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Still Learning: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Classroom

Eyes on the Prize

by Julia Sneden

A few years ago, I received a brochure advertising a meeting for Early Childhood educators that carried this lovely thought:

" Childhood should be a procession, not a race."

As far as I'm concerned, that should become the motto of all our elementary school systems. It should be tattooed somewhere on the body of every member of the School Board, and engraved on the door of every classroom. At the very least, it could be made into a bumper sticker that the hospital hands out to the parents of every new baby.

We all laugh at stories of parents who spend their child's kindergarten parent/teacher conference discussing what the child must study to ensure Harvard admission, but we shouldn't be laughing. The image is too close to the truth.

I once had the father of a 5-year-old ask me: "On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate my daughter?" When I protested that I wasn't in the business of rating kindergarten children, he persisted: "But if you were? Where would you put her?"
"As compared to what or whom?" I asked. "As compared to her academic potential? Her social skills? Her satisfactoriness as a daughter? Her athletic ability?"

"You know what I mean," he said. "Compared to the rest of your class, 1-10, where does she stand?"

There seemed to be no point in giving a serious answer to something like that, and I gave him what he wanted to hear.

"She's a 10, of course," I said cheerfully. And mentally I added: "And you, sir, are a minus 3."

I wonder why it is that people are so obsessed with competition that they forget what education is supposed to do. Perhaps my vision is faulty, but it seems to me that the purpose of education is to guide immature minds into ways to think clearly and creatively, using skills common to our society (like reading, writing and basic mathematics) and to develop social skills that come with growing maturity. That accomplished, it is hoped that the individual will be able to pursue happiness, and contribute in some meaningful way to the society in which he or she lives.

All the other supposed purposes of education, such as the ability to make more money, or to gain respect and social position, seem to me to be byproducts, not goals.

Somehow in our rush to make good lives for our children, we have forgotten that faster is not necessarily better. We tend to measure success by how far we can push our children to outstrip their peers, rather than by how hard a child can push his or her self to improve his or her own performance. Often we hear educators talking about helping students to reach their “full potential.” That sounds like a dead end to me, as if once one achieves the full potential, one might as well lie down and die since there’s no room for improvement. I prefer to think of an individual’s striving to become a more productive and resonant human being, no matter at what age or with what experience.

We operate as if there were time constraints on learning, when in fact the process continues for a lifetime. Education doesn’t stop when you leave school. But our society marches children through some preconceived framework that dictates the age by which a child should walk, talk, learn to read, etc. Deviations from the norm become cause for alarm, unless those deviations are on the side of early, as in early reader or early walker, in which instance they are suddenly brag-worthy.

It’s a common misconception that slow learners don’t learn as much as fast learners. In fact, they can learn as much (if they don’t become discouraged by the competition with their peers or the scorn of their teachers): they just learn it more slowly. And from my experience as a teacher, the slow learners often retain what they have labored to learn, where the fast learners move on quickly and often forget what they’ve learned. It is, however, usually the fast learners who are rewarded with special courses and awards and lots of attention.

There is no question that America needs to step back and do something about its educational system. President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative is an attempt to weed out bad teachers and bad schools, but it seems to me that we’re approaching the problems from the wrong direction. In judging success by the results of mandated tests, we have caused many good teachers to drop their most effective teaching strategies and simply teach to the test that they know is coming at semester’s end.

Schools that do not meet the government’s standards must, after two failing years, allow students to transfer to any other school within the same district. This is crazy: we already complain about overcrowding and the expense of transportation. How is dumping most of a failing school’s population onto other schools, with the district paying the cost of transporting them, going to do anything but create more crowding? And what of the children in the now-overcrowded “good” school, who must adjust to a slower pace as their teachers try to provide remediation for the children from the failed school?

If the failing school goes on for a third year, the children therein are allowed to have supplemental services like tutoring (asking the tutors not only to supplement the work of the classroom teacher, but also to try to catch up those badly-served children in the process). And schools that fail for a fifth year may be closed down and taken over by private companies, which simply shifts the load (and the control) to unknown educational providers.

When I was young, children who were having trouble mastering the subjects in a grade were simply held back. Then, because psychologists quite rightly worried about the emotional damage to those kids, “social promotion” became all the rage. Unfortunately, that practice produced lots and lots of high school graduates who couldn’t read or do math at the most basic level. Eventually, educators figured out that simply moving children along didn’t work. (Can you imagine the frustration for those socially promoted children? If they didn’t understand the work in, say, fifth grade, but were passed on to sixth grade, how in the name of heaven could they be expected to grasp the new work which was a progression from – and based on - the old?)

Back when computers first came into the classroom, I remember thinking “Ah! Now we have a tool that will truly allow us to individualize educational programs for each student.” Unfortunately, that’s not how computers have been used. They tend to sit in a corner of the classroom, to be dangled as a reward for the fast learners (computer time being coveted) while teachers do the same old drill with slower learners. Or they are used as research tools only. They are indeed wonderful research tools. So is a school library.

It seems to me that “No Child Left Behind” (despite its felicitous name) insists on teaching lockstep subjects, not on teaching children. Maybe it’s time to have individual proficiency tests in our schools, so that those who are ready may move along in any one subject, at any time during the year, while still remaining with their chronological peers for homeroom. In a classroom where everyone works to the level of his or her own ability in each subject area, computers could provide remediation for those who need it, and lateral enrichment for those ready to progress to the next level. (“Lateral enrichment” is an educational term for finding out more about a subject you’ve mastered, since there is always more to learn!)

I suspect that the record-keeping processes for the teacher in a multi-tasked classroom wouldn’t be much more difficult than those in the old one-room schools, where everyone was operating at a different level, and the older pupils sometimes assisted in the teaching of the younger ones. According to my father, who attended one such school up through eighth grade, it was an incredibly stimulating environment. He claimed to have learned more by helping the younger kids than he did by his own studies. I can believe that: I never really understood basic math until I had to teach it to five and six year olds, although I had gotten wonderful math grades all the way through school by dint of memorizing – which has nothing to do with understanding.

Instead of End-of-Grade Testing, perhaps teachers could require each child to keep a portfolio of work that would readily demonstrate progress, weaknesses, and mastery of a subject. Surely a body of representative work would tell more about a student than a one-day, group test at the end of the year.

Our haste to push children lockstep through childhood is a huge disservice that may well have the opposite effect, turning out immature adults who are sent out into the world with educational lacks that make them woefully incapable of clear thought. In fact, looking at the overall “dumbing down” of our forms of literature and entertainment and the seemingly immature level of public taste, one can only conclude that we’re seeing the effects of schools that have settled for educational incompetence.

Unfortunately, no amount of mandated testing is going to answer the needs of children who need more time, or better homes, or special services. Taking off the pressure of the race might be a good beginning for their educational journey, and allowing each child to process at his or her own rate is a vital first step.



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