|Teachers.Net Gazette Vol.5 No.7||July 2008|
|Cover Story by Sue Gruber|
|It’s Summer…Time to Shift Gears and Re-energize!|
|A lighthearted perspective on what summer break can and should be.|
|Harry & Rosemary Wong: Effective Teaching|
|Eight Year Summary of Articles|
|»||To Tell the TruthLeah Davies|
|»||Discipline Without Stress, Inc.Marvin Marshall|
|»||Teaching through Summer TV ViewingCheryl Sigmon|
|»||A New Unified Field TheoryTodd R. Nelson|
|»||The Busy Educator's Monthly FiveMarjan Glavac|
|»||Get the Most Out of Being MentoredHal Portner|
|»||Dear Barbara - Advice for SubsBarbara Pressman|
|»||Keyboarding: Some Assembly RequiredRob Reilly|
|»||Who’s Cheating Whom?|
|»||Dealing with Dishonesty|
|»||How To Prevent Cheating in Middle and High School|
|»||When Is Student Failure The Teacher’s Fault|
|»||Frogs Predict Massive Chinese Quake of 2008|
|»||July 2008 Writing Prompts|
|»||What Are We Doing? And Why Are We Doing It?|
|»||"Boys Read" Effort Aims to Turn Boys Into Readers|
|»||A Teaching Guide for Summer Song|
|»||12 Test Taking Strategies that Boost Student Scores!|
|»||Gardner-Style Lesson Plan: Molecular Basis of Heredity|
|»||Federal Government Resources for Educators|
|»||You Be the Chemist Activity Guides|
|»||Cheaters! Teachers talk about their experiences|
|»||Printable Worksheets & Teaching Aids|
|»||Candles of Inspiration: July 2008|
|»||Lessons, Resources and Theme Activities: July 2008|
|»||Video Bytes: The "Impotence" of Proofreading and More|
|»||Today Is... Daily Commemoration for July 2008|
|»||Live on Teachers.Net: July 2008|
|»||The Lighter Side of Teaching|
|»||Apple Seeds: Inspiring Quotes for Teachers|
|»||Using Test "Cheat Sheets" To Enhance Student Learning|
|»||"Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can't, Teach"|
|»||Newsdesk: Events & Opportunities for Teachers|
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What Are We Doing?
And Why Are We Doing It?
An examination of educational purpose. There is something seriously wrong here and if it is not with WHAT we presume to give our students in their various subjects, it must be with the HOW we do so.
|by L. Swilley
July 1, 2008
Part I. What Are We Doing?
A regular columnist in our local newspaper asked this question of teachers: "When in real life, will I ever use [the subjects we take in school]?" The columnist continues, "Most teachers just glare at the asker ... praying for an answer from above... because they don't know."
The columnist then answers the question herself: "Never...you won't use this stuff unless... you plan to be a physicist, chemist, mathematician or biologist." She acknowledges the need for literacy and for enough Math "to be able to balance one's checkbook." She then concludes, "The best reason I can think of for an education? So that you understand good jokes."
Before we condemn this - as we would like to call it - Yahoo Manifesto, we ought to ask ourselves what we are indeed doing, requiring the curricula we do of our students, especially since, as this columnist correctly reminds us, most of the facts we require the students to know disappear rapidly from the mind after graduation.
If literacy and mathematical rudiments are sufficient for the conduct of our general lives, why DO we torment students with years of courses in History, Literature, the Sciences and the Arts, if they are never or so seldom going to use what they have learned? The answer that comes to the mind of the teacher faced with this question is often a desperate, nervous, "Well, you never know when you will need this material in the profession or work you pursue after you graduate!" This answers invites the response - or should invite it - that it makes little sense to take up so much time and energy on material that only vaguely if at all will be used in a profession or in work, especially since, in the later pursuit of either, specialized courses pertinent to those occupations will be provided elsewhere.
If our real, central and only purpose in public education is to assure that our citizens can read, comprehend, write - and calculate sufficiently to measure correctly and "balance their checkbooks" - does it not make infinitely more sense to give our attention entirely to those areas, then insist that the professions, trades and businesses provide, themselves, any further training necessary to those who take them up?
Imagine the results! High schools would virtually disappear, middle schools and elementary schools would merge; Science departments would vanish, along with History, Literature, Art, Music departments! Teachers formerly in any subjects other than "the three R's" would be redistributed to much smaller groups of students (for more effective teaching and learning), and they would teach the students to read, to comprehend what they read, to write legibly and cogently - perhaps even speak well! - and give them such mathematical learning as would allow them to keep up with their finances and measure their kitchen cabinets and clothes closets!
