from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Getting to the roots of the (educational) problem 

One of these days I will offer my own comprehensive view of how I think we should address the issue of public education. As often as I am a critic I feel some responsibility to put my own ideas out for the reactions of others. In the meantime I will continue to offer a variety of other pieces on education. Often they are things from my own experience as a teacher. The offering today will not be, although as a teacher I find myself in great agreement.

What you will read this morning is posted with permission by the author. Marion Brady is a fairly well known author in educational circles. I will not offer details of his background, given that I agree that in the blogosphere our credibility is less dependent upon our credentials than it is upon a proven track record in what we offer. Here I will place whatever credibility I may have behind Marion’s words. I will note that he is widely published, regularly appearing in the Orlando Sentinel and other papers, as well as in publications such as Phi Delta Kappan.

If after reading the material in the blockquote you want to read more of what Marion has written, he has an excellent webpage. You will find the points below presented quite powerfully in the powerpoint presentation, which he wants people to use. You will also find various articles, testimonials, and the like.

Let me explain how this material came into my hands. I will then offer Marion’s words without interruption, then conclude with a far too many remarks of my own. By leaving those until after Marion’s words, you can focus only on what he has to say if you are so inclined.

As I have often noted, I participate in a number of educational list servs. One of the more interesting is run by Gerald Bracey in conjunction with his Educational Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency website. While the webpage is largely dedicated to Jerry’s writing, the EDDRA list is more inclusive. It is a moderated (by Jerry) group, and it was in a recent thread that I encountered Marion’s message, to which without further ado we will now proceed:

I wish I could interest you good people in a strategy for cutting down the pole that holds aloft the "Standards and accountability!" banner.

The perception that educators opposed to NCLB are simply unwilling to be held accountable is surely the engine driving the current "reform" movement.

That perception must be countered.

I tried (again) to explain how to do this in my cover article for the May 2000 KAPPAN, ("The Standards Juggernaut")," but nobody paid attention.

So, now, consider the merit of a concerted effort to speak with one voice to this year's Congressional candidates, saying something like:

1. Standards are WONDERFUL! We love the concept!

2. Unfortunately, the subject-matter standards Congress has mandated are freezing in place a curriculum designed in 1893, the effectiveness of which peaked about 1950.

3. That curriculum:

- Has no overarching aim

- Fails to support the basic process by means of which knowledge expands

- Ignores the holistic, systemic nature of knowledge

- Disregards the brain's need for order and organization

- Fails to model the seamlessness of human perception

- Lacks criteria for determining the relative importance of specific knowledge

- Insufficiently relates to real-world experience

- Neglects vast and important fields of study

- Unduly emphasizes symbol-manipulation skills

- Fails to exploit the mutually supportive nature of knowledge

- Relies on short-term recall rather than logic for accessing memory

- Has no built-in self-renewing capability

- Assigns students an unnatural, passive role

- Does not address ethical and moral issues

- Encourages simplistic methods of performance evaluation

- Does not progress smoothly through ever-increasing levels of intellectual complexity

- Makes unreasonable demands on memory

- Lacks a vocabulary and conceptual framework facilitating educator communication

- Is overly dependent on extrinsic motivation

- Penalizes rather than capitalizes on student variability

4. NCLB isn't just reactionary, it doesn't just stifle curricular innovation, it ignores the most promising education-related ideas to emerge since WW II - General Systems Theory, conceptual modeling, and a new appreciation of the holistic nature of knowledge.

5. NCLB is beating a dead horse, and the rest of the world will quickly pass us by.

I will not burden you greatly with my thoughts right now, as the real purpose of this posting was to expose you to the ideas Marion offers. But I do an explanation of why I thought this was important to share.

