Monday, May 09, 2016

"You're An Idealist"

Whenever I write about corporations and individuals lining up to make a fast buck (or a fast billion) off the labor of our children in school, people I respect, both online and in person, tell me they agree that while "unleashing powerful market forces" on our children is a bad idea, they actually support the Common Core standards. One parent who is a public school teacher and whose daughter is currently in public school kindergarten, told me that she had read the kindergarten standards and found them an improvement over what was there in the past.

I've never read any of the Common Core standards for any grade. My criticisms of this federal curriculum is the secretive, un-democratic manner in which they were developed; that professional educators were largely excluded from the process of their development with no early childhood professionals input at all; that none of the standards were field tested in any way before being foisted upon our children; the intentional injection of greed and private profit as the driving force; the inextricable marriage between Common Core and standardized testing and the use of these tests to make high stakes decisions about funding and individual teachers' careers; and the galling fact that no matter how good or bad the standards are, no matter how developmentally appropriate or inappropriate, and no matter what professional educators discover and learn in the process of using them, there is absolutely no mechanism for feedback, changes, alterations, or re-writing

That is, the only avenue for input available for teachers, parents, and students is protest and civil disobedience, such as opting outwalking out on tests, and rallying in the streets, which is what we're doing.

My friend agreed with most of my criticisms, but felt that if the standards could be separated from the all the crap, they were better than what came before them. This is a common theme among supporters, they want to separate the "standards" themselves from the rest, but that's not possible in the real world, or at least not so far.

And it might be true that the Common Core standards, magically separated from all the negatives that go with them, are better than what came before them. In fact, I'll stipulate to that. I told my friend as much as she left, adding, however, that I'm opposed to any educational standards in which adults tell children what to learn and by when. She replied, "You're an idealist."

I suppose I am an idealist, at least in the sense of thinking we can change our societal view of children and education so dramatically that we might one day offer a child-led, emergent, play-based, democratic curriculum in all of our K-12 schools. But this is where the research points us. In fact, the adult-lead, top-down, learning-on-a-schedule approach that has come to define schools around the world is one of the most difficult ways for anyone to learn anything. This is what independent research tells us. Oh sure, those who support adult-lead education can point to their own research, but everything they cite to support their position are studies on how children learn in schools. It's like claiming to understand tigers by studying them in the zoo; it's like studying orca whales at Seaworld.

If it is idealism to follow science, then I'll confess to idealism. Research that is focused on how children learn the most and the best, those that look at the tigers and orcas outside of captivity, always points to a child-led, emergent, play-based, democratic curriculum. And that is what this blog has been about since the very beginning. For those who need to see the research for themselves, I will simply point you to the endnotes of researcher Peter Gray's book Free to Learn.

"I've come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." ~John Steinbeck

Teaching is an art and a science, yet we continue to try to turn it into a job along an assembly line. Indeed, this is always the end result when you put one group of humans (in this case adults) in charge of determining when, what, and how another group of humans (children) are going to learn.

The purpose of public education in a democracy isn't vocational training as so many insist; it isn't so that we can "beat the Chinese." The purpose is to create good citizens. Beyond that, however, there is a higher purpose for education and that is to assure that each child has the opportunity to become a masterpiece of his own creation, an individual who is inspired, motivated, and passionate about life. This is the rational approach to education because it is the surest path to each of us reaching our potential.

I've always approached teaching as an artist, even when I didn't know it. The way I teach has been shaped as much by the media with which I work -- individual children and families and environments -- than by any specific educational theory or philosophy or technique. My highest goal as a teacher, always, is to create a relationship with each child who walks through our door, what I sometimes refer to in verbal shorthand as "getting us on the same bandwagon." The process of doing this is different for each child. Some arrive already pulling a bandwagon, so I just jump onto it and let them drive. Others look to me to offer a spot on my bandwagon. Many need time to warm up to the idea of a bandwagon. Everyone of the hundreds of relationships I've had with children has been unique because each of the children, in mind and spirit, are, like great art, the first and only one of their kind to ever exist. And while experience helps, the moment I begin to approach children as products to manufacture rather than people I want to get to know, is the moment I should retire.

