Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Practicality in Education

"No issue is more pressing than education. ... It is the civil rights issue of our generation" - Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education Designate at today's press conference in Chicago, Ill.

I spend a lot of time in schools talking with students and what I'm forced to conclude is that anyone who finds themselves in the incongruous maze of today's public education system for as many years as our children would be hard pressed to emerge a healthy, contributing member of society who looks back fondly on their time spent there.

There are a plethora of problems: deteriorating infrastructure, an outdated bureaucracy, over-worked and under-qualified teachers, and a pervasive sense that no one's paying attention or listening.

While I value the post-ideological pragmatism exhibited by the Obama Cabinet appointments, I think the place where a pragmatic re-evaluation is needed most is the American education system. I frequently ask groups of students the question: "How many of you feel that what you learn in school is not at all related to your everyday life". Every hand has gone up every time I ask it. What it tells us is that content is dated, unimportant and a big fat waste of time. Students are given materials they care little about as the prism through which to learn the skills necessary to survive in the world. The discerning student brain discards both out of sheer boredom.

And can we blame them for that? Humans naturally look for what's essential. If we can't see it, we ignore it.

Education needs to be relevant again. Every student needs to learn to read, think critically, know logic, basic computation and the ability to intelligently and thoughtfully express her/his thoughts in a variety of forums. Content is ultimately irrelevant, and so it ought to be selected based on the interests of students, rather than academics in ivory towers.

That's real pragmatism.

We'll see who has the stomach for it.

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Macht's gar nichts! said...

30 years ago I went to school to be a teacher. If you'd asked me at that time the same question you ask today's students, I'd have raised my hand too! The ed profs, for the most part, were expounding on their theses from 30 years before (now 60 years ago). Nothing I was forced to sit through prepared me for Observation or Student Teaching. I was totally disillusioned at the end, and hated what I'd seen kids become just 5 years after I'd graduated high school. Indulged, spoiled brats lacking initiative or, for the most part, critical thinking;this is what we got for turning the system over to sociologists and developmentalists through the 1960s and 70s.

I really don't think that content is completely to blame. Schools are organs of the societies that sponsor them; the whole of (American) society is short of people willing to model what adults are and show clearly a series of expectations leading from childhood to adulthood. That's not just teachers; parents have to have the self-discipline, self-awareness and restraint to partner with the schools, while the schools recognize that they can't take the parents out of the equation and function as they should.
In English now: a school system can center its programs on basket weaving and interpretive dance, and if the people in charge show how to be adults and don't allow for disrespect and lack of discipline, the kids will come out better than they would in a school centered on computer science and communications, where the people in charge aren't supported by the community's adults, don't explain how to be adults, and don't act like adults.
This is the entire community's job. We're all teachers. And the end of the day, consider what you may have taught someone.
And, as one of my favorite recovering addicts asks me every time he ses me:"What have you learned today?"
Happy searching.

Macht's gar nichts! said...

Hey, me again. It may not be good form to 'answer one's own post' but I thought I should suggest the next fun step here; that is, how do we define adulthood, so that we can model it to the young people we ALL teach?

My jumping off point:
An adult says 'it's not all about me' and doesn't consider that to be sad.
An adult chooses wisely when to say in one way or another, 'It's not all about you.'This skill is usually obtained through a lot of pain.

Don't all jump in at once...