One of the paradoxical results of our politically-imposed focus on high stakes accountability and test scores in U.S. K-12 public schools is that many teachers and students have their eyes on minimum standards rather than exceptionally high expectations for each student’s learning and growth. Arnold Toynbee’s quotation of the day from my iGoogle portal resonates with me in this context:
It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.
High expectations are essential for high levels of student achievement, which most educators as well as parents would agree is a desirable outcome of a student’s years in K-12 education. NCLB has failed miserably to inspire students and teachers to have high expectations, however, because the initiative is all about minimum standards. (See my February 2008 post, “A contrary view of education and NCLB” for more of my thoughts along these lines.)
As I continue my work as a 21st century educator, I grow increasingly convinced that the fundamentally coercive nature of our public education system in the United States must change in basic ways. We, as a society, have grown accustomed to an educational system which is compulsory and therefore fundamentally coercive in its nature. This coercive side of education becomes most clearly unmasked in May, as we draw closer to the end of school. Students sitting in class a week from the end of school may understandably ask, “Why are we here?” After my presentation about safe online social networking and Internet safety today in an Oklahoma elementary school just south of Oklahoma City, I walked by a classroom of silent students watching a video on the television while the teacher sat at her desk and worked on paperwork. I am certainly not averse to teachers working on paperwork while students are working and learning in school, but the scene struck me as absurd because of the learning and fiscal dynamics at work before me. Although teachers, students and parents are ostensibly focused on test scores and minimum performance standards, state legislatures like ours in Oklahoma continue to pay schools for SEAT TIME. How many days have you had students warm seats in their classroom? Based on this formula, state funding dollars are allocated to our schools. If an adult was honest with the students sitting quietly watching a video in that Oklahoma classroom today, in response to the question “Why are we here?” that person might respond:
We are here so our school gets paid for you sitting in your chair and warming your seat. It really doesn’t matter what you do or do not do, as long as you are not disruptive or hurtful to others in our classroom. Since it doesn’t matter what you do, we are going to do the easiest thing possible from a teacher and administrator perspective today: We are simply going to show you full length videos. No matter that we are violating both the spirit and letter of US intellectual property law in showing you full-length commercial movies which we have obtained under the auspices of private, home-only viewing or limited uses for purposes of critiquing excerpts of the film for authentically educational purposes under fair use provisions of copyright law. We are not showing these films to inspire you to think critically or analyze the more poignant issues raised in the movies, we are simply trying to keep you quiet and happy like cattle or pigs in a feed pen. If you are entertained, that is fine, but our main goal is to keep you here and keep you quiet. Since our state tests are over, we are not focused on helping you become more educated or literate. Like prisoners in a prison, we are all here “doing time” until the clock and the calendar says we can all go home. Our school will not receive the money we need unless you are here, and we are focused on minimum standards. So: Please stop asking questions, please stop thinking critically, please stop talking and thinking AT ALL and go back to sitting quietly, watching the movies we are showing you like the good, passive, compliant students we have done our best to condition you to be this year at our school.
I haven’t ever heard an adult actually share that answer with students, because the harsh truth in those sentences is possibly even more cynical than some educators are willing to voluntarily acknowledge. Of course this generalization is NOT appropriate or fitting for all classrooms, in all educational contexts. It IS accurate in many settings, however, and I find the prevalence of this situation both disturbing and personally motivating from an educational advocacy perspective.
Coercive schooling is quite often BAD schooling. Let me be clear: I am NOT advocating that we abandon all rules and boundaries in our schools, or that we let every student do exactly as he or she pleases inside or outside of school. That would be anarchy. Advocates for more student-centered approaches to learning are too often mistaken for social anarchists, I think. Last week when I presented at ESC10 in Richardson, Texas, I talked with a technology director about his perceptions of the video, “Learning to Change, Changing to Learn” from COSN. He responded by saying he was really “old school” and “traditional,” and thought that kids needed to be MADE to learn and follow rigid rules in the school. I had just watched the same video as this technology director, and I did not understand the authors to in any way imply or suggest that schools should abandon their rules. What I DID hear the contributors say, again and again, is that schools must become more truly learner-centered and empower students to develop the type of independence and initiative which is both valued and expected by employers in the 21st century workforce. Schools need to help students develop and cultivate relevant skills, and stop focusing so much attention and coercive effort on making students memorize and regurgitate facts.
