“We’re not really motivated to learn to gain knowledge,” Ranganathan said. “We just want to memorize it and get a good grade and get into a good school.” In a sense, she said, the educational process has been corrupted. “Especially after the final exam, you just forget it afterward.”
That’s a quote from a student in an interesting article from the Washington Post that covers the “other” education movie making the rounds these days, “Race to Nowhere.” And while the rest of the story is worth the read, that one quote speaks truth more than any other. We’re testing and standardizing ourselves to death in the name of a whole bunch of “corrupted” ideals (“higher student achievement”, “international competition”, etc.) that have little or no relation to real learning. We all know it: teachers, administrators, parents. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, it’s hard to escape that this is what we do.
But here is the other majorly compelling quote from that article. At one point during a discussion after a local screening of the film, the parent who put together the movie, Vicki Abeles, noted that while some schools are beginning to take steps to reduce the testing pressure on kids, “I think it feels scary to make these changes alone” for both parents and schools. She’s right on both accounts. On the school side, beneath the “yeah buts” as to why we can’t make changes (budgets, lack of technology, lack of time, etc.) is this nagging sense of fear, fear that parents will push back, fear that students won’t do as well on the tests, fear simply of being different. I hear it in just about every conversation I have with school leaders when we get to the “well, what are you going to do?” part of the conversation.
And on the parent side, that fear is there, too. I know lots of parents who aren’t all that thrilled with the system but who are assuaged by the idea that the schools their kids are in will at least push them along to success on the traditional path. Opting for something else is just too hard, and to be honest, too “untested.” (No pun intended.)Â It reminds me of the story I read somewhere this summer about a father being all for his daughter’s desire to pursue her own learning path after high school, as long as she understood that if she got into Harvard, she was going.
I’ve written here before that my kids know that we don’t care that much about the test, that we constantly try to turn the “what did you get?” question into the “what are you learning?” question. Too much of the time, I get the feeling my kids are learning to take the test. They do the homework for the sake of doing the homework, not for the sake of going deeper into something they have an interest in or a desire to learn. Both my kids know that they are not necessarily on the college track, that we’re not going do Grade 13 if they don’t have a real sense of what they want to become. No doubt, college can be a very valuable learning experience, but it’s just one of many, and at this point, despite the statistics that say otherwise, we’re open to the idea that there may be a better path to “success.” (All depends on how you define it, right?)
But this all takes on more relevance in the context of the “What to do About Schools?” conversations that we’ve been enduring the past couple of months. The “problems” we face with schools are right now are less about the schools themselves and more about a lack of vision and a fear of change. Put simply, the age-grouped, subject-delineated, 8 am-2 pm, September-June, one-size-fits-all system that we have makes the process of education easy. The realities of personal, self-directed, real problem-solving learning in a connected world are anything but.
Still, the hardest reality right now is that there is no groundswell to do school differently, not just “better.” Seems it’s easy to see a path to “better.” “Different” is just too scary.
Tony Baldasaro says
The fear that you write of is so prevalent. Very few administrators are willing to stick their neck out, in part because they don’t want to lose their jobs, but in part because they don’t want to be “wrong”. The result is the safer, “correct” route of traditional schooling, more testing, and use of descriptive quantitative data to make generalizations about the quality of education in their schools.
As for parents, they are afraid to support something new because they don’t want their children to be subjet to “experimental” teaching and programming. When we opened a small charter school here in Exeter, NH about 6 years ago, the mantra we heard from parents was, “we think this is a good thing, but we don’t want our kids to be your test subjects.” Chris Lehmann spoke to this at SLA’s graduation and how thankful he was that parents were willing to take that leap of faith and trust the vision of SLA. That fear of change is so powerful. And perhaps people are afraid to be the first to embrace change because it makes them stick out in their community.
I was recently having a conversation with a co-administrator friend of mine who was a principal at a Coalition school. He said, even in that environment, one that one would think would attract teaches more open to change, he constantly had to push his faculty and the community away from traditional schooling. The inertia to the status quo is powerful, even in those schools and communities that are trying to make this shift we keep talking about. Keeping traditions is easy. Making new ones is hard.
