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Sunday, September 1, 2013

We Learn Best When…

We just don’t seem to be able to see the real problem with public education.  We’re not failing in our schools simply because of all the things that usually receive blame --  such as buildings, teachers (and their unions), textbooks, resources, and tests -- although their lack is not helpful.  These items are more representative of symptoms rather than the causes of our problems in education.  No -- We are failing in our ability to stop thinking and acting in 18th and 19th century terms.  In other words, the one thing that we fail to ask seriously is: how do people usually learn and in what circumstances do they learn effectively, and how does that apply to the 21st century?

Instead, we keep trying to “tinker” with the same old tired constructs and concepts in order to make a difference in test scores, achievement gaps, and school standings.  First, there was the “No Child Left Behind” debacle under which test scores became the end-all and be-all of education.  Then there came the “Race To The Top” which was more sophisticated, but ended up being a bit of largesse given to states to help them improve their existing schools.  In either case, the essence of learning and education took a backseat to test scores and questionable innovations layered over an outmoded system.

The educational philosopher and psychologist, John Dewey, had to deal with a similar environment and questions at the beginning of the 20th century.  He well knew that the industrial revolution of the 19th century had set in motion certain forces with which schools had to contend. He believed students would become more well-rounded, productive members of society through their natural inquisitiveness, and experimentation through interaction with the world around them.  His efforts were directed at conceiving “what roughly may be termed the ‘New Education’ in the light of larger changes in society.”  He said essentially, if we can connect this ‘New Education’ with the march of events,  public education “will lose its isolated character, and will cease to be an affair which proceeds only from the minds of pedagogues dealing with particular pupils.  It will appear as part and parcel of the whole social evolution…”  We exist in a similar time, when the forces of society have evolved to a point where they have made schools disturbingly irrelevant and lagging behind the curve.  It is time again to cease using outmoded constructs, concepts and methods, and to re-make the public school system into a “part and parcel of the whole social evolution.”

Putting aside the fact that we do learn something in our outmoded classrooms, how do we usually learn outside school buildings; in a more natural state of being?  Let me advance just ten ideas, with the caveat that these ten items do not cover the waterfront, and that some concepts - such as vocational training - have not been touched upon.

1.    We learn best in small, often intimate, groups – in families, with companions, in work settings, in team sports, sometimes in quiet contemplation, or by individual experimentation or research, as well as in one-to-one relationships.  Experts say that to be effective, these small groups should not be larger than about 10-12 participants.  We do not learn as well in large groups like classes or lecture halls.  Why can’t we see it?

    School buildings are not built to accommodate this natural phenomenon.  If a project team needs to meet together they have to go to a corner of a classroom and contend with actions, motions and noise from the rest of the class.  If small groups are naturally productive in terms of learning, why is space not allocated for their functioning?  Secondly, a teacher cannot be everywhere, so this natural construct also speaks to the dilemma of having just one “teacher” in a classroom.  We need multiple facilitators for multiple groups, working on multiple projects, which speaks to our next point.

2.    We learn best when we have support from another person or persons – we have only to look at babies and toddlers to know that this is true.  They thrive when a parent or sibling lends a hand and shows interest and love.  That is no less true as children grow and develop. Why then do we insist on separating schools from communities? Why do we insist on classes where only students & teachers may enter?  Why do we discourage one-to-one relationships in school rooms?  We do it because we still believe that the teacher is all one needs for education to take place.  This is a fatal flaw in our system: that we continue to define “teacher“ in an extremely narrow way.  We shall continue to explore this as we move on.

3.   We learn best when we set our own educational goals and programs- look at  examples of babies and toddlers again – they learn to walk, talk, eat, etc. at their own pace even though Mom & Dad (and others) may contribute to the process.  We set our own goals from our early years and continue to do so throughout our lives. With help and encouragement from parents and significant others, we grow and thrive.  Yet, in school, it is an acceptable standard for others to do that for us:  the courses we must take, the path we should follow, the books we must buy and use, the rules and procedures we must follow.  Schools can thus be a detriment to an individual’s growth and development, and a hindrance to the process of learning.

