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Time to Enlarge the Public's Imagination

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Dear Diane,

Fair enough. The “idea” might even be good (downplaying college education and going straight for occupational education at 18), but getting from here to there is a puzzle to me, too, even if it were the right idea. Under far more egalitarian circumstances I can see how we might re-organize so that we put most of our hopes in K-12, plus lots of opportunities (like Elderhostels for less elderly people) for a widely available general education at all ages—more “school-like” settings where novices and experts gather to satisfy their curiosity.

But continually flogging the old horse isn’t going to turn it into an automobile. We simply go from one failed idea (if that isn’t often too grandiose a name for them) to another. I was watching amusing Newsreel footage from the 40s about progressive education as “the answer.” A kind of boot-camp schooling in “academics” for the young followed by 21st Century skills for adolescents seems to be latest “new” idea. At least for the masses.

The NCLB “idea”—other than the name—has obviously now failed every test under the sun, but its proponents are still high on it and I don’t see that changing very soon. Even on its own terms—standardized test scores—it has only succeeded when it can teach directly to the test of choice. On NAEP, kids have at best not lost ground for the past decade. And what kind of measure is even NAEP of an “educated” citizenry? Nor has the past decade seen improvement in graduation rates, college attendance, or college graduation rates. (See Alain Jehlen’s summary on the NEA Web site.)

It’s time at the very least to open ourselves up to some rethinking about how, where, when, and what good schooling should be about. Including reexamining some old ideas. Just as it may at last be time to reconsider the Dvorak keyboard, proposed in 1936 and adopted at the time at the University of Chicago’s Lab School. It may be that modern technology not only makes the "qwerty" keyboard passé, but the new technology may offer a way to phase the Dvorak in painlessly.

It may just be a matter of resources. After all, the richest kids go to schools with 12-15 kids per class, the poorest to 25-30 per class. Of course, the richest kids get good test scores in large classes also, if that’s our only measure of merit. Maybe we just have to make everyone rich. And yes, some of those reforms (better pay, better healthcare, etc., would help).

But if we still hold to the idea that democracy is the best form of governance, even the rich man’s school isn’t designed to teach the young a lot about sharing their power and wealth—and given the current state of America, not much about running a successful economy!

So I go back to thinking it’s a good time for folks like us to enlarge the public’s imagination about what “could be” and stop arguing about the hopelessness of the current wave of small-minded and stingy reforms being offered by the Rhees/Kleins et al of the world. More of the same isn’t going to get us anywhere much different. It’s any big sense of “possibilities” that seems missing in a lot of the current reforms—not just in education. The old “new deal” was much more refreshing than the one we seem embarked on today. It’s time to energize the discussion with some new big ideas.

We both know that on the biggest question—of human potential—Murray is dead wrong. It takes only one example to prove that point. It is no longer a matter of hope or faith for me, but experience. Although one example doesn’t demonstrate how it can be done on a larger scale.

The “other guys” have had their little experiment with our kids. It isn’t working. How can we at least open the doors again—as they were for a short period in the 80s and early 90s—for those who want to really be experimental? I had hoped that charters would at least produce some fresh ideas. In fact, constrained as they are by the same set of shabby goals (higher test scores) they’ve mostly “pioneered” only more of the same.

We agree, I think. What we’ve been calling reform for the past 15 to 20 years is not going to work, never has and never will. It’s a waste of energy to keep proving our point. Let’s move on and think about how we might release energy for exploring other paths—at least for those ready to move on. It hurts too much to be so discouraging to the many young people I meet who want to teach at the old CPESS and can’t find many places as exciting today, places that can offer them a lifetime of useful work in the company of interesting and powerful colleagues.

Let us dream with them about how they might unleash such efforts again.

Deb

P.S. Diane and others—check out Mike Rose’s latest blog for a fine summation of the “two sides” of reform—and read his books if you haven’t.

27 Comments

Deb, good morning, its nearly 10deg in Ohio, already well above promised!

The tone and direction of this post are great! Yes, lets look forward. Lets worry less about tearing down the test and more about how to lift learning in each of the segments of education.

If you didn't read it, I specified some of these segments in a comment to Diane's last post.

In that light, what's missing from this post is specificity. Whose schoolday are we talking about improving?