(here goes my first ever blog comment)
I totally agree with the learning techniques of the schools. It is always constantly put into our heads that we must score higher than everyone and that we have to study study study. This shows that you must learn everything to be better than everyone else and not learn for your own knowledge, as you do forget so much by trying to put too much into your brain. I know from this as I did forget a lot after high school, and finally 7 years later I went to college and slowy it started to come back to me.
I also agree with Tony on the parents subject. The parents are also afraid to try new things with the school and their kids as they think that they might not be successful as the “traditional” school kids may be.
The problems are that no one wants to change traditional schooling, just for the fact that parents and the kids will not like it and the school will have a bad reputation (I think). Some schools out there should just take the chance and change to be different and not just better.
I will be a teacher in about 4 years, and hopefully by then, the schools will change to be “different” and not just to be “better”.
When did society decide that going to college was the only successful outcome of high school?
Tony Baldasaro says
This is a great point. I hear advertising from http://www.knowhow2go.org that really scares me. In their advertisements, they profess a prescription of courses students need to take to get into college. The assumptions, of course, are A. There is only one way to get into college B. college is the destination for all learners. and C. college is the only route to “success” – whatever that is.
We recently had a panel of college professors speak at a forum we conducted in our schools. One professor said that the most important skill a student needed when leaving high school was the ability to take notes. Really? Is that all that we are about? Is that all there is?
Melissa MacDonald says
The Inuit today are much involved in the modern world. They have wholeheartedly adopted much of its technology, as well as its food, clothing, and housing customs. Their economic, religious, and government institutions have also been heavily influenced by the mainstream culture. Both our traditional knowledge and the contemporary education has created strong successful Inuit that have planted their feet firmly in both our cultural heritage and the modern society.
The Inuit have a rich history in education – a heritage that is based on knowledge being passed from generation to generation through watching and learning from our elders.
Our valuesâ€¦ our beliefsâ€¦ our teaching methodsâ€¦. were our way of living â€¦ all inter-connected in our everyday life. In our traditional education, our Inuit language was at the heart of it – because it was an oral education.
Unfortunately today we continue, to have a high drop out rate, low graduation and success rate with only a few continuing onto to post secondary college.
Do the Inuit today really have to know about Christopher Columbus and the ancient kings and queens- yes it is informative, but how will it help our children succeed in our communities? how does it benefit us in our society?
I think that students values and standards have changed and that there are many academic courses in the school that are irrelevant to our people. Inuit have to have an education system that produces skilled and knowledgeable young people. It is important to meet somewhere in-between and find out what works,
Iâ€™d like to suggest more vocational courses. This gives them a vision,achievement and more opportunity after high school.
We homeschool. We have no test to teach to–my state requires yearly testing using a national normed test, and we have someone administer one, but it is a two hour process that we don’t much care about.
We have no homework. We spend as much time on a topic as needed for understanding. We use a SBG system. No bullies, plus he gets plenty of sleep. He moves on when he understands it, and is taking college level courses in high school because we never told him he couldn’t. We never told him a book was above his grade level, so he reads what interests him. Instead of “Twilight” he read “Dracula”.
For many of us, the unwillingness of the system to change just helped us decide to leave that system. Why tolerate bullies and hours of pointless homework and buses arriving before 7 AM?
It isn’t easy. It isn’t for every family. But its an option…
Technology In Class says
You mentioned homework. We have strong opinions regarding homework. As an educator I can’t comprehend the old way of thinking that says student must have homework because it keeps them busy. For some reason teachers that give a lot of homework think they are a good teacher.
I’d like to share my post on homework if possible. Here is the link to the article:
Sue K says
I have been doing a lot of personal reflection lately regarding my current position (principal of a ‘high-performing’ middle school in a suburban area). I have been asking myself is my fear – fear of change, fear of failure, fear of future financial insecurity IF I make a change – keeping me from pursuing what I am passionate about. I am passionate about not reforming schools, but re-visioning schools; recreating schooling with a focus on learning, developing the interests, aptitudes, and passions of children, and creating communities of learners who support, value, and work together. I have been telling myself that I cannot do anything IF I do not have job that pays; I have been telling myself and have more influence INSIDE the system than I would OUTSIDE it; I have been telling myself I would be foolish to throw out the 24 years I have already “invested” – and quite honestly, the $ I have invested in the retirement system. And I know that is part of what is wrong with the system – the financial security I would have for both myself and my husband – especially in light of our country’s all too inadequate health care support for older citizens – leads to my rather selfish decision-making. Yet, posts like Will’s and many other educators, cause me a certain amount of discomfort and angst with my decisions. Though I am sometimes tempted to just stop reading and engaging in the dialogue – I will continue to read and mull . . . . any insights or inspirations are very much welcomed!