I advocate a well-defined individual education plan for every student, to which all “teacher-types” might contribute as long as the student agrees.  There could still be certain prerequisites that individuals might choose, as from a menu.  The student must, however, remain the manager of his/her own goals and program.  Here’s another key ingredient:  all of the “teachers” in the student’s sphere must contract with the student and the school to support the student in that educational plan which then becomes something of a “contract” for all to sign. 

4.    We learn best when our senses are stimulated – music, comfortable furniture and clothes, perhaps posters, colors, other decorations help soothe our weary souls.  But not in schools -- take a look at those walls, those awful desks and even blackboards, found nowhere else but in school buildings.  It should tell us something, but fails to penetrate the curtain that separates us from the 21st century!  Of course conformity and order hold sway in our schools so it is doubtful that our public schools can ever tolerate comfort and color.  Another good reason for us to use other kinds of buildings, constructed or re-constructed, to accommodate new concepts.

5.    We learn best when we participate fully in the process of learning and of teaching- it is amazing that we ever let children get near their siblings, or that we let our kids play with others.  After all, such interactions involve learning; learning from each other.  How many times have astonished parents asked their children, “Where did you learn that?”  Why, then, don’t we have peer tutor programs in every school?  Once we are in a school setting, we essentially deny that pupils can learn from other pupils. 

Moreover, learning is a discipline, and it requires the attitudes of striving, and struggling, and seeking, and achieving.  Learners must be as engaged as their teachers, else the process of education is short-circuited.  One of the things we fail to teach adequately is the role of the learner in the educational process. We talk about teachers all the time, but learners are given short shrift.  They are mere puppets in the hands of a puppet-master or mistress, and they act or react only as the teacher directs.  This is a failing of public education that still believes that the Socratic method is the basis of learning, and that we all start out with a blank slate needing to be filled by others. Learning is one with teaching, and to stress it less is to encourage apathy and a “failure to thrive.”
6.   We learn best when we learn from experience and in natural circumstances - I recently spent 12 years of my retirement researching my paternal Family Tree, and examining many original sources and documents.  In tracing the personal history of my ancestors, I found myself also learning a great deal more than I did in schools about history and locations and famous and interesting individuals.  Why, then, do we continue to learn dates and events by rote in schools, instead of looking at the lives and times and products of real people.  Why don’t we have students look at original documents and sources and build from there?  Why don’t we have more projects involving the tracing of individual lives in relation to history of their times?  Why don’t we place all students at a certain age into real community situations as “interns” or “seekers” and have them learn from a broad experience of people and experiences? 

7.    We learn best from people we respect, and who respect us – of course that could be a “teacher”, but it could also be a tutor or mentor, or Foster Grandparent or volunteer or intern or guest speaker.  Of course, it’s of prime importance to have excellent teachers, but why can’t we broaden that category; that title?  Because we think in out-moded terms, we think teachers are the source of knowledge, the fountain of wisdom, the purveyor of facts, the disciplinarian, the questioner.  Rarely do we think of teachers as enablers, resources, guides, challengers, catalysts, facilitators of learning.  To broaden our concept of teachers, the teacher’s schools and their curricula must also change.  But just as important, we must find a way to build community support for those who seek out this profession and thereby also broaden our respect for “teacher-facilitators” from the beginning of their course of training. 

We too often forget that “teachers” are everywhere: at home, in school, at work, at play, in therapy, in prisons; in stores, bars, factories, and even in poor neighborhoods.  Some of the best teachers we will ever know are not in schools, and yet we fail to bring them in, or better, to go out to them and learn from them.  This is not meant to denigrate classroom teachers; it is meant to raise respect for all our teachers to a new level.  One of the goals of a school administration ought to be to find these community-based “teachers” and to utilize them in creative ways to expand the minds of learners.  

