Friday, March 22, 2013

What We Do

I've written volumes about how education in a democracy is not undertaken for purposes of creating great workers; it's for creating great citizens. As far as I'm concerned everything else is incidental, but I've just gotta say . . .

I think the thing that frustrates me the most about these businessman education reformers is that they really don't seem to understand what type of education produces people with the workplace skills they need the most. I mean, take Bill Gates and Microsoft. This is a company in my own backyard. I remember when it was an exciting mid-sized company on the rise. I've known hundreds, if not thousands of people who have, and continue to, work there. I was in the room one time when some of Gate's dad's friends hammered him as a 30-something about not giving enough back to the community (a circumstance he's more than corrected these days). I know a lot about that company by osmosis if nothing else, and one of the things I've always admired is how effectively they work projects: teams of people coming together to make something happen. Have you ever seen a video of current CEO Steve Ballmer speaking to the gathered employees? It's like the greatest, most motivational locker-room speech ever given. The bottom line is that Microsoft's success is based not on technology, marketing, or innovation, but rather on the teamwork it takes to make each of those things great.

But I guess that's not unique to Microsoft. That's how all the successful companies do it. Most of us who work in offices, spend our time working with other people on projects. It's the way things get done in business. In fact, if you really think about it, it's the way things get done in nearly every area of life, from raising a family to saving the planet. We spend our lives working on projects with the other people and we know that there are certain skills we need to possess to make that work, all of which are things that can only be acquired through practice: sociability, teamwork, communication, empathy. These are the talents necessary to satisfying the goals of any project.

And these are precisely the skills at which progressive play-based education (as the kids get older we often switch to the terms "project-based" or "inquiry-based," but it's the same thing) is so good at teaching. In fact, most of what we do during our school days is to work on projects together, large and small, for a few minutes, a day, a week, or an entire school year, practicing the actual skills we'll be using for the rest of our lives. We are finding out how we best work with the other people, what roles we most like to play, learning from one another, learning about one another, indeed, even learning how to get the most from one another. Through this process we learn such vital business skills as tact and persuasion, listening and speaking, how to encourage others and the ability to take advice. We learn to divide up labor amongst ourselves. We use sentences with one another that begin with the words "What if . . ." and "Let's . . ." the seed stock of creativity.

Instead, in their reformer's zeal to re-make schools in the image of their automated factories instead of their human-operated offices, with an ever narrowing focus on such easily tested, go-it-alone skills as math and literacy, they are marginalizing more than just art, science, history, music, dance, physical education, and drama. They are leaving to chance the most vital skills necessary to their business success. Not very button-down of them, is it?

I live near the Cornish College of the Arts campus and students and teachers are often on the lawns of the park across the street, sitting and standing in circles, facing one another, playing a variety of team-building games. That pretty much what we do in preschool, not in quite as formalized a way, but engaging in activities designed to begin to create a sense of "we," of team, of community, because it's from this core idea that progressive education springs. And I happen to know that Microsoft uses team-building exercises as well because they too understand the power of teams.

In spite of that, in the educational vision of these modern-day "reformers," there is no place for team-building. In fact, in their focus on "streamlining" and "focusing like a laser" on data-drive matrices, these activities on the lawn would be an utter waste of time, on par with such things as recess, another thing that's being phased out across the country in favor of test-prep. Instead, they see school as a place to fill up these empty vessels, these incomplete adults, with information that they can later download onto a test page with a #2 pencil, information that for the rest of their lives will be a mere Google search (or since we're talking about Microsoft, a Bing search) away.

What do I know about business? Very little, I'll confess, but I do know something about education, about life beyond school, and about coaching, and all I've ever found out there are teams of people working on projects, succeeding or failing based upon their collective teamwork skills.

I teach children about teamwork because self-governance requires an educated population that can work together. That the very skills that progressive play-based education is best at teaching happen to be those most needed to be successful in business might be incidental, but it's not immaterial.

I know this is just preaching to the choir, that the reformers have already committed themselves to their misguided mission, and the school and teacher-bashing will continue apace. I take comfort from Diane Ravitch's (Bill Gates "enemy") assertion that they're already failing. But it saddens me that they are putting all that energy and all that wherewithal into improving education when we really all should be on the same team.

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Elise Hopkins said...

Hi Teacher Tom,

I was really inspired by this post the other day and it really empowered me as a teacher to write my second post on my new blog...

I thought I would let you know since this post inspired me!

Amy Shuster said...

Dear Teacher Tom,
Your post reminded me of this book:

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