Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Don't Listen to the Experts



There was a time when I knew quite a bit about the Byzantine Empire. I took a college course, an elective, choosing it because I thought it sounded like it might be a fun thing to know about, but also because the professor was visiting from Princeton, a much higher class of instructor than I might have otherwise expected from a state school. I've written before about my competitiveness as a student. I'd discovered I was good at gaming the grading system, and was confident that I could pass pretty much any test without studying and absolutely nail most tests if I even put in a little effort. This class was going to be different, however, in that I'd already accumulated the credits needed to graduate and as an elective course, I was intending to simply enjoy learning.

It was a sort of epiphany for me, coming so late the game of my academic life: I could take a class just because the subject matter, and the professor, sounded cool. This isn't to say I'd never enjoyed other classes and other teachers, because I did, especially when they involved reading great novels, cooking, painting, rhetoric, philosophy, or moving my body, but I'd never taken a school course with the sole intent of enjoying myself.

As it turned out, I couldn't help myself. I'd intended to not even take notes, but the habit was too ingrained. I'd intended to be fully present, to engage directly with the instruction, but instead I found myself listening for and highlighting the key concepts I would later be expected to regurgitate on the tests. I'd intended to read ahead several chapters, then dig into the optional reading list, something I'd never done before because, well, I could be certain that none of the extra stuff would be necessary to receive my grade. So in the end, I did all the things I needed to do to secure a good grade, and today I can honestly say that the only thing I truly learned about the Byzantine Empire is that it was an extension of the Roman Empire and that at some points in its history had developed "byzantine" bureaucratic institutions, something I likely knew going in.

In other words, my academic career up to that point had prepared me to be good at school and bad at learning.

At one point I could prove to others that I knew the material, but now I can't. This is what academic experts call "academic slide." Of course, I never really knew the material. What I could do was prove that I'd stored a bunch of trivia in my short term memory using techniques that academic experts had expertly taught me over the years, such as highlighting, taking advantage of office hours, re-reading, anticipating test questions, and, of course, the classic last minute essential of cramming. Having been a good academic student not only was I very experienced with this process, but I was equally familiar with the phenomenon of all that "knowledge" slipping away once the final was completed. Bam! Out the door, into the sunshine, and what had all that been about anyway?

Today, I'm disappointed about all that lost opportunity. The one thing I'd solidly learned was how to do school, a skill that doesn't translate well to real life where you're expected to think critically and creatively, to cooperate, and to frequently fail, none of which ever showed up on any of my tests.

Of course, this was university life. No one applied those pressures to me in elementary school, let alone preschool. I don't recall feeling academic pressure until my junior year of high school when I was 17 and everyone told me that I needed to get serious about my impending adulthood.

Today, these pressures are being put on our youngest children. Yesterday, CNN ran an article under the ominous title, Experts Caution "Covid Slide" Looming for Children Out of School. I've not been able to read it through, but from the bits and pieces I've forced myself to digest, it appears that these experts want parents to be fretting over their children losing out on "a couple of months of important instruction." There's a hysteria to the piece, with talk about children "falling behind" and "struggling to learn at home." The experts caution that if we're not careful the academic slide will cause teachers to have to (heaven forbid) re-teach "prerequisite" materials when school finally resumes. I've not been able to read the entire piece because the cruelty sickens me, especially the overt attempt to cause parents of young children, people who are already under significant, once-in-a-lifetime strain, to be even more afraid. Oh no, because of Covid, my eight-year-old won't get into Harvard a decade from now, the place where all future happiness resides. And this stress and anxiety is passed on directly to the kids.

I'm calling out the irresponsibility of these experts and of CNN in running this piece that has nothing to do with education. If the kids are "sliding" it's because they never learned it in the first place. You don't forget things you've actually learned. "Academic slide" is not a problem with children, it's evidence of the failure of adult-centric, top-down, drill-and-kill, test-and-forget "teaching" techniques that are employed to manufacture kids who can pass the test. Actually learning something isn't part of the agenda unless it's tacked on by a renegade teacher. Critical thinking, creative thinking, and cooperation have nothing to do with it. Nope, according to the experts we all need to double down on marching kids though a list of equations that are connected to the real world by nothing but a cynical thread of academic achievement. And as far as failing is concerned, well that's what the hysteria is about: fear of failure.

Don't listen to these experts. Their cautions are mere fear-mongering and following their advice is bad for children. They are not experts on children and they are not experts on education: they are experts on academics which is not the same thing. I should know because that's how I managed to be academically successful those many decades ago, by becoming an expert on testing and grades and little else. I've subsequently had to spend the last 40 years educating myself, thinking critically and creatively, cooperating, failing frequently. Not once have I worried that I was falling behind because, contrary to what these experts will tell you, it's not a race.

Now is the time to ignore these experts, relax, and gift our children this moment in time to educate themselves, the only education that matters.

******

My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.


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