The kids at the majority of urban charter schools in Ohio? Their learning is much improved. They can read, do basic math. Have a little self discipline. Its a start.

What will be even better is when their kids enter school. You ask about making all kids rich. Indeed. Their children will be much richer, by way of increased pay, yes, but also by the example they set as parents from the youngest days.

Perhaps you mean the average student in the average school. Their days, too, are much better, though not always from academics. A 1000 student school in 1980 might have offered football, basketball, band, perhaps track. Speech and debate, artistic competitions, drama, "academic challenge", many more girls sports, soccer, service clubs. These are all opportunities for learning self confidence, self-discipline, teamwork, and such skills.

You know of my commitment to their learning of history. We'd all but abandoned history in most schools in 1970-90. Yes, time in some schools has recently been limited by testing. Yet the overall appreciation for history by parents and educators alike has increased. Another good thing.

The "smartest" kids, the geeks if you will? Much more AP type work available, course work pushed up for them, calculus etc. more available. And, of course, if you school is too small to afford some of these luxuries, early transfer/half days at the local college are an option for most students.

These are all ways that school systems have adjusted to challenge and support students, sometimes within limited budgets, sometimes in practical recognition that the mediocre teachers too must be somewhere.

Then there are the poorest of the bureaucratic inner city schools. By poor, we mean not just in the monetary and intellectual support the children have before they even get to the school door, but also to the committment and freedom the staff have to do the hard work once students get there. Its not easy stuff.

I wrote here yesterday of Jon Merrow's latest installment on DC's educratic mess. In Finding Good Principals Proves Critical to D.C. Schools Reform he looks at, you know, school leadership.

Building leadership isn't enough if you rely on a lethargic central office for books and projectors and plumbing and toilet paper, if paint and cleaning supplies and qualified staff don't arrive. Yet if you get those things, in an urban school, the next step is to assure that the teachers are also given a respectful and civilized environment in which to work.

We all know that too many individuals just aren't cut out to be decisive, and consistent leaders. They are made for other jobs, and that is fine.

When we talk about a better future, are we talking about schools where kids are not subject to bullying, occasional mayhem, filth, but rather have a physically and organizationally organized learning environment?

Or, finally, are we talking about fixing a situation that I in Appalachia shared with kids today in DC? That is simply, the I got what you offered, yet I'm not learning enough of anything/everything?

Fixing this last needn't be done by realigning the entire curriculum, or hiring NTP teachers or bringing in million dollar computer networks. It just needs one teacher with a portfolio and resources to look for kids who are bored and point them to better stuff.

...To say, "Nick, you look bored. Here's Kim in book and audio form. Tell me about it next week. In fact, I'll add a point to your gpa and give you a pass if you find five friends and show me they looked at it too.

There's nothing magic or expensive about pointing students to good resources they can follow outside a class.

Of course, a teacher has to know these books and resources, and why they are or can be interesting.

The question is why do wealthy students succeed more often in any class size (small or large) than poor or middle class students. If you looked at the 80% of waking hours spent out of school by wealthy vs. middle class and poor students it would become obvious. Tutors cost money, Kumon math cost money, SAT prep cost money. Class size is and always will be irrelevant and a distraction to what really matters. Edcuational achievment no matter how you want to define it is driven by the quality of the curriculum (rigor and clarity matter), the quality of the classroom instruction (whether delivered by a parent, a computer screen or a classroom teacher) and what the student spends their time on outside the classroom. Don’t forget with legacy admissions (legal race discrimination) the wealthy get to go to their parents schools over other more qualified students who are usually poor or middle class. The system is rigged but not in the manner in which you seem to think.

Here's my dream...

Clear national standards for reading, mathematics, and science (benchmarked to a world-class level) with student progress measured by a no-stakes national assessment. Results sent home to parents in a clear understandable fashion so that they can understand if their fifth grade son is reading at the fifth grade level, the seventh grade level, or the second.

And, while I am dreaming, there would be a little additional context..."While your daughter Sally scores slightly above average in mathematics for the tenth grade you should also realize that this puts her 2-3 full grade levels behind top-performing Asian nations. Please be aware that this fact may influence her earning potential in a global marketplace and, eventually, the standard-of-living of the nation as a whole. District 186 assumes no liability for your failure to use this information to..."

Hah! A fantasy? Yes!

