Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Life-Long Learners

The phrase “life-long learner” has been kicking around for quite some time in Ed World, but we’re finally in a position to be able to do something about it. The question is whether we’re going to bother.

You can certainly be a life-long learner without any help. You always could be. You could go to the library; you could go to the Learning Annex; you could go live in the woods with a copy of “Walden” and your own thoughts. Now, with wireless hot-spots and smart phones, you can carry libraries and Learning Annexes in your pocket, and you can go live in the woods while listening to an audio book of “Walden.” Maybe it’s not the same thing. Feel free to take sides.

Meanwhile, our schools remain essentially unchanged after over a hundred years. Where once they mirrored the structure of the kind of industrial work they expected most students to graduate into, they now mirror pretty much nothing except each other. Success in school prepares you to be successful in school. Once you get a job, however, you’re starting from scratch. You won’t work like you worked in school; you won’t even use your knowledge and skills the way you used them in school. Where once you were told that taking shortcuts to a solution was “cheating,” now you’ll be treated like a fool for doing things the hard way. You might even get fired for wasting time. Where once you were told not to look at another student’s paper, now you’ll be given a poor review for failing to cooperate with your co-workers. On and on.

Are you encouraged and empowered to become a life-long learner? Are you given the tools to be an independent, critical thinker, someone intensely and insatiably curious about the world? Or are you, rather, trained by school to be a life-long jumper-through-hoops, a trained circus animal who knows what must be done to get the biscuit and the pat on the head?

What if we really believed in this life-long learning thing? What if we took it as our starting point and built—from scratch—towards that end? What if we said that the goal of the American educational system was to encourage and support life-long learning, from childhood to old age? After all, we’re told all the time that the New Economy demands flexibility, agility, constant retraining, etc. The jobs of the future haven’t even been invented yet. All that. So if it's true, why do we abandon people right when they’re ready to take their first adult job, and then tell them if they want any further education, they’re going to have to pay through the nose for it? Why would we want to discourage people from adapting themselves to a changing world and its new opportunities, throughout their lives? Why would you want to tell people that what they have learned up till 18, or up till 22, will have to suffice for a lifetime?

And that has to mean more than "Google it." Even if the Internet promises almost limitless access to information and opinions (and yes, Baly, we do still have a lot of work to do on broadband access and affordability for all), we still need physical school buildings and real teachers. We need schools as places where people can come together and find Wise Guides to help them analyze, discuss, and understand the information they're downloading, and test out the validity of the opinions they've been swallowing, undigested. We need schools as places where people can learn and practice skills that require (or just benefit from) in-person interaction. Perhaps we don’t need grade-level classrooms. Perhaps we don’t need subject-specific classrooms. But we will always need a place. A village green of the mind. An intellectual commons. We still need a place where Socrates can accost us and make us think about what we’re thinking about, to make sure we’re thinking clearly.

And there’s no reason why this should have to be a place for children only. If we're thinking from scratch, let's throw out old assumptions and figure out what we need and want? Why can’t school be a place for all of us, whenever we need it? If I’m 35 and I want to learn Spanish, why do I have to do it by myself, somewhere? Why can’t I go to school during my lunch hour and take it? If I’m 42 and I’m in a job where I need to write more than I’ve written in years, why can’t I go where the writing experts are and get help? My job is increasingly flexible—I can work from home, or at a Starbucks, or at night. I’m available to my boss 24/7 these days, and the line between home and work is increasingly dissolving. So if I can find time during the weekend to work, why can’t I find time during the work week to learn?

Imagine a school where adults interacted with children of all ages—as fellow students. Imagine a school where teenagers actually got to know the adults in their community for a change—and learned from something other than TV shows how adults behave and think. Imagine school as a conversation across the generations about the world and its myriad wonders and problems. Imagine a community where people stopped thinking that just because their children had graduated from high school, they no longer had to support the school system with their tax money—imagine a community where adults were happy to support the schools, because they used the schools. Imagine teachers who truly felt as though they were empowering all the people in their community to grow, and change, and prosper--that they performed a vital function for their entire community. What a job that would be!

The system gives us what the system was built to give us. It will continue to give us what it was built to give us, no matter how much tinkering we do around the edges. We can’t change the system in any meaningful way until we know what we want the system to give us. In every other aspect of our 21st century lives, we're dreaming new dreams and building wonderful machines to make those dreams come true. Why not here?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fear of a Common Curriculum

Another review of the current landscape of confusion and fear. Why must it be so?

Having a common curriculum will not make us automatons. It will not make your sweet little red state children into socialists, or your sweet little blue state children into right-wing ideologues.

Knowing the same things is not the same thing as thinking the same things.

Having a common background is no guarantee of having a common perspective. Look at your own family and you'll know how true that is.

Perhaps the problem here is that we, as educators, have done such a poor job of teaching critical thinking skills. Our job is not to tell children what to think; it's to teach children how to think. They should be able to disagree with me about the wisdom of the American Civil War. They should not be able to disagree with me about the fact of it.