Will Richardson says
Thanks so much for that real honesty in your response. I think most people can relate to everything you’re saying. The sense of risk is huge, especially in these times. It’s not selfish at all, I don’t think, to consider your own needs and your own future. I think all of us have to weigh for ourselves where the most “good” can be done for our students. For you, that may be in your school, allowing your teachers to innovate, leading the conversations with parents, deepening your own learning. For others, it may mean setting off in new directions. I look on with envy at what Chris is doing at SLA and what others are doing at their schools, but I know that wouldn’t be my place.
I want to stop sometimes as well, and while my circumstances are different, I keep coming back to this: I do what I can do. I try to make sure my motivations are good, that I’m making a positive impact in whatever ways I can, and that I’m doing what I can to deal with a very uncertain future for my family. I think that’s all we can do.
I really appreciate your comments, Sue.
Jessica Reeves says
Oh my goodness…how this post and your response spoke to me. I have just started blogging and this is my issue too…the testing; the mindless, over-testing that has overtaken. This is only my 7th year as a CA Teacher, and I think I don’t know how I can continue without looking for kindred spirits who feel that we can’t continue this route…it is shameful. Everything is standardized looking, department meetings are full of “test questions”, all responses are limited to a response and 2 details! Enough…enough
In reading your comments I immediately thought of Francis of Assissi. This wise man wrote a small prayer that goes soemthing like this:
God give me the strenth to change the things I can, The tollerance to except the things I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.
You are in a position of authority in your school, one that allows you to be a catalyst for the very change you are seeking. While you cannot just throw out the districts rules and regulations you certainly can work within them to incourage your facutly to reach beyond the test. I recently read an article that was discussing the issues of No Child Left Behind, it was entitled Much Curriculum Left Behind. The point being we are encourageing our system by turning our heads. Change happens one person at a time, one class at a time, one school at a time. As the principle you are uniquely situated to affect change–
I am from a family that you might say has education as its profession. The rule I grew up with was that the school and its faculty are only as strong and innovative as it priniciple. “The personality of the school is a reflection of that of the principle.” was how my mother always phrased it.
I hope you find encouragement in this response.
James Coleman says
It is all about revisioning the schools we teach in. I don’t think we could change enough to promote real learning if we keep the same model.
In my middle school I teach two advanced classes of seventh graders and three classes of “regular” grade level pre-algebra. In my seventh grade class I always have parents asking why Johnny does not have an A in class. In the 8th grade class I am often asked about what extra credit can be done after the students don’t want to think about how to answer a problem. My parents and students both want questions that require the memorization of a formula and the plugging in of numbers. I teach skills the students will need to perform on their state test, but I also feel like the students have to connect multiple concepts and THINK about how to solve a problem. My administration supports my application problems but reminds me to make sure the students have the skills they need for their test and support me when a parent calls. Sometime I wonder if parents want their children to think or if they just want to be able to point to a grade that “proves” how smart their child is.
I enjoyed Sue’s comments, and as an AP at another suburban middle school, I believe there is another point for consideration, aside from the personal questions of how much change one can effect, and where is the best place to do that?
At the root of our testing system is an inherent need to prove that teachers are teaching and students are learning. (Of course, this also includes the millions of people are employed by the testing services of America!) I would argue that this need arises from something that IS good, but has been turned into something ugly….the need for accountability within our system.
I would be interested to see if standardized testing developed to see if teachers are teaching or if students are learning. Maybe it was a little of both. Now, as educators we are stuck responding, responding, responding to the need to administer, proctor, monitor these tests, instead of focusing on that question.
We are faced now with the new legislation which requires us to evaluate teachers and administrators every year. My sincere hope is that somehow that new demand will bring us back to answering the learning question, since our teachers wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to teach!