But, I think, we may get to some approximation of that before we see societal consensus on how our schools should teach the rich "a lot about sharing their power and wealth." What's the likelihood that even our little band of dedicated readers and respondents (including increasingly regular visits by our Lonely Libertarian) would be able to agree on how to do that?

Reformers of the past two decades have at least accepted the fact that we have a problem in our schools - the achievement gap. Before education reform the educational establishment was unwilling to even acknowledge there could possibly be a problem. According to them everything was just fine in our schools. So much for that line of thinking.

I certainly don't agree with all of what Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein are attempting to do but they have at least acknowledged our schools have been a failure. They are challenging what the educational establishment has generated as doctrine for all too long.

Today’s reformers are not living in the past, they’re attempting to explore new horizons and create new models for the future, successful models. They don’t have all the answers but they have determined our schools are not working and they are endeavoring to fashion a remedy. Clearly they have stumbled and will probably continue to make mistakes along the way, but I am convinced they will not return to what they know failed in the past.

If we look at reform as a path and not an end, perhaps we have some threads to examine. I don't reject the standardized assessments, either state or NAEP, because they tell us something (albeit not everything) of value. We have some comparative data that allows us to think about our ability to bring all kids to a certain minimum level.

I don't agree Diane, that the "other guys" have failed. The other guys succeeded in the provision of a standard and comparative (even if not everyone agrees that they are meaningful) set of measures. A good bit of the responsibility for reform has always rested at the state or, depending on the state, local, level. That continues to be the case.

I continue to be disappointed, as well as puzzled, by the lack of creativity that has gone into the reform response at those levels--for the most part. Yet Ed Trust and others have managed to highlight counter-examples to the trend. The examples that dispel the myth that low-income and minority status are barriers that cannot be overcome have not generally arrived there through application of the Kumon/tutor/test prep model. They have generally sat down with their data--together--and formulated responses. When their first go around didn't work, they changed it. When it did, they did more of it. Right there is where the opportunity for creativity comes into play. I cannot imagine that this differs substantially from the things that you utilized at CPESS. The players may have been different, I would imagine that the data sources were profoundly different, and the goals may have been expressed differently, but the process of creation and improvement was likely very much the same. Raising test scores is a very shallow goal, I'll agree. But those test scores are just numeric indicators of some academic goals contained in a set of standards that I'll warrant that there are not huge areas of disagreement about (which is why national standards might be possible some day).

I think that what we have experienced over the last near decade is coming face to face with the reality that while schools like CPESS have been possible, and existed in pockets all across the US--even in some of those highly bureaucratized urban districts that Ed talks about--there was nothing in the system then, or now, to nurture that kind of thinking and creativity. The dive into lock-step, test-prep tell the kids more and more "things" that they are likely to encounter on the tests is just reflective of the quality of thinking and teaching that was rampant prior to NCLB and accountability.

I have been thinking about Michelle Rhee lately. She's about half right, but only half. Teachers are very important, and so are principals. Her approach--and this is where I think that she gets it wrong--reminds me of the third degree I went through in adopting my children. Childrens' Services workers can get pretty jaded about the state of families--understandable given their experience. And these are the people given responsibility for placing foster kids with adoptive families. Included in their experience, of course, is not just the birth families that abuse, neglect and cannot sustain children, but also adoptive families that disrupt or otherwise end up being not good situations.

In my experience, this led to an extreme emphasis on the selection process of one that viewed every family applying to adopt as a potential site of abuse, neglect or callous disregard. Not to advocate that there ought not be due caution and screening--but there is an awful lot of proving that has to go on. And as a single person, I didn't even have to go through proving that I had a sound marriage or that my fertility issues had been resolved (no lie--a social worker explained, "otherwise you are going to get this funny-looking kid who doesn't look like you and you will take it out on him"). Fortunately I was able to walk away from the process of the public agency and find a private agency with somewhat more humane methodology.

But my point is (and I have one) that this sort of belief that somewhere "out there" are these wonderful folks who already "get it" is something of a pipe dream. By contrast--another county Childrens Services agency in my state viewed adoptive family disruption in a totally different way. They assumed that most adoptive families were going to need some kind of help down the road--and that providing that help was going to benefit families and kids alike (and achieved a disruption rate close to zero). They took a nurturing path. Now, I can imagine that both agencies were/are under the gun to meet placement goals and limit the number of disruptions. The one I experienced thought like Michelle Rhee--find the good families and throw the others out.

