Thursday, April 09, 2020

What Sets Us Apart From Washing Machines?

Children are not standardized. Humans are not standardized. There are averages and means and norms, but no one of us slots neatly into all or even most of them.

Washing machines. Now those are standardized and any deviation from the norm is considered a flaw.

When I was in elementary school, one of the ways Miss McCutcheon tried to accommodate our non-standardization was to divide us into "reading" groups based on our ability level. There were four reading groups numbered 1-4. We all knew that group one was for the top readers, or rather, those of us in group one knew that we were the best because we were reading from Dick & Jane books that were clearly more advanced. It was a meat cleaver approach, one that created an arbitrary hierarchy without really doing much about the standardized reading curriculum. We were still being treated like washing machines in the sense that we were all being judged according to the product standards handed down from whoever handed down curriculum in those days.

In late elementary school and middle school, I found myself in a progressive international school that had adopted a curriculum called Individually Prescribed Instruction (IPI). Each of us was handed two thick folders to start the school year, one for English and one for Math. We were each to work our way through the folders, reading, then doing some worksheets (asking teachers for help if we needed it), then, when we felt we were ready, taking a test. If you passed the test you moved up to the next level; if not, you started over on that section. To the teachers' credit, I don't remember any of them attempting to hurry us along, but if you managed to achieve certain levels by certain deadlines, you were rewarded with the opportunity to sign up for extra music or art classes. Even as a kid, I could see the intent behind IPI, which was to let each of us learn at our own pace, but we were still all expected to learn the same standardized stuff, just at different speeds. We were still being treated like washing machines.

In any given room of 20 children, I don't have to do diagnostic tests to know that their knowledge, experience, interests, and capabilities are not uniform. The way traditional schooling has historically tried to deal with this is to attempt to tailor individualized lesson plans. The best teachers identify the children who are struggling and work to find alternative ways to "teach" those who don't learn in the standardized manner so that the required lesson gets in there, a least securely enough to allow that child to pass the next test. A lot of creativity goes into these efforts which sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but ultimately the standard of measurement is how close we can get all the kids to a predetermined norm.

The problem, of course, is that each child, each human, has their own "norm." We are all deviations. None of us looks like the washing machine in the advertisement. Instead of forever attempting to shape our instruction so as to corral as many kids as possible into the straight lines required by a standardized curriculum, how much better it would be to simply agree that our job is to help each child reach their own highest potential, even if they turn out to be sewing machines or backhoes or, you know, fully formed, individual humans. Instead of offering tailored lessons to each child, how much better it would be to create environments and situations, and to offer materials, that allow children, whatever their level, intellectual structure, experience, or interest to come to know parts of their world in new, non-standardized ways. In other words, to create places in which children are free to think and feel then know, rather than simply strive to live up to some arbitrary norm. After all, isn't that what sets us apart from washing machines?


And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:

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