Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Teach-to-the-Test Society

Different philosophies of education prevail. They all might be reduced to this one core question.  What is the true nature of the learner?  One popular view is that first and foremost kids want to play; school often serves as an impediment to that end.  Anyone who watched The Little Rascals when they were kids couldn't escape this message.  The job of the teacher in this view is to discipline the students enough and not leave them to their own devices.  A different view is that the learner will drive real learning, provided the learner is not too stressed by the environment.  This alternative can be associated with many names; perhaps Montessori and Maslow are the most prominent.  The job of the teacher in this alternative view is to remove as many potential sources of bad stress as possible, model some for the student to help the student shape the direction of inquiry, and then let the student take it from there.

There may be still other views of the learner that can better account for when extrinsic reward (carrots instead of sticks) is most useful in promoting learning.  But for my purposes here it suffices to focus only on the above two approaches and treat them as polar opposites.  It would be interesting to poll the population of which view of education they subscribe to.  Without any data on this, I conjecture that the bulk of the population subscribes to the Little Rascals view of school, as many of them may have struggled in school, found it boring or alienating, or never had that one inspirational teacher who helped them get over the hump.  In contrast, the bulk of the the people who became university professors must have liked school, a lot.  They are apt then to hold the Montessori and Maslow view. I count myself in this camp.

This spring I've been involved with a discussion group comprised of a few students from my class last fall.  We meet on Friday afternoons with a session going somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours.  It's the first time I've done something like this.  Each of the students happens to be Asian, which has encouraged the discussion to take certain directions.  I believe the group has been quite successful insofar as we are capable of frank and open conversation.  However, it has been pretty much a failure when judged from my original purpose in forming the group.  This was to ask how students might become more creative in their own learning.  Mainly these students don't see themselves doing that though they are extremely diligent about doing their schoolwork.

One of the three, the only female and a double major in psychology and economics, also the youngest and still a sophomore, has talked about how she expands her horizons by doing research on the Internet, getting at topics that are new to her and somewhat beyond her grasp at first.  She enjoys the challenge of mastering these ideas.  This is the closest to a description of creativity, but even here the exploration proceeds according to a preconceived plan.  There is little or no room for serendipity and discovery that wasn't anticipated ahead of time.  There is diligence and competence, but nothing that I would call play.

This is surprising to me as in our conversations I joke a lot and gently tease them fairly often.  They are quick to laugh and seem to enjoy the banter.  Sometimes they even respond in kind.  Yet for whatever reason it doesn't occur to them to bring this sort of play into their learning outside our group discussions, which seems a much more solemn matter.  In large part this is because their primary goal is to get an A grade in each class.  It has been drilled into them over the years.  As I posed it quite a few years ago, Does Pavlov's Dog Evolve?  In other words, can students get past all this conditioning and come to drive their own learning?  Based on how my discussion group has gone, the answer is either no or that if yes it will be extremely difficult to cause such a change.

Last Friday we had a different sort of discussion, focusing mainly on their high school experiences.  This was trying to get at the source of the conditioning.  What I learned appalled me.  It started this way.  Our routine is for one of the students in the group to write a blog post in advance of the discussion.  The others, including me, then comment on the post.  This is meant to ready us for the discussion.  In the post this week a student from China who is graduating after this semester wrote that he used to like reading stuff outside of school and discussing those readings with his friends.  But then when he went to high school his teacher in high school said to stop doing that and only read the textbooks they were assigned.  This would be the best way to prepare for the national exams.  Eventually, he came to agree with his teacher about this.  School was hard work.  There should be no fun in it. 

A Korean student, who though only a junior is a bit older than the others since his college education was interrupted by serving in the army, echoed these sentiments though his story was a little bit different.  He said the students spend all day at high school, from early in the morning till late at night.  Much of this was like an extended study hall.  The students were monitored to keep at it.  If they started to goof off they'd be disciplined for it.  Corporal punishment was part of it.  Not knowing about that from my own experience at school, I thought of this quite vivid scene from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where young Stephen Dedalus away from home at the boarding school Clongowes gets rapped across his knuckles for some indiscretion in class and is writhing in pain thereafter.  In spite of this episode, which one surmises had its basis in an actual experience, Joyce remained defiant, one reason why he left Ireland.  Most people in these circumstances would capitulate.  That seems to be the hidden lesson of the academic high school in China and Korea.  Capitulation entails seeing success from the perspective of the school masters.  Doing well on the exams becomes the entire focus.  Personal self-expression gets drummed out of these kids. 

In today's NY Times there is a piece by Frank Bruni about the high suicide rate among teens who live in academic pressure cookers; Palo Alto is one such place, though they exist within certain major cities in gentrified zones and in the suburbs that house the well to do.  Wanting their kids to be so smart, the adults are so stupid in how they go about things.  A few years ago I wrote a post called Retards, which though it had different bits to it had main focus on the movie Charly.  The scientists performing the experiment were so intent on raising the intelligence of their subject that they ignored the ego beating he was taking from having to compete with the mouse, Algernon.  That bothered me a great deal at the time.

The issues surrounding accountability in education have been with us upwards of 40 years.  The damage done since to the so-called high academic achievers seems enormous to me.  Isn't it time to go back to square one and come up with some alternative, one that both engages the students so they don't want to play hooky from school and one that promotes their good mental health?  Human beings intrinsically are curious.  They want to satisfy that curiosity, which is the prime impetus for learning.  Why have we allowed school to so stray from helping the kids learn on their own?

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