The reality is, teachers, like families, exist along a continuum. Some are very good and almost intuitively find the creative and successful ways to go about teaching. Some have serious needs that are seldom addressed--but could improve tremendously with ongoing support. A few need to go. But only a few. Every school, every district, has somewhere along the lines of 5-7 years from their first failure to meet AYP to the point at which reshuffling staff is a possiblity. Why are the planned and implemented changes during that time so lacking in creativity? It can't be due to the scientifically-based requirements. I have read some improvement plans that clearly had no understanding of basic scientific methodology. And many (most?) improvements (like after-school and weekend test prep courses) have next to nothing scientifically to recommend them. Where are the enriched curricula? Where are the "high interest" interventions? Where are the school staff saying "I believe this would work better and I want to try it out?"

It seems to me as though this is what is asked of us.

"the lack of creativity that has gone into the reform response"

Silly me, I thought you use research not pull it out of your tush type of creativity.

I believe that the future of education is reliant on Open Educational Resources.

@dickey45: Creativity and research are not mutually exclusive.

I will consider being dubbed "Lonely Libertarian" over "Troll" as an epic promotion. This is a great day indeed. Thank you, Govt. Bureaucrat. Maybe we really can 'bridge our differences'... as long as it is built by a free market engineering firm...

"I believe that the future of education is reliant on Open Educational Resources."

Thom, you're my man :)

Hi Deborah:
Other countries start vocational education at age 16 or so. To a certain extent this is fine, because not all 16-20 year olds are interested in being engaged intellectually. There is nothing wrong with a sixteen year old beginning an apprenticeship program, if that is there bent. Indeed, they may come back to the university at a later date, just as some academic types eventually end up in a trade.

If such trade-school opportunities are to be encouraged though, I hope it is not at the expense of one of the greatest missions of the American school system, which is its role in providing equal opportunity to college education, irrespective of age, race, social class, etc. Vocational education has too often been used to create de facto segregated tracks within school systems. In the American culture, a university education is considered more prestigious than a vocational ed track. Parents have in the past, and will in the future, resist having their children tracked in such a fashion.

One of the strengths of the American system (and in particular the public university system) is the relatively easy access for students who are prepared by high school, or “whatever,” including the experience in the trades. Some of my best students at the university are thirty-somethings who did something else for 15 or 20 years. I can recall students who have been deep sea fishermen, loggers, Coast Guard seamen, housewives, school board members, jewelers, basketball players, police officers, artists, actors, and so forth. They add a great deal to the college classroom, and I hope that the college classroom benefits them as well. Whatever types of policies are adopted, I hope that they are not driven away from the college track. There is not an “either-or” relationship between the trades, an academic education, or teaching.

This is particularly the case when it is realized that the modern career will last about 50 years beyond high school!

Tony Waters

Tony's comments stimulated several thoughts on thinking and doing.

For too many academics, writing is all the "doing" that is worthwhile. We need to change that.

There's a lovely scene in the bonus clip to Ratatouille where the real chef who inspired the film talks on filleting salmon. It is, he says, when your hands are doing something remarkably routine, like filleting your 1,000th salmon, that the minds works best and most creatively.

Our colleges too often are set up to focus the mind in different ways. Staring at a blank sheet of paper. Typing into a computer no matter what.

And then there's just that pure energy of youth to deal with.

Last week, I went to two funerals, for near 80ish women. Both had much used their hands, though one constantly used her highly stylistic mind to build up a community.

There was talk there of a life of working with hands. In an age of youtube and 500 channels and database api's by the thousands; crumbling bridges, whilst personalizing one's facebook/myspace/ning page is a high priority...

How do we get back to uniting our energies?

In real life, I lead a struggling new park. I'm looking for help tearing down an old barn shed. I cannot find any energetic young men who would love the chance to help destroy something!!

How can schools get us off the couch?

I wonder how many here have read Josiah Bunting III's great An Education for Our Time? In it, students at university take on the tasks now reserved for taxpayer-funded staff. An interesting concept.

And,...how much "reform" is really dealing with way-to-big schools of 4000 students or more?

Lots of thoughts...