Our superintendent here has made a formal statement that MEAP (our Michigan Assessment) does not prove to meet college readiness standards. Instead, he is focused on the ACT, Explore, and PLAN, which does at least provide data that can be measured over time. I am always left asking if those same tests measure a general readiness for life?
The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner appears to be the closest thing I have seen to the world readiness standards I’d like to see us hone in on! I certainly have my work cut out for me.
Sue K says
Rachel – I could not agree with you more. My message to teachers is always that we (educators) need to examine how we got ourselves where we are. I believe we have never held ourselves “accountable” (I am beginning to dislike that word) for students learning and thriving in our schools. I see a focus on 2 extremes – the test prep model OR the school should be fun, stress-free, and ‘experiential’ (often times while categorizing those “poor souls” who cannot really learn much) – neither of which I support.
I am also impressed by Tony Wagner’s readiness standards and have tried to get my district to pursue the assessments he mentions in his book. I love his view of AP courses – heavy with content in a short time span, but pretty much void of deep thinking or understanding.
The other area I see us neglecting – personal/social skills and perseverance when faced with challenges. I am concerned our children today will have great difficulty coping with any “bump in the road” life may hand them.
Years back, I was talking to a colleague of mine who sent his only daughter to a Waldorf (Steiner) High School in the town we lived. He did so because as an intellectual and (highly successful) businessman, he was convinced his daughter was going to learn who to learn instead of having to learn how to comply. And, even though his decision to send his daughter to this out-of-the-system school made complete sense for his social/economical/political situation, I couldn’t help thinking that he had the privilege to do so because of his privileged social position. Whereas I, who immigrated to Germany as an adult, knew nothing about the ins-and-outs of the German school system. I could see the system was seriously lacking in resources and weighed down by rigid hierarchical regimentation, but I decided to put my children through that system and not the one conducive to a more profound type of learning. The reason for doing this has much to do with what you are talking about in this post. It is not just a matter of setting up alternative schools or new thinking, it is finding a way to move the whole thinking in a direction allows parents to trust in these changes. And, as you probably well know when it comes to your children and those they meet outside the home, trust is hard to earn.
Narsh Ramrattan says
All of the comments are insightful and, in my opinion, point to a system that has successfully insulated itself from progressive educational ideas. Currently, these ideas pervade and range from brain-compatible learning, AfL to the effective infusion of technology in education. Many of these pedagogically sound practices exist as mere shadows of their original conception when implemented into schools. Whenever they have been implemented their original design has often be co-opted to align with the current input-output, high stakes – low cognitive challenge testing, industrial model of education that currently pervades the educational landscape. As a result, these attempts at implementation often fail to correct the course of the educational juggernaut that is our current model of education. The current model is so self justifying and self reinforcing that participation in it in its current flawed state has become equated with success. This rationale is so intimidating that parents fear changes to the system and progressive minded educators, when given the choice of implementing changes that may benefit children the fear of possibly harming their childrenâ€™s chances of success subtly forces them to adopt a Hippocratic disposition of doing no harm thus maintaining the status quo. Hope lies in continued assaults on the traditional industrial model of education which, with time may result in chinks in the old schoolhouse thereby enabling enlighten rays to permeate the dusty classroom.
Eric R says
I can relate to this on both sides. As a teacher I became very comfortable with how I operated, I felt I was successful, and I became resistant to change. About five years ago I joined our school’s administration team. The team is very positive and truly wants what is best for kids. They have truly motivated me to be more progressive and open to change.
Our district has always tried to be on the cutting edge. We recently passed a bond that over the next two school years will put a laptop computer into the hands of every middle school and high school student. Our superintendent is not one for status quo. He sees that change is necessary and is facilitating it. It is an exciting time, but fear is raising its ugly head. Some seem so focused on the negatives of this initiative that it is casting a huge shadow on the overwhelming positives.
However like it or not we are moving forward. We will need to work hard to minimize the negatives, give answers to their concerns, and transition our staff into a 21st century learning environment. The students are very excited about this opportunity. We have an incredible opportunity to not only be different, but with our kids wanting this awesome tool, I also believe we will be better as long as we can take advantage of their motivation.