Sunday, February 27, 2011

Preparation For What?

I'm all for the idea of Backwards Design: figure out what your goal is, then design a system/curriculum/regimen to get you there. It ought to be common sense, but unfortunately, it's not. Generally, we plod along, chapter by chapter, day by day, occasionally taking time out to be assessed on our progress towards...wherever someone thinks we might be going or should be going.

In a perfect world, no one would ever ask, "Will this be on the test?" Because they'll already know. That ought be true in Real Life, as well as in school.

We've moved, in the past few decades, from a culture of teaching to the texbook to teaching to the test, with occasional nods at teaching to the standard, but we're no less fragmented and isolated. The goals are still small, piecemeal, and unaligned to anything beyond the classroom. And I don't just mean unaligned to the Real World (though God knows, it's that); we also remain unaligned to the teacher next door, or the teacher next year. We do what we do because it's what we do. Or perhaps because it's what we're told to do. But we certainly don't do what we do because we understand how what we do fits into a larger picture or idea.

So: Backwards Design in macro. What is it we think we're preparing our students for, ultimately? Are we preparing them to be citizens of a democracy? Are we preparing them to be consumers in a capitalist economy? Or are we preparing them to be employees? I've heard all three things offered, though never all together. Of course not all together, because they don't all fit together.

The structure of public education as we do it in this country is built on the "prepare them to be employees" model. I think we all know that. The goal was to take a lot of very different kinds of kids, from very different kinds of backgrounds, and process them so that when they came out, they could all more-or-less convincingly play the role of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant laborer or clerk. That was the goal. It was no secret. In fact, it was considered vital to the future of the repbulic. Hence: a one-size-fits all curriculum. Hence: every 6 year old, 7 year old, 8 year old, and so on treated exactly the same (we're appalled at that idea now, as though our forebears were stupid. They weren't stupid. They knew all those kids were different. They point was to treat them all the same and then make them all the same).

And now, having said that, I think it's probable that the people who bequeated this system to us thought of themselves as preparing citizens for a democracy. E Pluribus Unum, and all that. It's what they were trying to do. Unfortunately, the Prussian factory model of schooling that they imported worked against the kind of critical thinking that citizens in a democracy need. Well...let's call it the Prussian model followed by the Cold War. That combination of structural sameness and ideological terror of divergent opinions probably killed Jefferson's idea of an ongoing and growing revolution better than anything.

Backwards Design: what does citizenship in a democrazy require. It's not rocket science. In fact, Thomas Jefferson sketched out quite a good picture of what Americans would need to know and be able to do, including:

  • to give every citizen the information he needs to transact his business...
  • to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas...
  • to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either...
  • to know his rights...
  • to develop the reasons faculties of our Youth...
  • to form [our Youth] to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness to themselves...

If we could guarantee that much, we'd be doing better than we're doing now.

Backwards Design: if these were your goals, how would you design a school system? Not just a curriculum--I'm talking ground up. Would you tell teenagers--people on the verge of embarking on their adult lives--that at such-and-such an hour they would be required to think about a single subject for 45 minutes, until a bell rang, at which point they would have to run to a different location and think about a different subject for 45 minutes, until the next bell rang?

Maybe you would. I wouldn't.

Express. Preserve. Duties. Competence. Rights. Reason. Reflection. Action. Virtue. Happiness.

Hell, you can get rid of all the other verbiage and just highlight those words. Does that list of words sound like what goes on in America's public schools? Do we teach our children that they have duties, as well as rights? Do we teach them to become competent--or merely responsive? Do we encourage reflection and action, and teach children how those two things are related? Do we teach them virtue? Do we give them the tools they will need to pursue their happiness?

If what we really care about is that our young people become good employees and good consumers, we have to write quite a different list of qualities we want to encourage. Here's my draft version:

Emotion. Appetite. Desire. Hunger. Pride. Self-Esteem. Obedience. Compliance.

Backwards Design: If you wanted a school system that would spit out 18-year olds ready to do whatever job they were given and then use the bulk of the money they made to buy things, what would you build? Would you have experiment? Create? Ask difficult questions? Reflect on and challenge difficult answers?

Systems are perfect, I said in my last post. They do what they were designed to do, whether intentionally or not.

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