial home and was refused. A child comes to school with few rules yet morals are established and understood but the conforming rules of the society and times deemed appropriate to eat, nap and or read. No more reading because you want to but now because you have to. John Dewey wrote about this in 1938 and was considered a progressive at that time.
“….all experience is an arch wherethro’ Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Over the past week I have been involved with a Foxfire Approach to Teaching course up in Mountain City Georgia on the Foxfire Property. I try and attend as many days as I can more for me to recharge and learn than to add to the class selfishly. On Tuesday night I invited former Foxfire students to dinner with future and current teachers who were learning about Foxfire. Sitting around a table we were discussing the impact of this specific teaching approach on their lives. The former students had been in the Foxfire program going back to 1971 and as current as 1995. All saw their experiences as life changing. They carried a love of learning forward with them. What amazed me was the anonymous overwhelming praise for this style of teaching and not just one teacher but these former students have had several different teachers all using the same approach which allows me to say it was the approach and yes teachers do matter. We had a great evening as conversations drifted from today to the past and back. The teachers to be videoed taped as they asked questions of these former students and they gave their responses.
“The best reason to give a child a good school …. Is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in the competing with Sony … There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis if greed.” Jonathan Kozol
Within our society education has become a business if you are watching the news on any given night school board budgets and teacher cuts are literally daily. Charter schools for profit are being formed and profit making corporations are trying to get their way into public education. With that in mind what is the results only profit is a goal success of a given student is no longer an issue. We have been fortunate in our county to not loose teachers but make adjustments in other areas. Class sizes and numbers of students per class have been adjusted and our school day lengthened and school year shortened.
Money is a driving force. Going a step further to a state level and a curriculum change for example the math curriculum in Georgia was radically changed a few years ago and this offered hundreds of millions in text book purchases to someone in the publishing business. Education is a big business when you get to this level and literally someone owns it being a bit sarcastic. So when looking at the monetary aspect of education it is very similar to land someone has possession of it. National education policy is driven by economic issues. Most progressive educators would say the industrial complex is educating consumers. Our “Native” culture has been stripped away and replaced with a planned and orchestrated day by day within education to make good consumers.
“Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same.” Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Higher Learning in America, 1936
Hutchins would be happy in today’s educational world where daily you hear such phrases from administrators “if I walk into a biology room in Georgia it should look like a biology room in New Jersey”. With standardized testing the norm and curriculum maps and every moment choreographed Hutchins would love where education has gone. So perhaps I can blame Hutchins with the genocide of learning thought. The great educator Maxine Greene in her essay reflecting on John Dewey offers in referring to this passage by Hutchins.
“Emphasizing absoluteness and universality, he (Hutchins) insisted that the idea of progress was meaningless. Education had to be properly understood as the cultivation of the intellect. It could only be contaminated when windows were opened to the social, public, and political world outside.” Maxine Greene
John Dewey bases much of his thinking on experience be it current or past. We build on the past experiences and if done right these flow into future experiences building a learning for life scenario. Over the past few days I worked on a simple formula along the lines of we have an experience which combined with thoughtful reflection provides learning. Many hours can be hashed around deciding on what is learning and what is experience to that matter what is thoughtful reflection?
“Every experience is a moving force. Its value can be judged only on the ground of what it moves toward and into.” John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938
As I think about Dewey and education and how we are increasing rigor I was reading in Alfie Kohn’s book, What does it mean to be well educated” and found an interesting thought.
“To judge schools by how demanding they are is rather like judging opera on the basis of how many notes it contains that are hard for singers to hit. In other words, it leaves out most of what matters.” Alfie Kohn
It has been nearly eleven years since a former principal introduced me to Alfie Kohn’s books in a book club meeting. I miss that sort of philosophical endeavor it seems more standardized reading is the norm these days. I use the idea of increasing rigor is much like demanding everyone break the world record in high jump. In simple terms, it ain’t gonna happen.
We increase rigor to a point where a few students are lost and many struggle trying to be successful. I read a recent front page article on the numbers of students in college in remedial classes prior to getting into college math and literature. It was costing the state so much money. Colleges accept students based on test scores and GPA and some students may need a refresher course. I will admit I had remedial Literature my freshmen year and I think I failed it. Of course my rationale was the beach was an hour away and it was warm and listening to some old bat in a literature course was not very much fun. I did turn it around eventually and was on dean’s list my junior and senior years, although they were numerous colleges and many years past the normal four.
So is there a solution to this issue of improving of schools and the education of our children. What is it we need in teachers? What is it we as parents expect from the education our children are getting? I recall a friend went to Korea to teach English and on her year in Korea several issues came to the front. First family would only accept the best from the kids. They expected there children to work hard in school and at home on homework, my friend emphasized that three hours of homework was considered light. So is it that in some countries more emphasis is put on education than in the US? You will find from data many Asian countries have very high test scores on international standardized achievement tests. But what are the side effects for this pressure? Some of the highest suicide rates in teenagers are in these countries. We need to address are system and we need to go beyond the test scores that literally are meaningless from a validity standpoint. On the front page of our local paper was an article on test scores in the county.
We need good teachers and good teachers are not easy to find. We need a philosophy of education that is fluid and not static one size fits all. We need to provide relevance and context and all research points to this being a key in learning and in the retention of learning. However one of the elements that for me that is critical is we need to have empathy as teachers. Sadly there are few with empathy and it can go a long way. Intuition and understanding can be of a great assistance in learning. I ended a short article the other day with the word conversations, there need to be conversations between students and teachers in both directions and there needs to be conversations between parents and teachers. So solving quickly is a near impossibility but the idea is there and after two weeks of Foxfire Approach to teaching I am ready for another school year. Please keep all in harms way on your mind and in your heart.