Function of Education

For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.

Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.

Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.

Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.

But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.

We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.

 

Testing Anxiety
An all-too-common sight for teachers looking out at students taking high stakes tests/exams.

Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Here and I’m Angry are highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…

As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.

It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.

How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)

What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?

More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?

With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.

I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.

I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.

But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.

And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.

Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”