Bringing Schools to Life

Originally posted on Open Salon on March 15, 2012:

            It is a simple truth: staggering amounts of money—in excess of $600 billion—are spent each year on educating our nation’s children, and as a result, our public school system operates under an enormous burden of scrutiny.  Political sticks and carrots—like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, respectively—act as a balm to our collective spirit, making us feel that something is being done to improve our schools.


            To be fair, there are some thriving and innovative public schools sprinkled throughout the country.  But while our least successful schools draw particular concern and attention, a pervasive perception inhabits the minds of most Americans when it comes to public education: most of our young people are simply not educated.  They take twelve years of reading, and few of them read or recall much literature afterward.  They start writing their names at age five, yet startling numbers of people cannot write coherent paragraphs.  They graduate with diplomas, but many can’t work out a tip in a restaurant without their smart phone’s calculator app.  They study biology, chemistry, and physics, but lots of them claim never to have heard of Sir Alexander Fleming.  They take Spanish for three years, but on vacation in Cancun, only the elite students can manage more than a polite greeting in the local language.  We adults have been through the same system, and most of us do not know who painted the Mona Lisa or who represents our districts in the House of Representatives.


            This is not to say that as a culture we are cognitively deficient, and that our children cannot learn.  Contrary to what many people think, the minds of today’s young people are fertile ground for thought and synthesis.  Even the most unmotivated students possess a remarkable ability to process concepts.  We see this in their engagement in social media, their integration with technology, and their nuanced appreciation for popular culture.  The increasingly common assertion that kids today do not care about learning is simplistic and mistaken.


            Why, then, does the United States lag behind much of the industrialized world when it comes to education?  The answer, as I have stated on this blog before, is partly cultural.  Students make it a point to learn things that are important to them.  Education in the primary grades is assisted somewhat by a common tendency on the part of children to want to please parents and teachers.  During adolescence, however, students’ priorities change precipitously, as peers and our mass-media culture exert a more powerful influence.  The most motivated and successful students on the secondary level tend to have close family and community influences to counteract those of our popular culture, which is often skeptical of—and sometimes hostile toward—institutionalized, traditional education.


            Not all secondary-level students, however, have that balancing influence at home or in their neighborhoods, and some who do simply do not respond to it.  We cannot blame many teenagers today for being more interested in iPods, X-Boxes, Facebook, and YouTube than they are in education for education’s sake.  School simply competes with far flashier things for the attention of today’s teens.


            In order to appeal to students, we see in education today growing trends toward making school seem less like school.  This can be a good thing.  Computer technology, group projects, and interactive simulations are growing components in the modern curriculum. We hear of many teachers receiving praise for their ability to bring things to life.  Charismatic teachers are no doubt essential to our schools, and dynamic new methods are certainly called for.  However, dangers lurk.  Increasing numbers of teachers fear that the most meaningful content and substance of our curriculum is jettisoned in favor of easily assessable outcomes and standards, threatening to erode the substance of public education beyond the possibility of reclamation.


            And even the best of our modern strategies are merely shadows of a much more substantial approach to curriculum and instruction.  Indeed, school administrators today are trained in the theory and leadership related to a variety of educational philosophies that have for generations held promise but consistently failed to make their way into policy and practice system-wide.


            I had the privilege at Rutgers University of studying under Daniel Tanner, a gruff and demanding professor at the Graduate School of Education, who emphasized notions of curriculum that seemed at first ethereally theoretical—and far too elegant and simple to serve as the root of our understanding of education.  Drawing on his own writings and those of others, he stressed that curriculum development should focus on three kinds of learning: academic, vocational, and avocational.  This means that our students should be in school not just to learn life and work skills, but they must learn as well the joy and satisfaction of being alive, and they must explore in school the constructive and fulfilling pursuits that will sustain their spirits for years to come.


            Moreover, Dr. Tanner and another fine professor, Dr. Tom Tramaglini, stressed the Curriculum Paradigm, which includes the nature of the learner, the nature of learning, and social forces.  Anyone who has been to school knows how egregiously most classroom instruction violates that paradigm.  Regarding the nature of the learner, students must learn to read and benefit from books, but their inclinations should naturally impel them toward forms of learning that enable them to explore real-life ideas and to indulge their interests.  The nature of learning is such that experiences build on each other to form a network of associations in the mind—a network that gains strength and meaning when learning activities result in products and events that swirl together the concepts of various disciplines.  Social forces come into play because learning is very often a social activity, and schools are social institutions.  When students, teachers, families, and the larger community all feel that they are integrated and invested, a school becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Participants and stakeholders in the learning process trust each other, grow with each other, care about each other, and compound the value of every interaction with each other.


            These largely Constructivist principles that I learned validated a great deal of what I had already been practicing in the classroom.  Teachers who skillfully work quirky humor and their personalities into the classroom routine build a culture that engages students.  Teachers and leaders who promote order and foster positive norms for behavior create a climate of order and respect.  An educator who has a strong personality but an open mind can keep a classroom productive while enabling students to contribute their ideas, their interests, their enthusiasm, and their leadership.  Administrators with a true mission for making this happen in every classroom will invariably draw on all resources in a community and make public schools truly public.  And when this happens, the parents, the city council, the emergency services departments, the chamber of commerce, the senior citizens association, and the families all become educators—and learners.


            This kind of dynamic defies micromanagement; it transcends standardized tests; it confounds a regimented and fragmented curriculum that insists on separating core subjects from each other every period of every day.  It turns teachers into advisors; it transforms administrators into managers.  It generates portfolios and experiences, not scores.  Outcomes prevail over numbers; initiative and accomplishment overwhelm and drown drudgery.  All hell breaks loose, and no one can keep track any more of just how much richer the community has become or how much more fulfilled and alive its members have grown.


            Sadly, policy won’t bring any of this about until policy makers start thinking of schools as living, human institutions.  For the moment, then, we have our worksheets and our quizzes, our formulaic essays and our standardized tests—all of which, as Dr. Tanner wrote in an open letter last year to President Obama—emphasize items students have gotten wrong or things they have failed to do.  Certainly, we need to know what our students are doing incorrectly, but the time arrived long ago for a comprehensive vision of how we can inspire students to grow rather than how we can tally their shortcomings.


            And while policy, atavistic practice, and merely-superficial shows of innovation continue to prevent educators from capturing the imagination of their students, our young people will take their minds to where the real action appears to be.

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