Wednesday, July 02, 2014

I Had To Drop Out Of School To Get There

Reading is something I do for pleasure. As a boy just learning to read in the first and second grades right up until high school I would always have a book going. Yes, I had stacks of comic books as well, and would devour Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover each week, but regular books were always in the mix. Most often it was something I'd chosen at the library, based on the cover or the title or a skim of the first few pages. Sometimes it would be the next in a series like The Hardy Boys or The Wizard of Oz and I would fall into those worlds, turning pages often until too late at night, always wanting to know just a little more, but at the same time regretting the advent of the final page.

I was probably 14-years-old when I began to hear the "buzz" about a new novel called Jaws. I begged mom to bring a copy home. She passed it on to me with the caveat, after having obviously read some of it herself, "There are things in this book our family doesn't agree with." Only a few pages in, it became obvious what she was talking about. That novel became my gateway book from juvenile fiction into the world of adult reading, paperbacks complete with vivid sex scenes. I'd soon plowed through every one of the bestsellers on my parent's bookshelves.

And then I stopped reading. Or rather, I stopped reading for entertainment because this is when teachers started assigning me books. Granted, they were good books, great books even, although I hesitate to list them because today I recognize them as cliches of the high school curriculum of my time: The Sun Also Rises, Pride and Prejudice, The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lord Jim. I can't say I hated these books, I apparently liked them all enough to revisit them as an adult, but I also didn't read them with the avidity with which I'd read in the past. I found myself counting pages, slogging, and dozing. Instead of losing myself in the stories and characters, I read simply as a way to get to the end, to be able to say to my teacher, "I've read it," then prove it in class discussions or on a test or in a paper. By the time I was a senior, I'd discovered that I often didn't even have to read the book if I just paid attention in class.

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And I got good grades, so as I moved on to university I figured I'd keep studying literature, which involved reading even more books my teachers had assigned. I read many great books during those years, but my relationship to reading had changed. No longer could I just fall into an armchair with a good book: fiction had become a task, a challenge I was proud of myself for undertaking, and even prouder of myself for "mastering" to the degree that I could use it to purchase a grade, but no longer was reading a joy.

From the moment I walked out of my final English class in 1984 until at least a decade later, I did not read a single book, not even a trashy novel. I still purchased books, I still checked them out of the library, but I'd lost my ability to "get into" them and they wound up on a stack on my nightstand, only a single chapter of each read.

My experience, I know, is not unique. Many, if not most, American students emerge from school hating reading, and it doesn't only happen with reading. Most students report deriving less and less joy from math, science, and history as well as they move through school. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that this is because school gets harder and harder, so naturally, those lazy kids are going to complain more and more, which is why we need to crack the whip a little louder. This is the mentality, I think of those corporate education "reformers," who, not content with blaming teachers, are now turning to blaming students:

(Bill) Gates talked about his foundation's work improving and distributing vaccines across the world. But he says making advances in education is the foundation's hardest challenge. "You name it, we have been passed by." . . . New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated. "And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students."

I find it rich and that the godfather of the corporate education "reform" movement is talking about unmotivated kids and counting on "new technology" to "engage" them, but essentially he's not wrong. Most children in America are not motivated by school and it's been true at least as long as I've been alive. I mean, Gates himself is a notorious dropout, a smart guy who found his calling early in life and pursued it, I assume with great joy and passion, motivated by real world problems and challenges, rather than just doing the assigned reading.

I agree with Bill Gates that the United States should have more motivated students, but unlike him, I know exactly how to make that happen and it doesn't depend upon coming up with tricked out "new technology" widgets made possible by "standardized electrical outlets." If you want motivated students, you don't force kids into such rote motivation-killers as "close reading," you do what we do in preschool where they are all motivated: you let them make their own choices about both what and how to learn. You know, the way Gates did when he dropped out of school to found Microsoft or the way I did when I changed my life by asking mom to bring home a copy of Jaws.

Of course, Gates is not alone in his hubris, thinking that he ought to be the arbiter of what and how children learn. Indeed, most of us think this way. Most of us, at some level, believe there is some magical set of knowledge, some perfectible collection of skills, and some infinitely duplicable teaching methods that if executed with professionalism (however one defines that) will result in well-educated adults, ready to assume their roles in the real world. This is, of course, complete BS, at least if the plan is to educate all the kids, and especially if the goal of motivated students stands at the center, as it should, of our efforts.

No one, ever, is positively motivated by things that are imposed upon them, even if it's for our own good. It is human nature to pull back against any leash that is placed upon us and generally speaking, the only way to "motivate" someone who is in that situation is through fear, be it the threat of punishment or the specter of a bleak future, and I don't think that's the sort of motivation we're talking about here. What we want, especially in a democracy where obedience is not a desirable citizenship trait, are students who are enthusiastic, curious, self-directed learners; people who pursue knowledge with the passion of a young Bill Gates or a preadolescent Teacher Tom. And the only way to do this, is to put children in charge of their own education, that is, to allow them to chose what and how to learn.

We are already doing this in play-based preschools. I can honestly say that we've never failed to send motivated learners into the world. And there are very successful models (e.g., democratic free schools) of child-directed learning that go right up through high school and even college, where we continue to find motivated learners, learners who report an increasing, not decreasing, passion for all of their subjects including math and science; students practicing the actual skills and acquiring the actual knowledge that allows them to go on to lead lives as motivated citizens in the real world. If unmotivated students is the problem, and I think it is, then this is how to address it, rather than hoping we can come up with some tricked-out "new technology" to "engage" them.

The Theosophists say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, which is one of the underlying principles of a democratic education. When my daughter was born in 1996, some dozen years after I'd graduated from college, I began to spend a lot more time with my in laws. My father-in-law was a retired literature professor who specialized in Shakespeare and the English novel. The women would often take the baby off into another room, leaving the two of us to our own devices. It dawned on me that this was an opportunity and I began to pick his brain about the thousands of great novels I'd not read, letting him guide me from the dawn of the English novel up through the Victorian era. I would read, then we would talk, for more than a decade. I don't have the paper to prove it, but as far as I'm concerned, I today hold a masters in English. And more importantly, I've regained the joy of reading.

And I'm motivated to go for the doctorate, but I had to drop out of school to get there. 

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1 comment:

Ava Philippus said...

Enjoyed your post. I am a preschool teacher, working in a play-based preschool. I am troubled by the trend of parents to push for more academia, even at this level. I believe it should be made available, and shared at the basic skills level and beyond for those eager learners on that level. I'm sure that articles in Time and Newsweek Magazines, for example, sounding the warnings about U.S. students falling behind, don't help.

On the contrary side, once you do get into grade school and beyond, not only do you have to learn what you are told to in most schools, but it is taught at the slowest/lowest level, without stimulating questions, and leaving eager learners behind in another way.

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