I believe in teaching kids to think for themselves. Wow, you’re probably thinking. Who doesn’t? A lot of good ideas for how to improve schools are cast about nowadays. Really, they always have been: Teach critical thinking. Model problem-solving. Give students real-world experiences. Ask questions, and let them work toward the answers. If that sounds artsy-fartsy and modern, let me just say it’s actually what Socrates did. So why don’t schools do these things more? “Schools” are institutions; they don’t teach anything. Teachers, on the other hand, teach these things every day.
Maybe you know a bad teacher somewhere, someone who is burned out or not very knowledgeable in their field. But I’ll bet you know a lot more who are in there fighting to make their students work through the literature, the science experiments, the process of math, or the problem of how to paint what they see. You might have rewarded that teacher, buying them a gift card to Starbucks, or an electric pencil sharpener. You might thank them when you run into them at the grocery store, or during parent conferences.
But have you ever dealt with the paradigm?
The Educational Paradigm is full of nicely worded mission statements. “Involve Parents.” “Every Child Can Learn.” “Respect all students.” Personally, I respect people who deserve respect. If you mean “be polite,” well, that goes without saying, but it doesn’t improve education. The problem with these greeting card philosophies is that they are in no way related to anyone learning anything.
I know a lot of parents who are great at supporting their children’s education. They make them do their homework on time. They encourage them to take Latin and AP courses, and that history class that isn’t really required. But if parents aren’t already involved in their child’s life, how on earth can a school, or a teacher, “get” them involved? That’s a lifelong value, not a whim.
Certainly every child can learn something, but not every child is ready to take Advanced Placement Language and Composition, or Physics, or even Algebra I.
Remember those “Baby on Board” signs people used to hang in the back windows of their cars? They seemed like a good idea at the time, because, hey, surely people would be extra careful when if they considered a small child was in the car they were about to run into. But then, logic kicked in. Who actually tries to hit another car because they think there is no baby inside? Those signs were nonsense. And so is the idea that, if we just fire teachers whose students score badly on some kind of standardized test, education will get better. This idea is based on several false assumptions.
- that taking a test measures what you have learned (depends on what the test is asking you to do)
- that a standardized test can measure what you have learned (it can measure what you have memorized, but that isn’t learning)
- that teachers want to do as little as possible (maybe they want to, but in reality they put in more time and effort than factory workers — and I’ve been a factory worker)
- that teaching is easy because you “get off work” at 3 p.m. (only to take home hundreds of papers to grade, a week’s lessons to plan, and a list of parents to contact. Teachers have dirty houses.)
- that teaching is like in the movies: you stand at the front and tell them the information, and then they take a test on it (anyone who still does this is so old they’re about to die anyway)
- that teachers are free to teach what they think is important (and therefore can be blamed if the kids don’t learn it; example: I want them to read articles from the New Yorker, so they can experience great writing, learn about current events and literature, and learn to think critically; the test wants me to be sure they know two of the six literary elements. Not even all six, mind you; just two.)
- that teachers are not subject to the political and emotional whims of administrators (puh-leeze)
- that students are motivated (sure; wouldn’t you look forward to spending all day moving from class to class with no time in between to think?)
- that students all have the same intellectual capacity (just look at our presidents)
- that all parents want their children to learn (as opposed to making good grades; many parents literally care ONLY about what is written on the transcript. Example: I once gave an F to a graduating senior, who had missing assignments and never took part in discussion. The parent said I should pass her because she was never physically absent.)
- that getting parents involved will always lead to learning (One time, I called a mother to tell her her daughter needed to turn in some late homework. She beat her daughter while I was still on the phone. I was afraid to hang up. I have a hundred stories to match this one.)
- that teaching is not interrupted continually by idiotic assemblies, announcements, sports activities, field trips, and illness of students (if you believe this, clap your hands)
- that students never lie (they’re just like everyone else)
- that, like Robin Williams, if you stand up on the desk and recite the poem aloud, your job is done. (And, aren’t you special?)
So, while I struggle to get my students to think logically and write coherently, everyone out there who thinks teachers aren’t doing their jobs properly, use some critical thinking skills yourselves. Use your imagination to conjure what it would feel like to be responsible for 25-35 kids at a time, all day long, with 25 minutes for lunch and maybe 45 minutes to “plan,” while your every move is second-guessed. Sure, you’d get summers off. You’d need them. To clean your house.