Yes indeed, Tony (and Ed). The trouble is that 80% (?) aren't in those prestigious college tracks absorbing what there is to really offer--just rushing through to get a certificate for "advancement", etc. Of course, they are often also having fun, meeting interesting (and potentially useful) friends, and having a break from their families!

Probably there is no way to get to where I want to go--which I think includes where you do-. Incidentally, vocational training is not "unintellectual"--but differently so. If done well. Or maybe we need a new word? Read Mike Roses Minds at Work on the mind at work! In fact, I'd argue that our misconception about this has social origins that backfires.

So, Ed, you and I agree! In fact, I couldn't have said it better; thanks. The anti-intellectualism of "the masses" is the backfire I'm talking about--a kind of visceral response to the put-down. It costs us.

Yes, there are differences in our preferred modes of thinking as well as the subject of the thinking, extending that "what if"-that play of the mind--to new subjects and objects, including those we can't get our hands around, is what school ought to be about. (whew, that sentence is too long, but I'm rushing out to meet a train.)

Deb

Best, Deb

Deb, thanks. Don't think I agree with the idea that "anti-intellectualism" is rampant. I'm near Toledo, where the 3rd and HUGE Barnes and Nobles just opened. With Amazon's online sales, and the lines at these stores, its hard to say that activity of the mind is losing ground.

What we lose patience with is the idea that criticism (a la Literary Criticism, the sad focus of Departments English and their cousins) deserves the place it has taken in society and the academy.

Future:
Diane S. brought up the change in teaching at M.I.T.: At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard.

Have you all seen some of the physics animation software? And that's just the public stuff. How I wish I had had those!

Such interactivity is a key direction we can take to make the classroom much more accessible to more people, while still demanding academic excellence and mastery of meaningful common subject matter.

I'd love to see a book: Killing Off the Lecture with More than Just Conversation. What would be its chapters?

What I guess I want is for more students to have what I had: much problem solving. My solving tasks were taken from words on a page, and the hand in was also words on a page. Yet that is still vastly different from the average student, whose HS and college curriculum were much less about problem solving.

Technology can help us broaden access to a problem-solving curriculum. Or at least a dynamic, interactive curriculum.

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Remember, though: learning via problem solving for us also had a sly educational side effect. It was, gasp, rote learning. When you do 30-40 chemistry problems a week, many things become engraved, ingrained, in the fashion of rote memorization. (Avagadro's number is 6.02x10 to the 23rd. Haven't used it since early college. Capital Asset Pricing is a function of Risk. Power is a function of Work and Time (or of Voltage and Current). Have oft used those).


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Hah. Funny thing, I opted out of the standard Physics 102 lecture class at CMU, for a self-paced version of Hugh D. Young's classic course. And when I'd finished the 4 year program, the single lesson I took about learning was that I spent too much of my time at lecture.

These kids at M.I.T. are just catching up! :-)

The United States has a tough time figuring out what to do with 18 year-olds. Community college is the most common immediate destination. Good numbers begin at four year colleges too, even though many don’t finish at the place they start—they churn through the system, but at least half of those starting as freshmen at 4-years graduate by the time they are 25. Smaller numbers starting out at 2-years make it to the BA.

The military, fast food, construction and retail are other common destinations for high school graduates. As at college, in each of these social locations our youth they tend to act like 18 year-olds--meaning that they seek friends, explore relationships, make mistakes, and even cause trouble. As I wrote before, about a third complete a BA degree by the time they are 25 (I wouldn’t call them elite), while the rest float about in various jobs some of which are good, and some not so good. Many of them establish relationships which may or may not last. Eventually, a few end up in prison, but most turn out to be o.k. But, however our youth go, it tends to be a somewhat chaotic process until they finally "settle down."

Given the choice of where the process of young adult maturation takes place, I think that the colleges are probably among the safest and most productive for many, even those not seeking the intellectual life. College provides a chance for intellectual, social, and personal maturation in a context which is at least as healthy as McDonald’s, retail, the military, construction work, and the other plausible opportunities our 18 year olds have.

This is not to begrudge trade schools of various kinds. I spent the last week visiting vocational education programs here in California, many of which were excellent, and included an intellectual engagement with craftsmanship. Work with your hands was central to what they did in terms of cabinetry, building maintenance, painting, etc. But they could not do what they did without bookwork. And as both teachers and students reminded me, the hardest parts of the class was still the math.

