“Academics of the right sort…”

When I read last year that a group of politicians in Texas had built into their platform their opposition to the teaching of critical thinking skills in the public schools of Texas, I assumed, at first, this was something The Onion, a satirical magazine, had cooked up. But nope. These words were actually written into the 2012 platform for the Republican party of Texas: “Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” http://www.texasgop.org/about-the-party

Yeah. I know. I was a little appalled, too, when I first saw that.  I mean, what the…?! I tried to imagine how I, as a teacher, could possibly AVOID teaching critical thinking skills – I think I would have to work really hard to try not to teach while I was teaching.

About the same time, another interesting tidbit of news crossed my path: “Students in New York City’s public schools cramming for tests can delete words like birthdays, junk food, Halloween, dinosaur and even dancing from study lists. References to such words have been banned from city-issued tests in an edict issued by the city’s Department of Education for fear the words could “appear biased” or “evoke unpleasant emotions” in students.” (reported by Katie Kindelan on http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/lifestyle/2012/03/nyc-bans-halloween-birthdays-aliens-and-more-on-school-tests/

Okay. So. Yeah. Let’s not make reference to dinosaurs because…? Maybe children will start actually asking questions about dinosaurs? And this could lead to (gasp) the study of evolution? And maybe make students think. And ponder. And ask more questions. And stuff. Holy shamoley.  We should not be afraid of our students searching for answers. We should not be afraid of our students FINDING the answers, either. This is a good thing. A deeper understanding of the world should be something we, as a society, celebrate, not try to stunt.

To be honest, it’s hard to be surprised by much that’s going on in education anymore.

When I was told by a school administrator that I could no longer do (and I quote) “all those great, fun things you do in the classroom – inviting in Holocaust survivors to share their experiences, having the students research and dress up as famous characters in history, all those special projects and things you do” – I guess that was the moment when I realized I no longer belonged in a public school classroom.  I’ve actually written a book about my own, individual experiences in public educatonhttp://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Teaching-Rambling-Schoolmarm-ebook/dp/B006NKNEAY –  (written under a pen name). And, after sharing my book with others, I’ve discovered that the tale in my book is a common one, and the theme universal.

Public education in America is in a terrible crisis right now. Most of the people making decisions about education policy are not classroom teachers themselves, and seem to know little or nothing about how to actually teach. Many of these policy-makers seem to view education as a business – a corporation – and students as “products.” There seems to be a desire by these policy-makers to squeeze all the healthy, nutrient-rich juices out of education, and compress and quantify learning into some kind of data sheet with a check list for objectives met, and a detailed script for teachers to follow in their teaching.

But the thing is… well, the thing is that teaching is as much an “art” as a “science.”  Good teachers are not automatons. Good teachers know how to adapt and adjust quickly to the needs of their students. They recognize, intuitively, that there are times when they need to throw out the checklists, pacing guides, and scripts, and follow where their students are leading them – to a place of learning that’s meaningful for them. Good teachers know that meaningful lessons are lessons students actually remember because it touches who they are as human beings and individuals.  Meaningful learning is learning that will serve students beyond their years of school – beyond the standardized tests and checklists and bureaucratic balance sheets – and help them their entire lives.

In the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy writes: “Whatever furnishes the semblance of an idea governed by its Principle, furnishes food for thought. Through astronomy, natural history, chemistry, music, mathematics, thought passes naturally from effect back to cause. Academics of the right sort are requisite. Observation, invention, study, and original thought are expansive and should promote the growth of mortal mind out of itself, out of all that is mortal.”

Teaching children HOW to think, not WHAT to think – giving them “food for thought” – nourishing their young minds with learning that is meaningful to them, and will serve them throughout their lives – this, I think, is what teaching should be about. Teaching students to ask “why?” and to separate fact from opinion – teaching them to be critical thinkers – this, I believe, is essential to being a valuable citizen of a democracy. And “observation, invention, study, and original thought” are necessary skills for our citizens to have if mankind is going to move forward and survive the challenges ahead.

“The normal education system takes precisely twelve years to graduate a normal student from public school. Normal education is built around a standard curriculum, one size must fit all. Get too far ahead and you stress us out – cut it out, kid. Get too far behind and we fail you, reprocess you, give you another chance to get with the program…And so the factory-for-the-production-of-normal works overtime to sanitize and corporatize and discipline our kids into normalcy.” – from We’re All Weird, by Seth Godin.

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2 thoughts on ““Academics of the right sort…”

  1. Pingback: “Academics of the right sort…” | pclampson

  2. As is often the case with specialized industries, the nomenclature either becomes overblown, impossible to understand, or descends into jargon. I, too, was appalled at the stated opposition to “Knowledge-based education”on the surface until I went further and read, “…and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” In other words, the way I read this, because of the parenthetical defining, is that the Republican Party opposes those programs in which the actual substance of the skill programs are not what is specified by their labeling. Unfortunately, if this was the intent, the platform plank was poorly worded.
    I am not a teacher, but I am pretty intelligent, having gone to school (in Iowa) in the days when we were actually taught the basics…the foundations and how to think, not just memorize, regurgitate, pass the test, forget.
    I do know, I too, oppose programs that teach values and beliefs as if the the schools have a monopoly on what those should be, behavior modification (for those who do not conform), and teaching to the test. OBE is a new swing of the educational pendulum. In practice, OBE generally promotes curricula (read textbook publishers) and assessment based on constructivist methods and discourages traditional education approaches based on direct instruction of facts and foundational material. HOTS is a program for a given student core with unproven beneficial results.
    Twenty-five years ago we decried the state of education in CA. Twenty years ago I cried for the state of education in Texas. My granddaughter in first grade brought home a binder with specific instructions how to add pages, where to put them, how to label sections, etc. Every child in the school had one of these and was expected to abide by the “rules.” Two of my brothers are no longer in teaching because they were expected to do everything except teach.

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