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Still Learning: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Classroom, #6


by Julia Sneden

Diogenes, a 4 th century BC Greek philosopher of the cynic persuasion, is reputed to have said:

"The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”

That is a statement we’d do well to heed. It can be read as hopeful, if you believe in the efficacy of our educational system, or alarming, if you have run afoul of it, as have so many of our youngsters. It is the justification often given for the current Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” mandate, although many of our finest teachers will tell you that “No Child Left Behind” is utterly wrong-headed.

Despite a felicitous name that seems to promise success, "No Child Left Behind” has caused an uproar in the world of education. I know of teachers who consider it the Anti-christ of educational policy, focused as it is on end-of-grade "proficiency tests.” (The term “proficiency test” is grammatically incorrect, inasmuch as “proficiency” is a noun, in this case an attributive noun, not an adjective. The phrase should be: “tests of proficiency:” So much for the grammar of our educators). Preparing students for those tests can take months of laying out facts to be memorized, as well as teaching test-taking strategies that do not increase knowledge of anything but how to outwit the test-makers.

Teaching to the impending tests means that some of our most creative and inspiring teachers no longer have time to engage in the kind of exciting, challenging, hands-on teaching at which they excel. Instead, they must cut out experiences that enhance their programs, things like field trips, or visits by people in interesting professions, or lessons well-coordinated with other teachers, like art/science/poetry experiences tied to a study of a particular period of history. For that matter, they have little time for the Socratic method of questioning that forces students to think through things for themselves.

Filling in the little ovals is in itself problematic. A child who can supply the answer quite easily may make an error in finding the right row for the little oval, as I, astigmatic to the point of being unable to skip along a straight line and coordinate my hand with my eyesight, discovered to my horror when I finished a page of the SAT and found, at the bottom, that I was one line off. I quickly found the line of ovals I’d missed, and spent precious minutes erasing and re-doing each question, crying quietly the while.

My son, who teaches 5 th grade, says:

" ...vis-à-vis End of Grade Testing, [I like] the light bulb analogy.  We've all had light bulbs that burned for a year or so and then blew.  The replacement bulb, of the same wattage, type and manufacture, often blows after only a few weeks.  These are items that are made by the same machinery, in the same well- understood processes and with uniform materials, yet they are not uniform in performance.  We expect, nay, mandate, that children, subject to all the variances and vagaries of life, genetics, circumstance and random chance, learn the same thing at the same time at the same rate and spew it out at precisely the same moment. Had I been subject to this [year’s] 5th grade math test and told to pass it before I could be promoted, I'd have been driving myself to elementary school...  And I'm not dumb.” No, he definitely is not.

Lock-step, fact-drilled education makes me think of a kindergarten child, who, when asked what he didn’t like about school, replied: “I can’t read. I can’t write. And they won’t let me talk.” Where is the excitement in that? It seems to me that learning should be a joy. If it isn’t, something is wrong with the teaching.

George Bernard Shaw wrote:

"What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.”

Enter a whole lot of people who have just enough education to be dangerous, who equate proficiency in regurgitating facts with having knowledge. I am not a foe of memorization per se; it has its place in many parts of the educational process. Memorizing everything from the times tables to great poetry can be useful throughout life. But to tie a child’s learning process to an arbitrary list of facts and punish him (or the school) if he can’t master them lockstep, is, in this age of computers, absurd. Computers should ensure that every child can follow an educational program that is tailored to the individual.

Our departments of education and our school boards do not seem to have twigged to the possibilities of individualization via the computer. They are so busy trying not to be left behind en toto that they have forgotten that it is their business to advocate for each child, not for some imaginary lump called Child.

We all know that children don’t develop at the same rates. On my way to school every morning, back when I was a teacher, I drove down a long, two lane road that was lined with old maple trees on both sides. They grew along that road in approximately equal conditions, but while most of them leafed-out in spring or turned red and gold in autumn within a few days of one another, there were always a few whose tiny chartreuse leaves appeared early, or a few whose mature foliage blazed later than the others. Sometimes the last to turn was the most beautiful of all.

Iris Murdoch, that wise novelist, once said:

"The secret of all learning is patience.”

Can we not wait for the teachable moment? When we cram our children full of facts and ignore spontaneity, or when we try to provide answers before questions are asked, we do so at the expense of wonder. We need resonant, thoughtful human beings in this world, but we are in danger of producing a generation of robots whose only interest in school is when they will be allowed to get away from it.

Perhaps it would behoove our legislators to re-think “No Child Left Behind” and try to think “No School Left Behind.” Let them bury their end-of-grade tests, and instead put their requirements and money into getting rid of schools that are neglected and crumbling, so that every child can learn in a safe, comfortable environment. Let them spend a lot on good equipment. And once they’ve done those things, let them start creating schools where each child is challenged to learn and to grow at his or her own pace, with teachers and programs that allow for experimentation and questioning, as well as “the basics.” Let’s ensure that our children learn how to think, not just how to parrot what they’re spoon-fed.

And above all, let’s do these things soon.

Other articles in this series:

Still Learning: What Are We Teaching?

Still Learning: Small Priorities

Still Learning: September Song

Still Learning: Lessons From a Lifetime in the Classroom By The Dawn's Early ( not-so-very) Light

Still Learning: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Classroom; Eyes on the Prize

Julia Sneden is a writer, friend, teacher, wife, mother, Grandmother, care-giver and Senior Women Web's Resident Observer.  She lives in North Carolina and can be reached by email.


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