In the long lives most of us will enjoy, there should be room for many kinds of intellectual engagement, whether with the crafts, or in academics. As you point out, they often go together. And we are often ready for different types of engagement at different points in our blessedly long life cycles. K-12 underpins this in different ways for different people, and that should be ok!

Deborah,

I recently read the Book of Exodus (King James version) from start to finish, maybe for the first time. I am an agnostic, I suppose, but I find awe and mystery in it. I was struck by the treatment of manual work in Chapter 31. The Lord has just given Moses specific instructions for the building of the tabernacle. He then says (31:2-6):

"See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee."

Manual work here is filled with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom; wisdom comes up twice in the passage. In a sense there is no rift between thinker and maker, although their roles are different.

What does it mean to be wise? How can education prepare children for wisdom, no matter what path they take?

It seems we can't foster wisdom unless we strive for better understanding ourselves. I have often been perplexed by the lack of subject matter discussion at faculty meetings and PDs; I have brought this up here before. Why, at faculty meetings, do we not discuss a work of literature, historical topic, scientific experiment, or art form? I have asked colleagues, who generally responded, "We have too much else to do," or "that would be nice, but there just isn't time." How can there not be time for such discussion? How can we be so sure of our pedagogical methods when we haven't even considered (in depth, together) what we are teaching?

We could have a tradition in which teachers would prepare and lead faculty seminars on curriculum topics. Once in a while we could bring these discussions into the classroom, as you have done when holding faculty debates in class. Yes, this would be an added responsibility, but we could scrap some of the needless meetings. Such a tradition might give us perspective on our other duties and make our instruction richer overall.

Diana Senechal

Deborah,

I recently read the Book of Exodus (King James version) from start to finish, maybe for the first time. I am an agnostic, I suppose, but I find awe and mystery in it. I was struck by the treatment of manual work in Chapter 31. The Lord has just given Moses specific instructions for the building of the tabernacle. He then says (31:2-6):
Nike AIR Force"See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee."

Manual work here is filled with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom; wisdom comes up twice in the passage. In a sense there is no rift between thinker and maker, although their roles are different.

What does it mean to be wise? How can education prepare children for wisdom, no matter what path they take?

It seems we can't foster wisdom unless we strive for better understanding ourselves. I have often been perplexed by the lack of subject matter discussion at faculty meetings and PDs; I have brought this up here before. Why, at faculty meetings, do we not discuss a work of literature, historical topic, scientific experiment, or art form? I have asked colleagues, who generally responded, "We have too much else to do," or "that would be nice, but there just isn't time." How can there not be time for such discussion? How can we be so sure of our pedagogical methods when we haven't even considered (in depth, together) what we are teaching?

We could have a tradition in which teachers would prepare and lead faculty seminars on curriculum topics. Once in a while we could bring these discussions into the classroom, as you have done when holding faculty debates in class. Yes, this would be an added responsibility, but we could scrap some of the needless meetings. Such a tradition might give us perspective on our other duties and make our instruction richer overall.

Diana Senechal

It is all too easy to interpret the actions of teachers who do not buy into the current pushbutton, immediate gratification form of education (aka as high interest activities, choice, differentiation, specially designed instruction, ...) as being resistant to change (possibly aka incompetence, rigidity, ageism...). Other interpretations are conceivable, and may require deeper thinking and an attention to context.

I try to keep foremost in my teaching mind that, once engaged, all students can benefit from being competent readers, writers, doers, and thinkers, and that a part of my role is to guide the curriculum. B.F. Skinner discussed at some length how successful completion of tasks, educational and otherwise, is inherently reinforcing. What I often see happening in classrooms is students complaining about being bored, and teachers acquiescing to the point where students themselves are leading the curriculum. Often, a student will again experience some degree of boredom, or the chosen assignment will be more difficult than the chooser anticipated, and the student will again ask for another choice. This is one of the serious problems with choice-driven instruction. If, at this critical point, the teacher again allows choice, we are reinforcing complaining and work avoidance.

I am all for empowering students; however, until students are receiving an educator's paycheck, I stand by my position that teachers need to use empirically based, data-driven instructional practices, and maintain their curriculum leadership roles in the classroom. I encourage us to accept that students who are learning may, or may not, be happy, and that teachers are not responsible for their students’ eternal happiness. In my opinion, to believe so is a recipe for burn out, and may signify poor boundaries.

