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Wounds of Schooling: What's Your Opinion?

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We recently published a commentary in Education Week titled "The Wounds of Schooling," which makes the argument that for many people school is a harsh, discouraging, rigid environment that kills their creativity and love of learning. A fascinating discussion about the article is underway on our site and I encourage you to go there to see what others are saying and submit your own comments.

Here are my thoughts on this debate:

Although we have all had our fair share of discouraging, motivation-killing experiences in school (some more than others), I have a hard time believing that most of us have been terribly wounded by those experiences. The writer of the commentary and others who agree with her argue that the heavy emphasis on testing and rigid expectations in schools have had a harmful effect on students. Most thoughtful people would agree that too much testing undoubtedly has negative consequences.

But letting kids study whatever they want, at whatever pace they feel comfortable is a recipe for educational chaos and low expectations. I experienced this up close and personal in the 1970s when I attended an elementary school for one year that allowed us to work at our own pace. I was fortunate because my parents were both college educated and kept an eye on what I was doing in school. But the boys and girls from poor families whose parents were not as watchful suffered immeasurably from this approach -- I remember one girl who was barely reading at a second grade level when we were in 6th grade. (And despite my parents' watchful approach, I did not learn as much in that school as I did in another one in which students were pushed harder.)

Education simply needs to find a balance between these two extremes. Testing is necessary to ensure students are actually learning how to read, write, do math, and understand other intellectual concepts. But providing students with opportunities to investigate their world, stretch their creativity, and take risks is also an important role of schooling.

Finding this balance, many believe, is the key to a quality education. I was fortunate because I attended a high school that found this balance. That school fostered my creative side, while also ensuring that I had the basic academic skills necessary to survive in college and the working world.

4 Comments

I'm grateful to have this response out in the realms of educational discourse. I have a similar question posted on my blog: http://knoxwrites.blogspot.com and would love to continue this discussion on both sites. Children will always be creative. It's part of their nature. You can watch a child out in a parking lot become fascinated with a certain rock--it doesn't take a lot to get the creative juices flowing. School is a part of a child's life, but it's not the whole of a child's life. Sometimes we forget that. School, sponsored by teachers and parents, in whatever form that takes, has a specific role in life, and that is to make sure that children are making consistent progress in skills and knowledge required to function and to have many choices in the world. Which is preferable? To have a child struggle through difficult skill-building, as a basketball player would, to emerge with stronger skills and more options for play, or to let any child do what he or she wants, under a patronizing umbrella on the sidelines, for a much longer time even though we know we wouldn't hire them for our team? It sounds ridiculous to have such a dichotomy yet the discussion is promoting a dichotomy. We need creativity and fun and choice, but we need that in school to come out naturally and more often from fabulously taught content that the child wouldn't have been exposed to previously, and skills that are hard to master yet also teach the value of perseverance and responsibility in the process. Then, the child will not only be out in the parking lot looking at rocks, the child will have the choice to be a trained geologist or even an astro-geologist, looking out from the stars.

I am hunting around on the internet for comments to think about before a long flight to California, and want to respond to Kevin's original post. My article really isn't an "anti-rigor" argument, as those of us who oppose our current educational policy discourse on improving schools are often characterized. I believe in profound intellectual challenges for children and young adults, and also think that curriculums that have coherence, depth, and meaning engender depth and meaning in human beings. I don't think our current regime of on-the-cheap accountability through standardized tests moves us closer to intellectual rigor and challenge, however.

My argument is really about something else: the ways in which schools tend to categorize and mischaracterize kids--make judgments about them based on slim, poorly understood evidence, or no evidence at all--and then treat them in ways that tend to become self-confirming. I have now interviewed an enormous number of people who describe the power of these institutional judgments: their seeming immutability, their scope, the casualness with which they are handed down, and their lifelong influence and power. Teachers often don't understand the power they have, the relative powerlessness of students within the system, nor do they exist in a professional culture that encourages them to investigate their own practices and beliefs.

But I am also a student of the history of American education, and I don't believe a dramatic revolution in the DNA of beliefs about human ability, learning and teaching practice is coming to education overnight. (Although really good people are working on these things.) So what I say is: teachers, parents, but most especially students need much more candid information about how schools do their work and make their determinations about them: their curriculums, tracks, grades, and projected outcomes, so that these judgments can be better understood and interrogated. (Not thrown out, just better understood.) Although most school systems appear somewhat rational and somewhat evidence-based in their practices, digging below the surface reveals worlds of unknowns, century-old conventions, and practices based on hunches. Okay then. But let's be more honest about what we don't know. The individuals with the least political power in the system--students--suffer the most from our lack of candor.

I have been teaching for 15 years and now and there is no one way to motivate a person. It varys by age and life experience. Some factors I have found to be consistent are:
1. A clear understanding of what success is with the assignment.
2. An environment that is safe to ask questions or fail.
3. The time and encouragement to perservere through failures until success occurs.

Yes Kathryn, but you assume that an educated youth leading to a middle class life style is the only meaningful way to live; and that each child really wants to end up living that way but can't see it; that you know what is best for them and their thoughts and feelings about their life is by definition childish. I don't agree. As I look around I see many "successful people" who never finished high school and/or college and have built a life that meets their needs and utilizes their talents and they are good citizens. But unfortunately they and their parents had to spend many years involved in an institution in which they were absolutely miserable.

Comments are now closed for this post.

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  • Ken: Yes Kathryn, but you assume that an educated youth leading read more
  • Janet Landon: I have been teaching for 15 years and now and read more
  • Kirsten Olson: I am hunting around on the internet for comments to read more
  • Kathryn: I'm grateful to have this response out in the realms read more

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