Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Errors of Education

I recently read an article claiming children shouldn't enter formal school until 6 or 7 because they need time to develop social skills. I find that ridiculous. Where are kids going to learn social skills if not in school? Not everyone lives in a nice neighborhood where there's lots of kids your child's age; I don't. I don't even have any friends who have kids my child's age. Don't misunderstand, I realize that, for example, home schooled children have access to social activities through churches and rec centers and so forth. However, in considering whether or not to home school my son when the time comes I keep coming back to the issue of diversity. I think school is simply the best way to expose your child to maximum diversity because it has the largest sample of the population. Yes, there will be "bad influences" but it's important for kids to know all sorts. I grew up in richly diverse schools all the way through college and it has been one of the most valuable aspects of my life. It gave me the ability to see things from the perspective of people who come from vastly different backgrounds. It gave me the ability to communicate and get along with people from all walks of life. Most importantly, it gave me an intuitive understanding that not everyone is like me, nor should they be. One of the most distressing aspects of our society is the need to be "right" at the expense of understanding that sometimes, often even, there is no such thing as "right:". It reminds me of my mother's books about creativity, which remind us that there is rarely one right answer.

This brings me to what really makes my blood boil: The woeful inadequacy of education on the United States.Our educational system hammers it into children's heads that there is only one right answer, thus stripping them of their God given creativity. Think about the tests you took in school. Often multiple choice, right? Think about that for a moment. Think of the implication that is subtly infecting our children's minds when they see that out of many possible answers only ONE is right. This sort of mentality has very real consequences for how people interact with life. It leads to a constrictive notion that there will be horrible consequences if they chose the wrong answer, even if such a thing does not exist, as is often the case. It leads to the idea that if someone has a different perspective they must be wrong. The sort of thinking that has made our political system the mangled train wreck it is today. This sort of mentality is even applied in subjective areas of study. The humanities are the subjects in which you are most likely to have been tested by essay. That seems like it would be better, right? It gives children a voice, an impetus to think critically about something. Unfortunately, even this is often pigeonholed into the right/wrong paradigm. Instead of justifying your position on (for example) the symbolism of the scarlet letter or the implications of the cultural divide in the republican party, one is forced to justify their teacher's position. And don't even get me started on the disgraceful lack of respect these crucial subjects suffer from. (They're called the humanities for a reason, they're the study of that which makes us human!) It would be bad enough if this were the only malady from which our education system suffered, but it gets much worse.

Returning to the aforementioned infuriating article, it boggles my mind that we continue to underestimate children at every opportunity. The suggestion that we strip our children of two years of learning is offensive to me. Children are ready to be challenged, to have their minds broadened, from the moment of birth. I could add, subtract, multiply, and divide by the time I was in kindergarten at age 4, about to be 5. With pennies, not on paper, to be sure, but teaching concepts and applications is far more important than teaching methods. Yet another bass ackwards aspect of current educational practices. Moreover, I could write words like my name and address when I entered school. I remember my best friend could even write his name in cursive. Yet what was I doing in my SECOND year of school? Getting yelled at by my teacher for writing my "t" from top to bottom instead of bottom to top! It's ridiculous! The problem isn't the age at which kids go to school, it's the curriculum. Or lack thereof, as the case may be. Kids are far more able than we give them credit for. We should be challenging them more, not coddling them more. Someone who commented on the infamous article was angry that her grandchild was learning Spanish in elementary school instead of "being a kid". Kids SHOULD be learning Spanish before they're even 4. I speak to my son in Spanish at every opportunity. I count to him in 6 languages (to 3, that is, only in three languages to 10). My cousin is a languages teacher and her son could count to 10 in three languages when he had barely just begun to talk! The younger you are when you learn a language the easier it is to learn and the longer it is retained. That is scientific fact. The ability to learn a language drops off precipitously when one gets older; even by middle school it's "too late". Elementary schoolers should be doing algebra and learning world history instead of doing the same thing every year for 6 years. There's no reason 10 year olds should have the same curriculum as 5 year olds as was the case when I was in school. I recently watched a TED Talk by an educator named John Hunter (embedded below for your convenience). He has his students doing complex problem solving that emulates global realities... in the 4th grade! This is stuff they didn't trust my generation to do until college, and by then it was too bloody late! We'd already been dumbed down too much by low expectations and terrible teachers. I hope you don't take this to be arrogance, but I was generally recognized as one of the smarter pupils in my K-12 days. Yet I consistently observed that the international students at my college were better prepared for collegiate expectations than I was. I specifically remember a Nepali woman about my age in my World Politics course who outclassed me in virtually every way. I was astounded how superior her education was, being from a place most Americans think of as a third world backwater. I think she may have even spoken better English! HA!