But I've known far too many teachers--high school teachers and university professors--who felt it was their job to indoctrinate their students--to teach them their own, personal perspective on a topic as though that perspective were gospel truth. And it is probably a widespread experience with such teachers that has made parents gun-shy about a common curriculum.

A common curriculum should also not have to be antithetical to differentiated instruction, personalized learning, and school models like the School of One. In fact, I'd argue that a common curriculum may be the only way to keep such models from blowing apart into completely atomized environments where no one can have a conversation with anyone else. Have common goals and targets, but don't mandate how a student has to get there. Don't mandate how much time a student needs to get there. Don't even mandate where a student has to sit while he gets there. Let the journey be differentiated by the goal be common.

All of which brings us back to an earlier discussion on teacher quality. What kind of person do we need in tomorrow's classroom? We need someone who knows her subject so deeply and broadly--and who knows classroom instructional strategies so deeply and broadly--that she can bring different students along different pathways at different paces, to a common goal. That is not the teacher of yesterday, who simply had to stay one chapter ahead in the textbook, and assign the ten questions at the end of the chapter for homework. We need someone who knows how to challenge students, question students, engage students in dialogue and debate about a subject--to make them think about what they're learning, rather than simply take in information. We need someone who is not afraid of different points of view, but who knows when a point of view is supported by facts and when it's just opinion. We need someone who understands new media literacy, and can help students assess whether something they have found online is legitimate or not. We need teachers who understand how to challenge their students and how to allow their students to challenge them.

I don't think we're going to get these people in the classroom if we continue to insult, harass, and demean current and potential teachers. I don't think we're going to get these people in the classroom if we continue to draw from the bottom third or quarter of college classes.

You get what you pay for--that's all I'm saying.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Life Need Not be Lived Entirely in Prose

I was invited, this past weekend, to a gathering of folks working in and around the federal government who meet once a month to share good food and read poetry to each other. It was one of the nicest evenings I've spent in a long time.

The group has been meeting every month, in one form or another, for close to 40 years. They work in various branches of government--some more tangentially than others. Several of them work for Department of Defense. By day you might mistake them for policy wonks or academics focused on military history. And yet, once a month, they bring potluck food to someone's apartment or house, open up well-loved and dog-eared volumes of poetry, and read to each other.

It's not an intellectual exercise. They don't come to analyze the poems or deconstruct them. They come to appreciate them. They come for the sheer, sensual, visceral pleasure of hearing good poems read aloud. Occasionally, on the night I attended, there was some commentary, as when someone noticed an accidental motif appearing across several poems. But more often, there were just oohs and aahs and mmms of appreciation.

We allow ourselves to think, far too often, that only certain kinds of people are supposed to enjoy certain kinds of things. We accept stereotypes about ourselves and others in art that we would never put up with in other aspects of life. Black kids in the inner city aren't supposed to like, or even understand, classical music. New Yorkers aren't supposed to enjoy country music. Farmers aren't supposed to read the classics. Factory workers aren't supposed to go to the theatre. Poetry...well, poetry apprently is for no one, anymore, except academics and magazine editors.

But it isn't so. It just isn't so. The lives we lead are infintitely more complex and genre-shattering than we give ourselves credit for...or see portrayed in our media. Our ability to appreciate and enjoy does not come predetermined or color-coded for convenience. And the more we adventure and explore beyond the obvious and the comfortable in art, the more we are nourished.

As my friend said--the one who invited me to the gathering, "Every so often, I just need to remind myself that life doesn't have to be lived entirely in prose."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why So Much Anger?

I've seen some tweets and blog posts and articles recently wondering where all this Anger At Teachers is coming from. I think Checker Finn is on to something: I don't think it's about summer vacations, or getting off work at 3PM, or any of that surface stuff. I think it's the perception that teachers are not held accountable in any of the ways the rest of us are. It's not that teachers don't have a stressful job--God knows, they do. And most civilians have very little understanding of those stresses (or sympathy). It's that teachers don't have many of the same stresses the rest of us have, in our jobs. And perhaps this is why there is so little understanding (or sympathy). We're held accountable for performance in myriad ways; they generally are not. So we're angry. Our work is watched, monitored, supervised, often micromanaged; theirs is not--they close the door and do as they please (or so we think). So we're angry. We're paid according to someone's valuation of our worth, and we live and die by that valuation; they get paid based on how long they've survived. That probably makes people angrier than anything else, along wiuth this one: they can't be fired for lousy performance, and we can.

I think these last two might be the crux of the issue. When people from outside look inside at the teaching world, they don't see the stresses and challenges (their perception of teachers remains the kid point of view, or perhaps a parent's point of view), but they definitely see--or hear about--the work rules. They hear that teachers have a job for life, and they resent that. They hear that teachers balk about any serious evaluation tool, and they resent that (because they're evaluated constantly). They may hear, if they're close to the issue, that many teachers resist evaluation because they feel their job is simply un-evaluate-able--that they alone, among working adults, cannot be measured, judged, supervised, or evaluated IN ANY MEANINGFUL WAY. It's not that we have poor tools at the moment; it's that the job is...well...magic. Don't ask. You woulnd't understand. Just leave us alone.

