Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What’s Wrong With New Ideas in Education?

(c) 2012 by Tom King

Anyone?   Anyone?

Trick question. The answer is, “Nothing” or maybe “It’s about time we got some!”

When we built the US education system around the German model back at the beginning of the 20th century, we were in essence trying to fit a round peg in a square hole (the square hole being the German education system). The United States was settled by waves of people seeking opportunities outside the ancient and "ossified" societies of Europe. An unpopular Harvard sociologist once wrote a treatise suggesting that people with ADHD tended to migrate to the US at higher rates and because there is a genetic component, we, therefore, inherited a nation with an inordinate number of restless, high energy people in it. It accounts for the impulse people had to load up creaky Contestogas and move away from the more settled East Coast to the Wild West, which probably explains why the west was so wild in the first place. 

All these hyper people, goes the theory, continued percolating westward till they hit the Pacific Ocean where they piled up on the beach and invented California. (It explains a lot - this theory). So after filling up this country with people who didn’t fit in the Old World’s rigidly classed societies, what to 19th century progressive education theorists do?  They run right back to the Europeans and adopt an education system designed specifically for that stratified European culture. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were, after all, entering an industrial boom at the time and needed lots of well-mannered factory workers and the Germans did have the ideal education system for that.

The German graded system was designed specifically to teach kids to show up on time, sit still and do repetitive work all day while their supervisors kept up a steady monitoring of their production. In essence, the graded school system was designed as a production line to produce production line workers.  Great if you are training future workers for arms factories and munitions plants (which, as it turns out, was what the Germans were up to). Not so great for the kind of kids we have in great abundance in America. Don’t get me wrong. Some kids do quite well in a graded setting. I, myself, made good grades, but was bored to distraction and never quite found a job that matched my training.

So I gave teaching a shot.

I once taught at a one teacher school in New Mexico where I had 14 kids in 6 grades on 7 reading levels and at least 8 of them were diagnosable with ADHD. This is not uncommon, especially in rural areas, or at least that was my experience. When I started the kids were an average 3 grade levels behind. Their previous teacher was a rigid, old school teacher, much loved by the school's board of directors (4 of the five of whom were retired or former teachers). The parents, on the other hand, did NOT like the teacher and had demanded a new teacher, threatening to pull their kids out of the school en masse because they hated school and were learning nothing. I took the job because my previous school let me go. I was the last hired, so I was the first to go when the school lost a lot of kids at once. I needed a job. They needed a teacher.

I enjoyed the challenge of my new school. My classroom was a moveable feast. I had to keep the kids going all the time. Our recesses were sometimes rather long to allow the kids to blow off steam. We did a lot of cross-grade mentoring in the classes with older kids helping younger kids with their work. I must have done something right. That year my class reached grade level on average on their achievement tests - some exceeded it. My parents were meeting in their homes for prayer groups at the end of the year, praying I would stay. The school board, meanwhile, asked me to leave. Apparently my school room didn't look like a school room was supposed to.  What I learned was that "old school" was more about appearance than results.

Yesterday I wrote about the objections being floated about corporate foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding new ideas like those proposed by groups like Teach For America and Students First. I think Gates' support for these new education entrepreneurs is admirable. The children of America are not square pegs. They come in a beautiful array of shapes, sizes and learning styles. We need some fresh ideas in education that utilize new technologies and capabilities. Computers, as it turns out, really work with ADHD kids. Maybe that’s Gates’ angle – teach the kids to use computers to educate themselves, so Microsoft will have more customers. I want to know what the heck is wrong with that?  All opponents can give me is either that it threatens the teacher unions or that the funders might make a profit doing it.

Education that makes a profit?  How cool would that be?

What was it Alvin Toffler said? “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” The tools being offered by the Gates Foundation and others are just the tools that kids need to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their careers.

If Gates sells a few extra copies of Windows or Apple sells a few more Macs as a result of their investments in education, I can live with that. If they make it possible for young education entrepreneurs, freed from the shackles of teacher’s unions and politically polarized school systems, to figure out more effective ways to teach kids, I say, “Good on ‘em.”

The old fossils in the education establishment, however, are really gonna hate it.

Tom King

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