Yesterday as I was driving my seven-year old daughter home from her gymnastics class she ominously announced that she wasn’t going back to school.
“It’s so boring, daddy,” she said, and then proceed to sing the word “boring” about 157 times to make sure I got the point. Now I know Tess is pretty smart, and I know that she’s not being challenged by some of the curriculum which she learned a year ago at home. But I wondered if there was more to it.
“We do the same stuff every day,” she said as she poked holes in the paper mache turtle she’d made in class. “Everybody does the same stuff.” My mind caught a picture of 18 cloned paper mache turtles drying on the window sill in her classroom.
And there it was. “Everybody” is doing the same stuff in second grade, no matter if some of them know that stuff already, or some of them learn that stuff differently, or some of them relate to that stuff in unique ways, or some of them just aren’t interested that stuff. Now mind you, Tess just came off of a week of standardized testing, which makes my stomach churn just to write it. So she might be having some reaction to the forced demonstration of skills that our current system deems essential for a sound education. But I’m sure most of her feelings stem from having to do what everyone else does on a daily basis.
Last night, I thought more about Tess’s turtle. She had created it, but she hadn’t been allowed to create it creatively. Sure, she added the paint and the construction paper feet and tail, but I doubt she’d even been given the opportunity to do something different, to learn the skills in her own way, to create something that she wouldn’t poke holes in later. And I’m sure there hadn’t been a thought about publishing whatever she created, of sharing it with other people.
The bigger sense here, for me at least, is the frustration that we continue to do what we’ve done for the last 100 years, deliver the curriculum we’ve been handed, the one that was written long before her teacher even met Tess. The one developed not to turn Tess into a lifelong learner but to insure that she passes the test. The one that says that her interests take a back seat to the interests of the state. I’m not saying there aren’t skills she needs to learn, but to be honest, I want her to have a passion for learning first.
I keep thinking back to hearning Seymour Pappert at CoSn last month. He said he was working on a math curriculum where kids learned the concepts in the context of, get this, building a house. How cool is that? I mean, shouldn’t every school have a farm, a garden, a compost bin? I know, I know…it’s unrealistic. But what’s also unrealistic is to think that these kids are going to reach their potential when they are all expected to end up pretty much the same.
I’m struggling with all of this, with my responsibility as a parent to figure out what we can do to make sure Tess learns to love learning, with my angst as an educator who sees a system with islands of success in seas of mediocrity, and as a technologist who believes in the transformative potential of the tools that we’re immersed in. My hope is that as the current system continues to falter new opportunities to effect change will arise.
Bob Irving says
It’s so painful to read what you’re written here. To think that your daughter is already experiencing the tedium that characterizes so much of education….
As a teacher, I have always felt that making lifelong learners was my chief long-term goal. But I’m always surprised that I don’t seem to be in the majority in that! If we just want to churn out product that will pass inspection at the end of the process, we should make widgets (or whatever). There’s considerably less emotional investment.
Thankfully, there are teachers who have the passion for what education can be. To the barricades!
Middle School Technology Coordinator
Lancaster Country Day School
Dave Bauer says
I know how you feel. My kids feel the same way sometimes. I have some thoughts on these issues. I posted on my weblog responding to your posts on the topic of the limitations of traditional schools. (Trackback didn’t seem to work).
Seymour Papert is definitely one of the inspirations for my view on how learning can improve. I’d also add Alan Kay to that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Kay
I don’t know all the answers, I just know we can do better. One article I read (that unfortunately, I cannot find the link to) mentions that one teacher, in front of a classroom cannot scale much past 30 kids. We can’t improve learnign without increasing the number of people learning alongside kids. I think its a key place to innovate in learning.
Your post takes me back to one that I made yesterday. It was related to a keynote address by Alan November from a conference at Toronto’s York University back in February. Here is my post, including a link to a webcast of the address. It was very interesting and Mr. November made some of the same points as you have. We certainly should not aspire to mediocrity. We have to create new opportunities for learning, as you have done and continue to do.
I wholeheartedly agree with Bob’s goal of helping students to become lifelong learners. Keeping any knowledge and skills isolated to the confines of the school building does students a disservice. We need to demonstrate a desire – an excitement – for learning. I believe that many teachers (at times, myself included) fall back into the security of traditional modes of transmission of knowledge when faced with unfamiliar or, for them, intimidating course content. Rather than being afraid to face such tasks and hiding behind the same safe practices that our children decry as boring, we should engage ourselves and the the students in the exciting possibilities of new learning experiences. Yes, we might make mistakes along the way, but such problem-solving experiences will serve as models for the lifelong learning that we wish to instill in the students.
Tom McHale says
My nine-year-old son has said similar things on many occasions. I wish I could say that passionate teachers or technology is the answer, but there are many problems on many fronts contributing to this. I know many passionate teachers (I like to think I’m one), but we’re all working in a system in which you have to keep everyone on task and prepared for the common or standardized assessments. The kids have also been indoctrinated into this system, and see little incentive to work or learn unless they are getting “credit” for it.
By the time they get to high school, the love of learning is exchanged for a love of reaching a goal. Which means good grades to get into a good college, to get a good job, etc. Natural curiousity and love of learning largely occur outside the classroom. Real learning is messy and non-standardized and therefore isn’t really suited to the current school model. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some great moments and good things happening in schools, it just isn’t set up to promote exciting individualized learning opportunities. The challenge is how to work within a system in which data and control are valued over creativity and individuality, and this is where I think technology and passionate teaching can go a long way.
I’ve been thinking about your post for several days now. I guess that’s how we know it’s a critical issue? Anyway, I wrote about it over on my blog
I agree with the above comment that calls for “passionate teaching.” That’s what gives us the courage to make the right choices.
I really enjoy your posts, Will. Thanx.
Bob Irving says
I teach in a small private school. We have more leeway in terms of teaching to the test, but change comes slowly in independent schools. While I’m saddened by the direction of education in public schools in the US, which only seems to reinforce the factory model from 200 years ago, private schools aren’t necessarily the first to embrace change!
You can drive yourself crazy trying to change things over which you have no control. I resolved early in my career (over 25 years ago now) to be the most passionate, dynamic, challenging, and nurturing teacher I could be. Then at least the students in my classes would have had the possibility of connecting with that kind of approach. Hopefully, they did connect and took something with them, like a lifelong love of learning, or at least the knowledge that learning can be exhilarating hard fun. I’ve heard from enough former students to know that I have had some success. And maybe that is the most we can hope for. But it’s not insignificant.
Lancaster Country Day School