Monday, May 28, 2012

EDUCATION LITE; Houston, Texas


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
28 May 2012

When I read about education in Finland, where they accept only one of every ten applicants for teacher training, require those to earn a master’s degree in a (content) subject area, and then support them and trust them to do professional work, I have to agree with Diane Ravitch that our practices—of accepting anyone into teacher training, putting them through several years of edubabble on pedagogicalisticalism, and then treat them like untrustworthy assembly line workers whose jobs hang on each year’s student scores on bad tests—are mistaken.

We do mistrust and mistreat the teachers we have, and we have lost sight, in the race to the bottom of “objective” tests, of some very simple facts, such as that classes usually differ in their performance from year to year, even with the same teacher, and that students bear the main responsibility for their own learning.

Our teachers have responded to this dismal situation, on many occasions, by saying that the current punch-card, standardized regimens for curriculum and “assessment” (if you want to dignify it with that label) are limiting the time and opportunity for them to exercise their creativity in teaching.

Now, who, other than Samuel Johnson, who wrote that “The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest, but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted...,” could be against creativity in teaching?

The question for me, however, is how do so many seem to want to apply that creativity? Too often, in my view, it is in the service of FUN, and “hands-on” (and brains-off?) activities to entertain students in an age-appropriate and “relevant” way, to make everyone feel good about themselves, no matter how little they know and how little academic competence they have achieved.

The Chief Academic Officer of a major educational publisher recently spoke in an interview about all the Summer reading activities that could help students lose less knowledge and skill in that gap. But the emphasis, along with using a stopwatch to keep track of “reading minutes” (shades of industrial management practice), was on digital games to provide FUN. has a regular feature of suggested activities for high school students, and for some reason, they never suggest that students read a complete nonfiction book or work on a long serious history research paper, as some of their more diligent peers are doing. Instead, they recommend group games which they hope will provide, above all, relevance to teen lives, and, of course, FUN.

For comparison, think about the approach taken by high school coaches with their athletes. It is true that sometimes they urge their athletes to “have fun out there,” but it is always after hundreds of hours of grueling and un-fun training and practices. They may want their players to be “loose” and upbeat, but they mostly want them to know what they are doing and to be as competent as possible at doing it. One local sports shop where I live sells sweatshirts for high school athletes, which say “Work all Summer, Win all Fall!” And it means training work-outs, not summer employment.

I am not sure where our educators’ obsession with FUN comes from. Where went the old view that “hard work never hurt anyone”? Is it the result of laying aside the time-honored authority and role of “The Old Battleaxe,” who represented to students the goals and hopes of the community, and whose academic expectations and standards were not only high, but remembered for years after graduation, usually with profound gratitude? Perhaps too many now seek to be a good friend to students instead? They should try to remember that friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and they don’t put FUN before a teacher’s job to take academic work seriously practically all the time.

The sad thing is that usually Education Lite, with its digital games, etc. turns out not to be much FUN, and, in the end, students really do want to grow up and gain a good deal of knowledge and competence, in academics as well as in sports.

If educators labor to keep it Lite, they will rightfully earn, not the friendship of their students, but their contempt, for laying down their responsibilities, and they lose the respect of the community, as well. In Finland, a Lower Education teacher is held in high regard by the society, just a bit behind that for doctors. In the United States, it is otherwise. Where I taught, in Concord, Massachusetts, it was quite clear that while parents and others in the town thought “the world” of their teachers, they would definitely not want their son or daughter to be one, or to marry one.

Keep in mind the Disney version of Pinocchio, where he is led off to a place where he could have nothing but FUN, and was turned into a jackass. It would be nice if our teachers used their creativity on serious academic work with students, and let somebody else do the “friendly and FUN” work of turning our students into jackasses.

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