Thursday, March 6, 2008

Another Brick in the Wall

A conversation with a couple of colleagues, both of whom I like and respect, got me thinking yesterday about some of our most basic philosophical assumptions about education and why we do it. We're providing certain skills that we judge to be critical to getting on in the world--reading, writing, a understanding of how one's own government works, and so on. Kids need to get into college, because they need jobs that will actually allow them to support themselves and a family. In the specific context of the Detention Center, how and what we teach is revealing of what assumptions we make about these kids and where we think they're headed. Will they be teaching? Fixing cars? Checking people out at Target? Nurses? Doctors? Working in an office? Back in jail? Running an office?

I don't think the role of curiosity, self-expression or problem solving in education can be overstated. This brings me back to the chat with my colleagues. One colleague and I were in agreement, it seems, that students can produce a variety of "products" to demonstrate a certain skill. In art, it might be a painting, or a sketch. It might, in English, be an essay, a journal entry, a skit, a thank you letter to a visiting speaker, or participation in a debate or discussion. These are all assignments my students have produced. Another colleague seemed to express that if a product wasn't "computational", it might be nice and fun, but was not necessarily actual learning. As I understand it, memorization as a means of building the capacity to concentrate and focus play a role in this classroom. These are necessary to learning, of course, but to my mind this beg the question of what one then does with the facts one has memorized or to what end one applies such focus. The argument went that life is full of unpleasant tasks and students need to learn to focus on them and do them anyway.

The underlying assumptions here about what's worthwhile and what isn't fascinate me. Thought processes, by their nature, can't be 'seen'; when expressed they can be read or heard. Is loving a poem a "product" of a quality education? What about the kid who was in my class for a few weeks as we were reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the one who was released before we finished it? He returned to us a couple of weeks later and asked me if Anne and Peter had gotten together, and did she survive? Where's the role of inspiration in our classrooms, of excitement about a good book because it's a good book? Isn't that what being "life long learners" is about? Or do we view that as an extra, great for the kids who have passed their standardized tests but not a priority for kids with low skills who still struggle with the basics. I am, of course, arguing that creating that excitement is necessary to raising those basic skills. I believe human beings are hard-wired to want to learn. Every society has had art, music and stories to tell. Every single one, period. Do we believe still, in the 21st century, with our industrialized, standardized schools built to suit kids for jobs, in the joy of learning? This approach is counter-culture today indeed.

Now, don't misunderstand. Learning is work; knowledge, like anything worthwhile, is earned. And clearly, an important job of our schools is to prepare kids for the jobs they'll have. In the midst of all the worksheets and testing, curiosity and problem-solving can be tough to quantify. Yet I believe, I insist, that an education that is not centered around powerful, resonant themes (my classroom's theme is telling your story) does not serve a democracy well. After all, what else are those critical basic skills for?

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