And imagine the savings of public money! In fact, what need would we have to retain teachers and principals at all? (and what need of graded classes?) Prudent use of computers, monitored by clerks trained to follow specific, step-by-step instructions in a manual will provide, at tremendous savings, all that is required to achieve this noble end! (Since a growing number of districts already demand scripted classes - denying the teacher-competence they have nevertheless certified - this seems but a small step ahead, anyway.)
If this is not the proper, honest position to take about our educational "philosophy," how do we explain to our students and to our public what we are indeed doing NOW? If, beyond the needs of literacy, we say we are providing those bodies of knowledge only as those subjects may distantly serve professionals and workers, must we not agree that it would make more sense - and be much more economical of time and money - to train for literacy and the mathematical rudiments, then release the students, graduate them into the adult world?
If not, shouldn't we face the looming truth that our schools are mere holding pens to keep workers from flooding the labor market and undermining the economy?
What are we doing?
Part II. Lessons From the Past
The deadly central error in our feeble educational policy is our meek acceptance of the utilitarian public's demand that public education should produce primarily (if not solely) workers. When businesses send out the alarm that their workers cannot read well, write well or calculate accurately, the public rouses itself from its self-indulgent torpor of greed and pleasure, just long enough to shake its beer-and-popcorned locks at the educational establishment for its negligence, its failure to provide "what business needs." There follows a sudden, confused flurry of activity among the herds of sheeplike educators, all attempting to protect themselves from the public's barks by responding with new educational "programs" designed to satisfy the howlers and presented to give the impression that, after all, the sheep know where they are going.
But these sheep don't know where they are going, as will be made evident to anyone who poses the columnist's question ("When in real life will I ever use this?") to students, parents, teachers, administrators, School Board members, State Education bureaucrats - or U.S. presidents. The response will either be patriotic gore or glazed eyes as the questioned party, if he answers at all, retreats into the night and fog of emotional twaddle.
Well, then, where SHOULD these sheep, the educators, be going?
To determine that, we need to look to the distant past where the curricula we still blindly use today had its origins.
The regimen of Mathematics, the Sciences, History, Literature, Art, Music - and O forgotten now! - Dance, had its beginning in Greece; it was enthusiastically continued by the Romans and revived and reformed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It continued, with the fullest understanding of its significance, in the education of "the gentleman" through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, with the rise of universal public education, funded now with hard-won taxes, although the regimen of subjects remained, the purpose for its application was lost; in its stead, we were given the utilitarian purposes dictated by our American "philosophers," Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller. These purposes we embraced, hardly noticing that the ancient regimen of subjects, which we kept still in our schools, had no justification for existence now if the "thought" of our new "thinkers" was to be the revised Vision of work and business-efficiency they offered.
But what was the purpose of that regimen of subjects as our ancestors saw it?
The purpose of the ancient regimen of subjects - a regimen to which we still blindly cling - was to help the student realize and perfect his Human Being. It was NOT for the purpose of making him capable of DOING - although that inevitably resulted - but for the purpose of make him capable of BEING.
It was reasoned by our ancestors that inasmuch as every person is born with natural but undeveloped interests and different proper but undeveloped ways of pursuing them, each person should be educated ("led out" into the world) by perfecting those different ways of thinking appropriate to the different interests - or subjects. Until the student had become all that he could BE as a Human Being, it was thought, there was little he could DO for himself or his community. The student's task was, as Socrates told us, to "Know himself," a wisdom that could be achieved only by refining all of his different ways of knowing all the different experiences under all the categories of his natural interests - Mathematics, Science, History, Art, etc.
Without those refinements, that knowledge of those dimensions of experience, the student was without location in the world - although he had to be in it and could not escape it - he was merely a wild thing, confused, unsociable to his own kind or any kind, ignorant of his possible perfection of form and grace, dangerous to all who approached him; he was a loose cannon on the deck of the ship, the community.
In order to be of service to others, then, the student had first to be a human being, and this was to be achieved by exercising his body and his mind - especially the latter, for it was Mind that distinguished him from the other animals - in all the ways of which they were capable. Once knowing how to BE properly - or at least beginning to know it - the student was ready to leave his "educator," move out into the world and ACT effectively.
This was education *par excellence*; it is the only kind of education that gives the proper perspective on the subjects of the present curricula; and it is not and can never be considered robotic training for a job; indeed, the very degree it is specifically applicable to a particular job it is suspiciously destructive of its larger *human* purpose.
