Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Way They Learn Best

There is a lot to dislike, even hate, about the Common Core federal curriculum, perhaps starting with the fact that supporters insist that it is not a curriculum when it really is, right down to step-by-step, rote scripts that dictate both what and how professional teachers should be teaching. And let's be clear, the entire curriculum, including these insulting scripts were not developed by teachers with decades of classroom experience, but rather by people who have the hubris to think they know what they are doing simply because they were once students. It's like me thinking I can tell a doctor how to do his job because I've been a patient or a career criminal believing he can be a courtroom lawyer because he's been a client.

They start from the fallacy that education is about vocational training, assume that all children learn the same things in the same ways on the same schedule, then make the same mistake about teachers, who, like experienced professionals in other fields, spend their careers learning and refining their own unique ways to reach the children in their care.

The goal of education is citizenship, to practice and acquire the aptitudes, abilities, and motivation to live productively and meaningfully within communities of all kinds, be they workplaces, churches, political parties, institutions, artistic and athletic endeavors, or even communities of our own creation, all of which are equally vital to our civilization's future. This attempt to distill "education" down to a few core subjects (primarily math and literacy) taught in a rote manner leaves our world impoverished, a few, perhaps, better educated, and the rest still left ignorant about what kind of learners they are.

A few days ago I watched a boy who seemed contemplative, or maybe just bored, wandering around our outdoor classroom. He came across our homemade ladder, which was lying on the ground, with several inches of one end hanging over a ledge created by one of the tree rounds that line our sandpit. He stepped on the ladder and, balancing on the rungs, made his way to the end. I could tell by the caution with which he moved his body that he was testing the stability of the cantilever. He bounced on it slightly and the other end rose a bit, making the "ground" beneath him unstable. Cautiously, he regained his balance. Another tree round, some three feet away caught his eye. He had the idea of making the jump. I knew that if he was going to attempt it, he would need to forcefully push off from where he stood, which he had already determined was an unsecured launching pad.

On his first attempt he missed his target badly, although he had managed to propel himself that distance without the ground having given way beneath his foot. He climbed upon his destination stump, then balanced across the tops of the others until he was back to the ladder, where he repeated his process. This time, he launched himself more forcefully, at a slightly different angle, nearly making it to his goal. He repeated the pattern two more times, and on his fifth attempt succeeded. He repeated it one more time as a proof. He then raced off to gather up some friends who queued up for a turn. He merely showed them how he did it, then left it up to each of them to figure it out for themselves.

I had witnessed a self-taught lesson in physics, math, physical education, and social skills from a boy who explored many things about the way he learns best: caution, trial-and-error, repetition, incrementalism. He learned this thing that he had chosen to learn at his own pace and in the way that suited him; a unique human being, not a product to be put together on an assembly line.

None of the other children he had gathered together were able to make that jump, and most wandered off after only a single attempt. As a teacher I don't see that as failure: this was not the way they were going to learn these specific lessons about the physical, intellectual and social world. Indeed they may never learn the specific things this boy taught himself, but they, being unique humans, unique learners, will be motivated to learn the things they need and want to learn in the way they learn best.

Ultimately, the weakness of the sort of rote learning embedded in Common Core, is that it isolates children into their own, narrow "career track" whether it suits them or not, one that defines their fellow classmates as competitors, a distinctly sociopathic world view, one destined to ultimately kill motivation and curiosity, which, after all, are the key characteristics of a well-educated citizen.

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