Monday, June 25, 2012

Can Students be Forced to Learn?

I tolerated school as a child. It was filled with drudgery, stupidity, social awkwardness, enemies, a few friends, and occasional moments of enlightenment. Being lousy at both sports and academics, I rarely distinguished myself in any way. I was neither at the top nor the bottom of the heap. I was among the faceless hoard that made up much of the student body. School wasn't evil; it was just something to be endured.

As a parent I have viewed school from a contrasting perspective. Each of my children has fit into the system differently. One has excelled. The other four have all grappled with various challenges. Like their father, each child has struggled more or less with math. Like most Americans, I hated math. It seemed so inane. I always seemed to be missing critical bits of basic understanding required to comprehend concepts.

In school I usually tried to slide by with as little effort as possible in pretty much every subject, except for the rare situations where something captured my imagination. I lacked perspective to sense much payoff from serious educational engagement and effort. I see this to some degree in each of my children.

Tests have always been ubiquitous in the school system. But during my children's lifetimes standardized testing has become all the rage. The current Common Core push aims to increase standardized testing quality and rigidity. The CC website says that this will "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them."

That sounds reasonable on the surface. But Common Core has been strongly criticized by both educators and conservative groups as further usurping parents and educators (see 5/8/2012 WSJ article). Conservatives assert that it is simply part of a larger social agenda with which they do not agree. Educators argue that CC prevents teachers from actually educating students.

Retired educator and author of Educating for Human Greatness Lynn Stoddard dresses down CC in this Standard Examiner op-ed. Stoddard says that CC "curriculum standardizes students — it tries to make them all alike in predetermined knowledge and skills at grade-level check points — and tests to make sure it is happening." (The phrase "check points" can bring to mind images of Nazis or TSA agents.)

In Stoddard's view, CC destroys individuality. It aims to create an army of automatons that can successfully regurgitate the facts that some shadowy group of bureaucrats deems to be essential. This flies in the face of human experience. Stoddard notes that "imposed learning is shallow and temporary compared to self-chosen learning that is deep and enduring." He writes:
"Human development is individual development. Students cannot be mass-produced like products on an assembly line. Students will learn basic skills when the time is right for each one, not according to an artificial schedule."
Coupling Stoddard's article with his previous (3/13/2012) op-ed, we get an idea of what Stoddard suggests instead of our current public education methodology. Educating for human greatness includes focusing on identity, inquiry, interaction, initiative, imagination, intuition, and integrity.

Stoddard explains what this system would look like. Frankly the list reads like a fantasy novel. Each child will have an individualized study system that draws on an "unlimited set of subjects." Compulsory attendance will be eliminated, so no one will be present that doesn't want to learn. Graduation will be determined by "a student showing the ways in which s/he is ready to be a valuable contributor to society" instead of by getting grades in narrowly defined courses.

There are a few problems with Stoddard's vision. There is no way it could be successfully implemented within the scope of public education. All large government systems only function on the basis of coercion and standardization. For Stoddard's system to work at all, education would have to be removed from the purview of government. That includes funding.

Many people are already doing this. It's called home schooling. For the rest of the students, as long as funding—and therefore direction—continues to come through government we can expect more of the "We have ways to make you get good math scores" methodology. 'Nonstandard' students (along with their parents and teachers) will be punished.

It would also be interesting to discover what Stoddard plans for those students that take full advantage of the lack of a compulsory attendance requirement. Some of the not insignificant purposes of public schools (whether we agree or not) are to provide child care services and to minimize idle time when kids would be more likely to cause trouble, until most of them are old enough to learn the value of staying out of trouble.

Compulsory education is not without merit. Many students have discovered enduring interests only after being exposed to them as part of an imposed curriculum. Students have to know that something exists before they can choose to study it. But compulsory education can also obviously have detrimental effects.

Some might argue that Stoddard's model would necessarily require far more teachers than we have today so that it would be horrendously expensive. Maybe. Others might point out that such a system could be effectively administered with far fewer members of the education administratosphere than we have at present. It might actually cost less than our current bloated system.

The whole purpose of standardized testing was supposedly to improve educational outcomes. We've been doing this for some years now, yet any improvement due to standardized testing, if it exists at all, could only be seen under a microscope. So color me skeptical that even more inflexible standardized testing will improve educational outcomes.

The underlying problems in our education system are structural and cultural. We have made minor efforts to reform structure while undertaking major efforts to reform methods. We have focused intently on the 10% while giving far less attention to the 90%. And yet we wonder why we continue to get unacceptable results. Maybe that's because those we trust to make the decisions tend to be products of public education themselves.

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