8.    We learn best from people who point us toward sources, books, documents and materials that might speak to our particular personhood – a facilitator - Teaching is an art form.  All good teachers have to know their audience; know their pupils.  They must know their strengths and weaknesses, their talents and their failings; they must know what motivates them and what does not.  They must know how to present material to be learned in a way that captures imaginations and interest.  They must be able to “paint a picture” of a concept so that pupils can see that concept in vivid terms. They must know when to stop speaking, and when to listen to what others have to say.  They must know when to point to other persona and voices, so that a student can hear many viewpoints, and take away what they will.  A facilitator knows how to point people in helpful directions.  Teachers must approach every student with respect, just as an artist respects nature and symbols and revelations and space.  They must help individuals who need something extra.  They must be prepared and they must be engaged.  “Teaching” is an art, but it is not confined to one person, and public schools must broaden its definition.
9.   We learn best when we help and serve others - only lately have some schools begun to learn this truth, and made service-learning a part of their curricula.  It should be a part of every public school’s curriculum because schools are an integral piece of community functioning, and every piece must contribute to the whole.  Learning how to serve one’s community - to give back to a living entity made up of many people - is to learn one of the most valuable lessons of life: that human beings are mutually responsible for a community’s well being, and responsible for one another, in a way that cannot be ignored, or the community will inevitably decline.  We are interdependent, after all, and what one human being does, or does not do, can be harmful to the whole community.  We learn about human nature and human frailty as we become active contributing members in our communities.  To let this aspect slide is to deny very important questions of life - why am I here, and what should I do about it? 

However, one failing of public education is it’s inability to reflect upon experiential learning.  That is, a set curriculum too often overrides what could be learned from  experience.  What is needed is the ability to lead individuals and groups through a process of reflection on an experience by which one draws out certain “learnings” from what just occurred.  Otherwise, an experience in community service remains just that, and “learnings” go un-articulated. 

10.   We learn best when we aren’t being forced to learn – when there is some freedom to find answers for ourselves and when we are challenged to find answers - of course, some children prefer safety and protection to challenges and freedom.  They must be treated with care and respect.  Volunteer mentors or companions might be helpful for them.  They might be led toward responding to challenges, or they may just need reassurance that they are doing their best.  But there are many children in our public schools who need the sense of challenge and freedom. 
This brings up the whole question of levels of instruction.  We have chosen in public education, a model that is questionable as to its efficacy, and that is the age-related classroom.  Children are essentially grouped by age, within one-two years of each other.  In some cases, this works well, especially if all in the class are within the same range as to ability and experience.  But, is this the only model that should be used?  What about grouping pupils by interest, or by project, or by teams?  I can see a team of children of different ages taking on a particular task or investigation or research by which they together produce a product (not necessarily a physical product).  Within that team might be some younger children; within that team might exist some partnerships based on interest or skill rather than age; within that team might exist unexpected leadership skills that were previously undeveloped, but which a peer mentor encouraged.

All kinds of possibilities exist that might not be appropriate to the usual class construct.  Teams and team work are prevalent in the industrial and techno world of the 21st century, yet public schools seem to want to ignore this construct as a way of learning and achieving.  Projects done by teams is a construct that every child will meet along the way in the adult world.  Let us resolve to introduce them to each other at a much earlier age.  The “catch” is to use these team groupings for appropriate goals and purposes, and not as gimmicks.
Our obsession with classes based on age, levels of attainment based on standardized tests, directions based on god-knows-what is an obsession related to the same phenomenon that affects - and infects - all public education: the reluctance to give up past constructs and procedures even though they no longer quite fit the demands of a technology-based world.  We continue to build school buildings that say “isolation” “segregation” “conformity” instead of saying “community” “integration and interdependence” “freedom to explore.”  Should we be building new schools on the old models at all?  It’s doubtful.  We need to build new schools only when other adequate and appropriate buildings are not already available in the community.  We need to build new schools only when the purpose, goals and objectives of the school have been constructed by all members, including the public, and then architects can be hired who can fit the old or new buildings to those concepts and to the realities of the 21st century. (And, no more blackboards, please!).
The school year, the school day, vacation periods, absences, homework - must all be re-examined in the light of a school’s mission and purposes.  These are all constructs built around a 19th century (or earlier) agrarian society, and yet we have maintained them into the 21st century dominated by a technology that did not exist in those by-gone eras.  Why?  Why do we insist on buildings with classrooms and blackboards and teacher at a front desk with pupils seated at desks in neat rows.  Why do children get a whole summer vacation?  There are no crops that must be harvested by them!  Why are classes 40-45 minutes long when some children sit at computers or TV screens for hours at a time?
When we conform to constructs and concepts that are outmoded, we are simply hanging on to the past, instead of venturing into the challenges of the future.  We are allowing the cart to pull the horse, the dog to lead his master; the form to dictate substance.  This is equivalent to death by strangulation, cutting off vital life-giving oxygen by means of a physical form or instrument.