It is this perspective of the curricula as creating human beings rather than workers that so many modern educators seem either not to know, or knowing it, have failed to emphasize it to everyone they encounter in the education scene. Those entirely ignorant of it must wonder hourly what they are really trying to accomplish and must take their job as teachers as mere "busy work" or baby-sitting. Those who have known it but failed to stand up for it before anyone who hold any other position must be miserable beyond the groaning of it. And any educator who allows himself or herself to be intimidated and moved to a nervous defense of his subject as "possibly useful later in a profession or trade" does not really know what he is supposed to be doing.
Students who have been given the kind of liberal education I am describing here, an education for being a complete human, are ultimately those who - ironically for our contest with the utilitarian forces of Fordism and Rockefellerism - make the very best workers after all, for this ideal education creates the capacious mind, one that can see the relations of things and ideas, a worker who understands where he is not only in the job but in the larger world that contains it. Such a worker cannot but be more efficient than one who moves robotically through duties for which he has been narrowly "trained." For example, the computer programmer must be more deeply satisfied with himself and his work than the clerk who merely manipulates the program without knowing how it works; and the mathematician/engineer who stands behind the programmer as master-puppeteer is probably, for his greater knowledge and scope, happier than both.
A worker without the understanding and appreciation of his work in ever larger contexts is simply a slave.
But haven't we now in our schools the regimen that provides the liberal training described above? Haven't we courses in Math, Science, History, Literature, Art - all required of our students?
Yes, but mustn't there be something wrong in our delivery of these subjects, because students put through years of exposure to them nevertheless forget within months if not weeks after graduation most of what they "learned" about them?
And isn't it tragically telling that the students' very intellectual models, their teachers, cannot pass the tests required of their students - save in the particular subject each teaches?
There is something seriously wrong here and if it is not with WHAT we presume to give our students in their various subjects, it must be with the HOW we do so.
Part III. "Habit of Mind"
We live in a time when it is assumed that quantity is superior to quality. The expert, individual human touch that produces one-of-a-kind signed and customized products has been replaced by the machine that grinds out, sausage-like, cheap duplicated items to satisfy a growing public demand for the disposable.
Not so subtly, the mentality that has furthered this craving for ever more and more things has infested the domain of education: increasingly we believe that command of quantity of facts - a quantity so easily measured with the tests and surveys to which we have become addicted - is the proper measure of educational achievement. (This poison shows itself, too, in our unchecked passion for extra-curricular activities, spectacularly in our cripplingly expensive sports programs, and in our silly conviction that monumentally extravagant new buildings, fancier labs and "innovative" programs that grow like Topsy will distract the public from our real need: more and better teachers.
Our courses in History and Literature, particularly, become exercises in memorization of facts. For example, in History there is an almost universally exclusive emphasis on chronology and "what the textbook says" about those dates and events. Rare is the teacher who has built his own critical principles for dealing with the problems in either subject and who understands that it is his own *habit of mind* that he should be teaching - not *what* he thinks but *how* he reasons about his subject, and the advantages and weaknesses of that critical approach. If he understood that, he would use selected, increasingly complex historical or literary *cases* to develop his students' consciousness of the teacher's principles of judgment. (His model should be the teacher of Mathematics who has no choice but to teach principles of judgment, for those are built into the very content of his subject.)
The repetition of such exercises in principles of judgment produces a lasting *habit of mind* and offers the best condition for both intellectual appreciation and retention.
I say that it is not the command of a multiplicity of historical or literary facts that should be our aim - as delightful as such encyclopedic knowledge may be - rather, our aim should be the students' command of the individual teacher's habit of mind, his principles of judgment of facts, developed by the careful, lengthy and precise examination of cases selected for their increasing complexity to test and secure those principles.
Of course, it must be accepted that our massive educational system, determined as it is to prescribe *universal* standards and tests, will not entertain a shift from easily measured standards of *quantity* to elusive standards of *quality*, particularly since the latter must be defined by the individual teacher; yet the teacher as an individual mind forming minds like his own is the very reason he exists, the very reason he cannot be replaced by the computer, the reason he cannot surrender completely to the demands of *system*. An accommodation must be sought, the system sharing time and attention with the teacher.
Teachers must be trained to become aware of their own principles of judgment of their subjects, for without this emphasis at the level of the individual classroom there is no real hope for developing in our students any lasting habit of mind.
Absent such accommodation and teacher training, our only hope lies in an early and thorough concentration on the rudiments without regard to division by age-groups, followed by the students' and their parents' selection of academic or vocational electives as their middle and high school curricula. The student's own interest in an elective will help him to his own lasting habit of mind, whether or not his teacher has one.
Whatever the solution, we must abandon our present totally ineffective and humanly and financially wasteful curricula.