I look back on my education now and see a clear division in the sorts of teachers I had. There are a few shining stars, almost all humanities teachers. Mrs. Ogliaruso, who taught us about the scientific method in hands on experiments in matter density in the second grade. Mrs. Nunnally, my fifth grade history teacher, who taught us to look at history from perspectives other than just the victors' and took us on more field trips than I can count. Mrs. McGloine, my AP Euro teacher, who taught us to evaluate sources for bias and to see history as a story rather than a set of absolute facts. Sra. Solomotis, my Spanish III teacher who recognized that pupils are people, not objects, not challenges to be overcome to reach the next paygrade. Sra. Cosimano, my Spanish IV and AP Spanish teacher, who immersed us in the language AND the cultures of those who speak it. Ms. Watson, my AP Government teacher, who taught us to cherish our freedom, to understand the document which protects it, and to look at politics as a process rather than a popularity pageant. Unfortunately, these are just the bright lights of an otherwise dismal abyss of people who truly do teach because they cannot do. I had a math teacher (7th grade advanced math - algebra) say to us, "I'm not a math teacher, I'm an English teacher. I don't understand this stuff and y'all little people have a language all your own. You gonna have to teach each other." And she literally sat at her desk all year while we taught each other algebra. (I take leave to doubt she would have been a very good English teacher either, as she didn't seem to have a very good command of the language herself.) She's now a principal. I'm not sure if that's a blessing that she can't undereducate children any more or a curse that she is in charge of evaluating the next generation of teachers and students. Another horror, I had a teacher who had so little knowledge of her subject (World History I) that I had to raise my hand during a test to tell her that none of the multiple choices for a question were correct. You might put this off as a typo, but I then had to find the exact page in the book that discussed the Battle of Tours because she didn't believe me and didn't know what the correct answer was! It probably won't surprise you if I admit I don't either anymore. It probably also won't surprise you that this teacher went out of her way to make the rest of the year miserable for me, including not letting me make up a test that I missed because I was out sick. There was an English teacher I had junior year; American Literature was her subject. She graded her papers solely on the basis of how much she liked you. She was a vile human being. She told one of my friends "You're not fit to live" for being a lesbian. Then there was the long-term substitute that took over for my Algebra II teacher in the second semester. She was retired, just filling in for my teacher while she was on maternity leave. Every. Single. Student. Failed. Now if you ask me, that's a better indication that SHE had failed as a teacher. She was replaced after that quarter. The next quarter every single one of us got As. I'm not sure that reflects any better on the teacher who replaced her. I couldn't tell you a single thing I learned in that class other than that the Barefoot brothers look nothing alike and that jocks like Matt Barcus aren't always jerks. Our children spend more of their time with their teachers than they do with their families, and these are the people to whom we entrust them? We probably take more care with whom we hire as babysitters than teachers! To begin to reform our educational system, we must start with the teachers. This will mean keeping a closer eye on teachers, evaluating them on more than mere SOL scores. Yes, this may also mean paying them a better wage than we do now. Don't have a conniption fit. We could afford to do it if we cared more about our children and less about our wars and allocated our funds accordingly. (More on this in a blog to follow.)

To end on a positive note, let me return to John Hunter. He is truly an inspiration. He embodies everything that education should be: free-thinking, inter-active, student-led, creative. I could go on and on about how to reform the educational system (as I originally intended) and I probably will, some time when it's not 3am and I'm not too angry to be solution-minded rather than problem-oriented, but in the mean time, I'll let him speak for me. Every one should watch this talk and every student should take this class!