Shall we talk about standardized tests in this context?  They are anachronisms; leftovers; mostly useless.  Do such tests really reveal anything about the learners and the teachers?  Good question.   The Education Opportunity Network reports:

“School grading systems have been sold to voters as accurate measures of school quality. Armed with such measures in a “choice” system, parents, we’re told, can go shopping for higher-rated schools, and bureaucrats can target lower-performing schools for shutdown or takeover by an agent, usually a charter school, who can “fix” the school.
But based on an analysis conducted by…the Albert Shanker Institute, the grading system devised… had more to do with the characteristics of the students served by schools than it had to do with giving parents and policymakers real insight into the effectiveness of the schools.”  The analysis showed, “Almost 85 percent of the schools with the lowest poverty rates receive an A or B, and virtually none gets a D or F.” Conversely, over half of the schools with the highest percentages of the poorest students received “an F or D, compared with about 22 percent across all schools.”
The conclusion?  “as is the case with most states’ systems, policy decisions will proceed as much by student performance/characteristics as by actual school effectiveness.” (emphasis original).  Such a grading system “is a de facto system that metes bad grades onto schools serving children who are already bound to struggle in the system and gives a near free pass to schools that service students who are the least apt to struggle.”

Self-evaluation, self-examination, and self-improvement are rarely addressed by standardized tests.  Evaluation by others is also important, especially within a team construct; not to determine a grade, nor one‘s “score“ in relation to others, but to determine one’s own standing in relation to the goals one has set and the accomplishments and progress that are evident in the individual, and certainly in relation to a team or project.  If we have individual education goals and plans for each student, then evaluation according to those plans becomes paramount.  You can’t test for “class” standing because that concept is then invalid.  What do you then test for?  Skill acquisition, research acumen, personal interactive skills, knowledge of the sources one chose to examine, experimentation, meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles -- it goes on and on in that vein, but not in terms of class standing or competition.  Learning is not a competition; it is a discipline, and everyone learns at their own pace.  However, that does not mean the end to all forms of competition: debates, contests, trivia games, and team competitions are all legitimate, but grading must be more individualized.  What we must evaluate and measure is how each pupil is doing according to their individual interests, goals, skill-sets, challenges, and how they are relating their education and learning to others, not how they are achieving beyond others. 

Does anyone understand this approach?  Apparently not, or we would be seeing mega-changes in our educational concepts and constructs that are now pretty much unchallenged.  It is not important that ideas like mine hold sway.  What is important is to examine our public education system with the harsh thoroughness it deserves.  We must be willing to replace old concepts and constructs with new ones that can meet 21st century demands.  Rigidity in educational theory and practice is not a pathway to an effective public educational system, yet it persists in spite of the “tinkering“ that politicians and others perpetrate on the public.  We continue to fall farther and farther behind the developed countries of our world because we continue to utilize concepts and constructs that are moribund.  Public education can not simply be revamped or reformed; it must be re-conceptualized and re-constructed.  We are not even near that point.


(The author is not a certified “teacher” in the conventional sense, although Publius has taught classes in grade schools, junior high and senior high, and at the college level.  He is likewise, not a school administrator, although he has had responsibility for managing and overseeing teachers and curriculum in other than public school settings.  Nor is he a philosopher of education, although he has had occasion to experiment with some concepts herein described in an other than public school setting.  He is not an expert on public education, although he has testified before Congress in regard to a federal Program that employed some of the concepts herein described.  His experience in the educational field outside public schools was rejected by the State of New York when he once tried to challenge the system of teacher certification built solely on college courses, internships, and practice teaching, which is perhaps indicative of the many reasons why public education has not changed much over the last century.)