Coercive school culture is revealed clearly at the end of the school year in other ways besides teachers simply showing students full-length commercial movies in class. In one nearby school district, students are being required to attend class the Tuesday after the Memorial Day holiday. The enticement to get students to school that day? Report cards are being withheld unless students come to class.
Another recent example of coercive school culture involves “AR.” The Accelerated Reader (AR) program from Renaissance Learning has been used well but also used poorly by teachers in many different schools since its inception in the 1990s. The formula for helping students join “the literacy club” and become lifelong learners who love reading and literacy is well established in educational research focused on student literacy, according to Dr. Stephen Krashen, and does NOT have anything to do with computer technology or book quizzes. The formula for lifelong readers is: Provide students with robust access to diverse types of literature, and provide them with lots of TIME to read. As students self-select texts and select texts with the assistance of peers and teachers, they will grow in their abilities to not only read but also to write– because the research supports the contention that we learn to write better mostly be reading. The AR program, which involves students taking a computerized comprehension test after they read a book successfully, by its very nature encourages an instrumentalist attitude toward reading which focuses on extrinsic rewards. It is true some students are motivated by these extrinsic AR rewards, but it is misleading to suggest that students are best served by giving them carrots for reading– which is an experience that INTRINSICALLY holds and provides its own rewards. After students leave a coercive classroom environment where they are given toys, prizes and even parties including jumping castles for reading books, they will rarely (if ever) encounter a similar environment again. In the world of business and work, being literate and well-read certainly has its rewards, but they do NOT come in the form of shiny prizes or food bribes.
I was recently in an Oklahoma elementary school where students who have not earned “enough” AR points at school are not allowed to go outside and play for recess. Instead of going outside to play (being afforded the precious gift of unstructured time in a natural environment) students are PUNISHED by being forced to read. Some educators claim “this is not punishment” since the kids are being allowed to read books of their choice, but the perception of the children in this case is the key determinant. The kids perceive this forced reading as “punishment” since they would rather be playing at recess. I think we all should be encouraging people of all ages to read more and more often, but the last thing we should do in our schools is use READING as a punishment. This is as stupid and ill-founded from an educational research standpoint as using WRITING as a punishment, which is also still sadly common in some of our schools. Yes, we are living in the 21st century, but in some of our classrooms, the methods employed to ostensibly MAKE students learn and “get what they need” for life success is coercively medieval.
I deeply desire change in these sorts of coercive and harmful educational environments. Rather than being forced to sit quietly and watch movies in class the last week of May, like every other week of the school year teachers should be inviting and challenging students to engage in meaningful work for an audience which extends far beyond the four physical walls of the classroom. Rather than acting like prisoners and prison guards, students and teachers in our schools in May and every other month of the year should fulfill the role of this wonderful sign, which I blogged about last year in August:
We must move beyond our current school finance systems which pay school districts based on seat time. We must embrace political leaders who inspire learners of all ages to strive for high expectations, appropriately differentiated to the interests and abilities of individual students. We must find ways to completely transcend the coercive nature of public education, and replace that culture with one where innovation, creativity, and inspired excellence can thrive. To fail in this task is to fail our children, their future and our own. We simply must do better than we are in many cases in our U.S. public schools.
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- Reflections on Graduation Rituals, Celebrations, College Debts and a Ph.D. - 2012
- Wow - 2010
- Summarizing copyright and fair use with a mashup of Disney movie clips - 2010
- links for 2008-05-19 - 2008
- Video in schools and underlying pedagogies - 2006
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- No cross-post this week - 2006