Kim,

I must respectfully disagree with your thoughts on students' feelings. If kids are bored or overwhelmed by the current lesson they will be turned off to both the teacher and possibly school in general. Sadly, this can happen as early as Thanksgiving and those kids are then stuck enduring the remainder of the school year.

While I will agree with you "…that teachers are not responsible for their students’ eternal happiness," we are responsible for providing an APPROPRIATE lesson for each student. This might not make them “happy” but it should at least challenge them according to their respective academic station in the learning process. As I've mentioned before, this is very difficult when the teacher is employing whole group instruction for most of the day.

Paul Hoss

Good point, Paul. Respectfully validating students' emotions is very important, as is listening to, and considering, student input. There is likely a vast continuum between boredom and aversion.

Kim and Paul:

Among the really interesting things about middles schoolers is their ETERNAL boredom. I think it is their baseline condition. Not to detract from Paul's excellent points about the need to draw students into the lesson, else they be lost. But, I think it behooves us, at least at certain ages along the spectrum to look at boredom (or lack thereof) behaviorally, rather than based on self-report.

Margo,

For students to be bored at any point in school is a negative reflection on the teacher of the class. Many times these are the advanced or gifted kids waiting for the teacher to continue on with the lesson. It’s not fair and it simply should not occur.

Teachers must realize that some students learn at a more rapid rate than others and their needs cannot be ignored.

Paul:

I don't truly disagree. I just have worked with young adolescents enough to know that there is an age at which they will not willingly acknowledge an interest in anything offered by adults. You have to learn to listen to the sidewise to figure out what they are really interested in.

It's not been my experience, Paul. I find the academically weaker kids are more quickly bored--which is often another word for being utterly at sea. The truly gifted ones seem to find ways to "entertain" themselves educationally. Not all, but most--even if I wish we ran our classes in ways that everyone was being challenged most of the time; but perhaps wht "giftedness" is, is actually the ability to turn most settings into productive learning ones!
But I think Margo is right too - kids have a stake in not being caught in the act of being truly interested inside classrooms at a certain stage/age. Do they imagine we'll "take advantage" of their acknowledgement of the world?
Some kids also are "interested" in the grade they'll get and that interest keeps them on their toes. Others have given up on that--or a least lowered their expectations of themselves for a very long time--and thus lack even that paltry form of "interest".

Deb

p.s. Have any of you seen the French film The Class?

Reason:

You have earned your promotion. Admit it, you were trolling...but you have stuck around and have made some substantive observations. And you seem to be a true believer--not a paid flack (e.g., for the inarguable superiority of charter schools as was our last "libertarian").

I have no problems believing that free markets will turn out to be a portion of the solution. One example I would readily support is differential pay for hard to staff positions. Some states have 40-60% of middle school math teachers teaching out-of-field. Some districts cannot find, or retain, AP math and physics teachers in their high schools. It is silly not to acknowledge that an AP math teacher has career options, some of which can more than double their salary, that teachers in other fields may not.

However, I do not believe that free markets are the solution to all educational problems. Poor standards, meaningless assessments, lack of articulation, fragmentation--each seems better addressed by some measure of centralization and realistic international benchmarking that simply won't happen at either the level of 16,000 school districts or 100,000 school buildings.

I disagree about middle schoolers being uninterested as a group. When I taught middle school, about a third to a half of the class was intensely interested, consistently doing more than I asked and participating eagerly in class. These were immigrant students, so perhaps the peer pressure hadn't caught up with them yet. Many students act bored to impress their peers.

Incidentally, the comment directly above Kim's, posted by "8989," is not mine. A spammer copied my comment and inserted an ad in it.

Margo/Deborah/Diana,

Good points all regarding the challenging age group of middle school students.

Margo is correct when she says you have to listen carefully to see what's of interest to these kids. Deborah is also quite accurate when she states the truly gifted are able to entertain themselves. Diana then correctly chimes in (as usual) with her notion that many kids act bored simply to impress their peers.

Thanks to each of you for your spot on observations.

Hopefully these beliefs are universal enough for teachers to run their classes accordingly.

Paul Hoss

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