When we start with relationships, we don't need a pre-packaged curriculum because the children are the curriculum. Each of them brings their own interests, passions, and abilities to the table. I don't need to force specific knowledge on them on a schedule, but rather create a space, a canvas, a relationship in which we can, together, explore and answer their own questions.

And this is what stands at the bottom of my visceral reaction to efforts to standardize education. It's why standardized testing and text books and anything that is pre-pacakaged and sold by education corporations strikes me as not only anti-education, but at a deeper level, anti-child. Children are not predictable, programmable widgets that need to be told what to learn and by when. They are fully formed human beings with their own minds and spirits. You can't manufacture education: it is something that is created through our relationships.

When I suggest that this child-led approach should even continue beyond preschool, all the way through high school, skeptics want to know how this would work, for instance, in higher level math. Of course, I'm not a high school teacher, but as a preschool teacher, I can tell you that math is something young children do for pleasure, spontaneously exploring patterns, sequencing, and sorting. Democratic free schools, like the Sudbury Valley School or the Albany Free School represent models for what a child-led approach looks like for older kids. Researcher and author Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, writes that American children report that they come to dislike school, and math in particular, more and more with each passing year, starting in about sixth grade. Children in democratic free schools report the opposite, saying that they like school in general, and math in particular, more and more with each passing year because what they are doing is directly applicable to their lives, their interests, and their passions, which is so much more motivating than ciphering on paper and memorizing formulas.

Indeed, math and literacy, the shining stars of the corporate education reform movement, do not belong at the center of education. Reading and ciphering are tools to help us with our real education, perhaps equal to, but certainly not superior to the arts, physical education, dance, social studies, economics, political science, wood shop, history, home ec, car maintenance, or anything else for that matter. The way we do it now, making math and literacy the core around which everything else revolves, is like spending 13 years learning how to use a hammer without ever actually building anything.

And this is the greatest strength of a child-led approach to education. It taps directly into the most powerful educational tool known to mankind: motivation. When we are motivated, learning is easy; indeed, it's a joy. Standardization sucks the inherent joy right out of learning and no amount of gold stars or threats of losing recess will inject true motivation back into the process. When we start with the child, when we start with our relationships, when we understand that we are working with a mind and spirit unlike any that have ever existed, then we begin to create masterpieces.

Of course, corporate education "reformers," aren't concerned with any of this because their stated goal is to get all the kids "career and college ready," and all of this child-led motivation doesn't necessarily feed the school-to-cubicle pipeline they imagine to be the future. Setting aside the fact that these guys are most assuredly wrong about the future as most soothsayers are, the future is not theirs to create: the future belongs to those who must live it. I will not be part of robbing children of that fundamental human right. Just because these guys think they'll need a certain number of worker bees in the future doesn't mean that's what they'll get. If the next generation decides they all want to be dancers, well then, we'll just have to build our little money making enterprises around dance rather than crass consumerism.

People accuse me of being an idealist. I see myself as a realist. We are designed by nature or God to learn through play, through our own curiosities, and to be motivated to answer our own questions. This is what education is, even when the majority of our society see it as something else. The goal is not jobs or math skills or any other kind of success. The goal is a meaningful life and I cannot tell anyone what that is. It's a question only we can answer for ourselves. I can, however, pick up my paint brush and help you get there. That's what a teacher does.

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Sheri Zilinskas said...

LOVE! LOVE! LOVE! And wholeheartedly agree!

The Oak Leaves said...

Thank you for so eloquently saying what I so often fail to convey myself, so that I can now just refer people here ;)

Nancy Schimmel said...

I remember being annoyed with "readers" when I was a kid, because I didn't want to be interrupted by the questions at the end of the chapters, I just wanted to read on. But I practically lived at the library. I grew up to be a school librarian, Not many of those any more. The library is--or used to be--a place where kids could choose. I remember a study that showed that kids in schools with libraries run by trained librarians had higher reading scores. But with budget cuts, librarians have gone the way of art and music teachers.

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