Monday, November 7, 2011

Fertile Ground?

There's a lot of talk these days about the "flipped classroom," the idea that we can use technology, specifically streaming video, to accomplish more of the "information download" of our curriculum at home, where students can learn at their own pace, their own way, re-reading or re-watching as often as they need to, without holding up the rest of the class, and then use more of our in-class time for truly interactive activities, such as working problems, doing experiments, or engaging in discussion and debate.

I love it. I think I would have thrived in that world.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions built into that vision, from the obvious (do all of our kids have computers or hand-held devices with good broadband access) to the slightly less obvious (is there any quality control ensuring that these brilliant videos are, in fact, brilliant--or at least accurate?), to the maybe-not-obvious-at-all-unless-you're-a-teacher (if they didn't care enough to do their reading, what makes us so sure they'll care enough to do their watching?).

This last point is the focus of a blog post I just read, after following various links from a Twitter post this morning. For this author, the relevance is all--and the relevance is missing. As far as he's concerned, the problem is not the quality of the seeds we're planting, it's the fertility of the soil. You can have all the great videos you want, but if the kids don't want to watch them, you haven't accomplished anything.

I think this is actually a fascinating metaphor, if we unpack it a little. I just completed work on a survey that was sent out to readers of the books published by the Large Non-Profit Organization for which I work. The readers, all of whom are educators of one type or another, were asked (among other things) what their greatest challenges were, in terms of student achievement. It was an open-ended question, so they were free to write anything they wanted to. And they said a good many things. But the one issue that came up more often than any other in their responses was student motivation (or the lack thereof).

OK--so from this persepctive, the problem is the soil. The seeds are fine, but the soil is arid. We give them the good stuff, and they just don't care. This would be the more traditionalist view of education. We're trying to pass on our culture, our heritage, our history of learning, and Those Damned Kids with their videogames and their hip hop music and their tattoos and their [fill in the blank] just don't care. So....Not Our Problem.

But there are other people who take the opposite view, such as the writer of this blog post. "The curriculum in these classes is typically irrelevant to their lives," he says, "except for the need to earn grades good enough to placate their parents and impress college admissions officers." Clearly, for him, the problem is not the soil; it's the crappy old seeds we've been hoarding in our garden sheds for years, which nobody else wants. The soil is fertile, but not for these seeds. So....Totally Our Problem.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude can lead to some lousy educational practice, such as teaching down to the kids, only giving them stuff they already know, or already know about. Our whole culture, and much of our economy, is already designed to entertain and please children; I'm not sure our educational system has to follow suit, just because it's easier. And I've seen plenty of teachers do just that.

Education is not supposed to be the least-engaging sub-set of Entertainment. It's supposed to be the intellectual pathway that leads us out of childhood and into adulthood. There's a physical pathway that we can't help but walk, where, sooner or later, we're not kids anymore. There's a communal/spiritual pathway that most of us, in the West, have abandoned, where rituals and rites of passage mark us, in some inescapable way, as adults in our community. And there's an intellectual pathway, where we lean the things that adults need to know: the facts, the skills, the stories of our history; the myths and norms of our culture. We can learn these in apprenticeship to a craftsman, or by working next to our parents in the fields or in the home, or we can learn them in school. Every culture has a different set of Things That Must Be Learned in order for the next generation to take the reins successfully.

Now, I'm all for making things relevant to students. ALL FOR IT. But that means finding a way to bring them to us, not bowing down and surrending to them. Our job isn't to leave them in the nursery to play with the toys they're already used to. Our job is to make our world relevant --to make the case that the world beyond their noses is important, and that learning about it, and how to navigate successfully in it, is the most interesting project avaialble to them. And I think we're doing a lousy job of selling that idea.

Maybe we're not bothering to sell the idea at all. Maybe we're just droning on and on in our classrooms, assuming our curriculum is so vital and important that it will speak for itself, without our help. If so, it's not working.

Or maybe we're doing a lousy sales job because some of us actually don't believe in the product. Too many of us don't believe the adult world is really worth inheriting.  We're pissed off; we're disappointed and disenchanted. We mourn our own childhoods too much, and we can't ever escape what it is we had to leave behind. We watch the same teenage movies they watch, and listen to the same teenage music they listen to, and follow the same fashions that drive them to spend their money. It's the best game in town, and every year, as we age, we become less and less adept at playing it.

Or maybe we're doing a lousy sales job because the whole idea of history, or culture, or canon, or authority of any kind, has been cast in such disrepute over the last couple of generations that we don't feel we have the right to hold anything up as worthy of respect, study, or emulation. Everyone is corrupt, and everyone is a racist, and everyone is simply out for themselves, so for Christ's sake, don't listen to us. Follow your own hearts, and your own ethics, and be the generation that will truly revolutionize society and lead us back to the garden.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. I'm all for social justice. I'm all for empowering young people to respect their own vision and to fight for a better world. Truly. But doesn't that fight have to be grounded in knowledge of what has come before...and knowledge of why attempts to make things better have sometimes failed?  Don't we want them to know that the baton is being handed to them, and that their lives are just a single segment of the Great Race of human history?

With all of the problems and possibilities facing us--us as a nation and us as a world--with all of the promise and threat of the years ahead, how could education possibly be seen by students as irrelevant?

If you've spent your life in a dark room, the concept of light might seem foolish, or worthless, or unimportant. But you don't need someone to lecture you endlessly on the importance of seeing. And you don't need someone to leave you in the dark because the people in charge have decided that there's really not much to see. You need someone to turn on the lights.

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