I teach social studies, primarily government, although I have taught US History, World History, Comparative Religion, English, Reading, and Social Issues. My undergraduate major was Music, with minors in History and Philosophy. My first masters degree was in religion. I am very much of the belief that knowledge and understanding are not really compartmented the way our academic institutions often approach learning. This is one reason I support an approach such as that of Howard Gardner with what he calls Multiple Intelligences. When I taught at the middle school level I saw the benefits of doing projects that crossed the boundaries of departments. And the final project I give my government students -- that they cannot do an essay or a research paper, they must work four hours (per person if in a group), and show me that they learned something, I get incredibly productions which often demonstrate deep understanding of content material. I will mention but one, since it was done by a young lady whom I recently reference, who because she dos not want to burden her family or herself with debt is going into the Navy to get an education (she eventually wants to be a policeman). J____ created a bird's nest in which there was a styrofoam egg representing the American way of government. The nest was held up by three wings. On each wing was written one of the first three articles of the Constitution. Remove any wing and the nest tipped, and the egg crashed to the floor. Somehow I wish certain people in positions of responsibility in our national government understood the principles of checks and balances as well as J___ does.

I agree with Marion that they way we structure our curriculum is from another time, and realistically does NOT match what we know about how people truly learn. Sometimes it can create oddities: my sophomore year in college I was reading Plato’s Republic. The problem was that I was reading it for 3 different courses at the same time -- Philosophy, Political Science, and Western Civ (although in the latter only a few selections). While it is true that there is value from using a different lens (the curricular area) through which to view a work such as this, and at a prestigious and rigorous college such as Haverford it was not unreasonable to approach the work the way we did, I still wondered whether it might have been more productive for the courses to have coordinated their efforts some. Of course, since I was one of only two students taking all three courses at the same time, the coordination was not practical.

But now think about K-12. I will offer one more anecdote, from my middle school years. I had only two groups of kids, each for two 72 minute blocks. One block was English, the other was split between Reading and Social Studies, an adjustment made in the building by the principal and strongly objected to by the County’s social studies supervisor who resented her curricular area being shorted. I was visited by that supervisor, who was somewhat upset to find that my students were doing some work derived from reading “Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored” because it was not approved for 8th grade social studies, not until 10th grade. I pointed out that the material I was using was in the County’s assigned literature book for 8th grade English, and that I was doling an exercise that crossed the curricular divide because I taught the students both subjects. No one could explain to me how the work was acceptable for 8th grade English but not for 8th grade social studies.

I do not doubt that there are valid reasons to learn the terminology, the paradigms of different fields of study. But I also agree with Marion that the way we divide up knowledge does not match how most people really learn. In far too many cases, rather than structuring our learning environments to match the way people learn -- which I remind readers is by no means uniform -- we force people into models of learning that are artificial, and in some cases downright unnatural. In effect, we are not education, we a training. They are not the same. In the former case we are attempting to empower to operate independently, in the latter we are trying to ensure consistency and conformity. You might well ask which is more likely to result in a creative mind (even in science and technology) and a happier - and hence more productive - person,

Our schools are often structured for ‘efficiency.” But we only look at part of the equation as we measure for efficiency. We build our schools on a factory model, derived from the work of Frederick Taylor. heck, most adults would have trouble chopping their lives up into 43 or 47 minutes blocks of disconnected aspects of learning. The artificial time limits often short-circuit actual learning. And far too often our schools do not provide the opportunity for meaningful exploration of any topic. Our greatest productivity and creativity do not come as the result of watching the clock, but rather of exploring, including exploring down false paths. Schools decreasingly are places where such exploration is possible.

Those schools which allow such exploration, which do not disconnect the material to be studied into strictly separated spheres of learning, often produce children who are far more accomplished academically, far better able to wrestle with new material. Think of things like Montessori schools, for example.

I teach social studies, but even in government my students periodically get music, and art, and poetry, and architecture. It is harder to do than it was in history or religion, but it is still possible. After all, governments put up buildings. Nations use patriotic music to influence people. We have a history of protest songs that well predates the 1960’s (although there are few times as fertile as that, whether it is the songs of the Civil Rights movement, or the many songs protesting Vietnam). Poets are often the canaries in the mine of the public consciousness.

I have gone on far too long. I hope what I have offered from Marion serves some purpose. If my words add anything beyond allowing me to somewhat vent, that is also nice.

I think if we truly want to address the problems with our schools, we need to radically rethink how we do things. Marion’s ideas are of a piece with that kind of approach, which is why I bring them to your attention.

I look forward to whatever responses people may feel inclined to offer.

Have a nice day.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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