“Humans are only fully human when they play.” – Friedrich Schiller
I attended a workshop this week at a local college that put high school writing teachers into conversation with their college-level counterparts. It was an interesting conservation to hear the college instructors remark that their highest concern for entering college students is their students struggle with the inability “to think critically” about their own writing or about the writing of others. The high school teachers responded by pointing out that their job evaluations are dependent upon their students scores on standardized tests, and “critical thinking” skills are not on the test. “Critical thinking,” by the way, is the ability to recognize alternative solutions and to observe how alternative perspectives change the validity of assertions. Students who are good at “critical thinking” often do poorly on standardized tests because they end up valuing too highly the alternatives to the “one right answer” that must be discovered when questions are put into the format of the four-response bubble-sheet.
Although the chronological line between an eighteen-year-old senior leaving high school and an eighteen-year-old freshmen entering college may seem thin to students and their parents, the gap between what high school teachers are expected to teach to their students and what college instructors expect of their students is significant.
I italicized the prepositions “to” and “of” in the previous sentence because I wanted to emphasize that if there is an important difference between high school and college, for the most part it comes down to the question of who is ultimately held responsible for the student's classroom success. In high school, the teacher is held responsible for whether the students learn what is expected of them, and in college, students are held responsible for their own learning. It may seem like a simple concept, but the ramifications of this shift between the burden of academic success moving from the shoulders of the instructor onto the shoulders of the student are huge. Many students enter college expecting it to be a mere continuation of high school and are stunned to find out that the information that was spoon fed to them in high school is now their own chore to collect and digest.
The hot political buzzwords in education right now are “college readiness” and “accountability.” The argument coming from governors' offices and statehouses of legislators is that because college is so expensive, someone needs to be held accountable for the costs of remediation when students show up on college campuses unprepared to handle the rigors academic work. Inevitably, the public school system is held to blame when students are not ready for what their college instructors expect of them. The students, themselves, are not held responsible because they are depicted as the victims of the education that was offered to them. Thus, the political machinery cranks out ever more policy that leads to making public K-12 education even more draconian and joyless because “clearly the students are not being made to work hard enough so let's just keep making the work harder.” The problem with this thinking, of course, is that the whip of policy keeps cracking at the horses pulling the carts while the passengers taking the free-ride are not overly concerned about these changes because their responsibility pretty much ends with showing up to get on the wagon.
As a teacher with both a Ph.D and 30 years of classroom experience, let me share something with you – three basic ideas of education that are being ignored in the psychotic bureaucracy that is currently dictating how public schools must be run and how public school teachers must conduct their classes. I call them the Three Basic Truths of Teaching.
Basic Truth #1: Nobody learns anything unless they see a value in it.
In an ideal world, the transition between high school and college would be like a move from the shallow end of a swimming pool into the deep end – requiring the same skills but offering more depth and greater possibilities to the swimmer. From an outside observer's perspective, the surface level looks to be the same, and from this point-of-view, some people might even argue there's no difference at all for the swimmer who stays on top of the water. Unfortunately, swimmers who are unprepared for the deep end of the pool find out fairly quickly there is a massive difference between being able to survive when you have your feet on solid ground and when you don't. Students who are not “college ready” have been in the water for years but have never learned to swim because they have not understood the necessity for being able to tread water without a solid footing beneath them. Frequently, students who do really well in high school end up failing out of college because they only learned as much as they needed to get by, and when that strategy just doesn't work for them at the college-level, they sink under their own inability to take responsibility for their education. The solution is not to make the public school students stay in the water longer but to see that they take responsibility for learning to float while they are there.
If we really want to make students “college ready,” students are going to need to feel what they are being taught is going to help them succeed in life and not that they are being taught esoteric nuggets of information merely because it is “very likely to show up on the test.”
Basic Truth #2: A little fun goes a long way in motivating people to take on difficult challenges. Most people are willing to put in a good effort even when challenged with rigorous problems if they have the expectation that they can have a little fun in the process. If there is one thing that is really destroying education right now, it is the grim seriousness that now hovers over schooling like a scary dark cloud. Children are being robbed of their childhoods in the name of bureaucratic efficiency. Instead of letting kids have the time and space to enjoy life, every moment of school now is about The Grind. Teachers who engage in any activity that cannot be be defended by charting it directly from the The Holy Writ of National Standards are suspected of heresy. People who do not work in the modern K-12 classroom have no idea how much paperwork is now required to be generated to document how each and every standard is being covered. Teachers are unmotivated to make classes “interesting” because they are being asked to spend more time documenting what has been taught rather than spend their planning time thinking about how best to teach what comes next. Classrooms have become joyless instruction pods because the testing corporations who have bought the ears of the policy makers insist that teachers are not pushing their students hard enough. God forbid, teachers and students actually enjoy any of the content – this is why the new Common Core Standards do as much as possible to replace literature with “informational texts” – because, you know, students might actually like storytelling. Furthermore, the values that students learn from literature (such as the importance of being kind to others or why being honest pays off in the long run) are not on the test.
Basic Truth #3: Education that does not respect human dignity is not education, it is propaganda. All people, but I would say especially children, know when they are being treated like cogs in a great assembly line rather than as human beings. I was at a conference a few years back when during the keynote speech, the CEO of a national organization claimed “More than two-thirds of fourth graders can no longer read at a fourth grade level.” Really? It seems to me when two-thirds of a population cannot do something then somebody is lying about what that population should be able to do – after all, what in the heck do we mean by “a fourth grade level” if the majority of fourth graders can't do it?
People have feelings. People have wants. People need motivation. Numbers do not have feelings. Numbers do not have wants. Numbers do not need motivation. Teachers and students are people, and they deserve to be treated like people. What is really being lost in the great debate about what makes students “college ready” is that teaching “the standards” does absolutely no one any good if we don't recognize that we aren't really teaching “the standards,” we are teaching human beings. Right now, there is far too much pressure on teachers to “teach standards” and not enough room is being left over for “teaching students to be students.” I've said it here before, but it needs to be repeated – as long as the testing corporations can reap more profit from student failure than from student success (by marketing the “remedial” material back to schools), the cycle of “test, fail, blame, and remediate” will only continue to get worse.
Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.