That irks people. And it makes them want to lash out and strike back with a bit of vindictiveness. It engenders an "oh yeah?" kind of attitude that makes people want not just SOME evalutaion, but perhaps OVER-evaluation. Stick it to them. Teach them a lesson.

Sure, it's childish. We're childish. Especially when we think someone is being arrogant or holier-than-thou. And all we need is to think it. It doesn't have to be true.

Teachers hurt their cause by thinking--or allowing others to say--that their job is so radically different from the way all other adults work that it cannot be treated like a job in any way. They just do. Teachers hurt their cause by not admitting that things like NCLB didn't erupt out of the brain of George Bush like Athena, with no mother. They played a role. School administrators played a role. Decades of unaccountability plus poor peformance drove people to want someting explicit and mandated. Was it badly constructed? Sure. Was it utterly unjustified and un-precipitated? No.

We're an aggressive, competitive, and results-driven culture, and it's hard to exempt people from that. If our students were leading the international polls in academic achievement, I doubt people would be carping about summer vacations or getting off work at 3:00 (even though we all know most teachers work deep into the night and across the summer). If things were going well, it wouldn't be an issue. But the combination of bad news and what people perceive to be an arrogant refusal to be held accountable for ANY of that news creates resentment. And resentment doesn't open the door for discussion.

And we need a LOT of discussion. Should teachers be held accountable for what they do in school? Yes. How? We don't really know how, yet. Should teachers be held accountable for their students' performance? Yes. One hundred percent? No. Well, what percentage, then? We don't know. Should parents be held accountable ? Yes. How? We don't know, and many of us will be offended if you raise the issue.

There are probably a hundred things like this that we need to discuss--openly, honestly, without hostility or defensiveness. But as in every other aspect of our public life, we can't have those discussions. All we can do is yell.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What is a Teacher For?

I don't remember a single fact that any teacher taught me. Not one. And I've had a lot of teachers over the years.

But I remember those teachers--many of them--and I remember quite a lot that they taught me. I remember ideas. I remember distinct ways of thinking about the world and unique ways of perceiving the world. Sometimes I learned how a person in a particular field saw the world--a scientiest, a poet (not a mathemetician--I only got a glimpse of that later in life, such was the poverty of my math education). But sometimes I also learned a unique individual saw the world; what I learned from some teachers was a different way of being in the world.

I think it's important, in the midst of the current battles over education reform and union-bashing, to remember what a teacher is needed for. As technology becomes more and more "disruptive" of old educational structures, and as school budgets get slashed right and left to protect the tax cuts of the wealthy (oops, did I say that out loud?), people are advocating all kinds of horrific scenarios: classrooms of 60 or more students; all students learning online all of the time--anything to save a buck or shame a teacher.

But what is a teacher for? If we don't stop and think about what makes the role of the teacher essential, aren't we liable to "reform" ourselves right out of what we need? And aren't we liable to miss opportunities to reform things correctly and helpfully?

I think it's becoming pretty widely accepted now, eleven years into the 21st century, that having a live teacher is not a necessary condition for taking in factual information. Facts can be pulled out of the air by anyone with broadband access, and the reform we need here is better and faster broadband access. The world of facts--the world of pure information--is at our fingertips.

You may or may not need a live teacher to learn skills. That will depend on a lot of things: age, for one; and the kind of skill being learned. My 10-year old son learned how to create stop-motion animated films 100% via YouTube. But I don't think he could have learned how to read that way...though I'm sure someone out there is working hard on a platform that will try to do just that, very soon.

To me, a teacher is a guide--someone who has walked the trail I'm on and knows the way. They can't walk it for me, but they can help me get through the obstacles. They can point out the trail blazings when I lose my way. They can point out when a new skill or a new piece of information (how to read a map; how to find water) might help me move forward. They might challenge me and encourage me to appreciate what I see and hear in new ways. And by their manner in the woods--by the way they live their expertise--they model for me a successful way of being in the world.

Our parents are teachers, but they don't take us all the way through the woods. Coaches, scout masters, rabbis--we have many teachers along the way, each with a different area of expertise, each able to guide us through a different part of the woods. But our schoolteachers are vital here, as well--especially as we move out of that "learning to read" phase and into "reading to learn." Teenagers need as many reliable guides as they can get, to help them navigate their way into adulthood.

And if this is so--If my definition makes sense--then a school reform that places 60 or 70 kids in a classroom so that one teacher can lecture them is a bad school reform. Because it defines the teacher by her least important role, today--that of an information provider--and makes impossible her most important role--that of a guide and mentor. You do not learn how to be a thoughtful and curious adult by watching someone talk at you in a lecture hall. Maybe when you're in college or grad school you can, somewhat. But not when you're 15. You're needier when you're 15. You need someone close--someone who talks to you, and listens to you, and knows you.

Which is the baby, and which is the bathwater? Shouldn't we make sure we know, before we start trashing the whole house?