Thursday, 13 September 2012

Educational Ideals Part 2: The Learners

So many times parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and the general public become so wound up in their own ideas about education that they lose sight of those most important in decision making: the students.
Let’s look at the average young child, say, 3 years of age. Most children at this age have gained the ability not only to understand language, but to communicate their own thoughts, needs and opinions. They are beginning to see themselves as separate and unique human beings. They thirst for independence while still heavily relying on the adults around them to meet their needs. These kids are mobile and have all the skills necessary to explore their world, and indeed, this is what they are incessantly driven to do. Follow your average 3 year old around for a day and you will see a small scientist perform dozens of experiments with seemingly ceaseless energy. Try and stop them and you will often find resistance, sometimes complete meltdowns. The child has work to do here! This work takes many forms, but one thing is common to all of it: it falls into the category we call “play”.

Fast forward a couple of years. Now the child has a more sophisticated level of play. Following a 5 year old around you can see that they are experienced now. Parallel play becomes partner play, causation is understood, comparisons are made and language and motor skills are more developed. A 5 year old may remember the names of other children and use them, remember which kids enjoy which activities, and have a longer attention span for completing an activity. They may find difficult social tasks such as waiting one’s turn, sharing and listening in conversation are now within their reach. They are forming a base on which crucial social constructs including  cooperation and collaboration can grow.

The five year old child is just refining these skills and then what do we do? We sit the child down for rote learning tasks led by an adult in which they are told what to do and how to do it. No more taking turns, no more listening, no more experimenting with “why”, cause and effect, etc.  No more choices to be made by the child; suddenly the adults know best and the children become vessels to fill with the answers to standardized tests. We pit them against each other in this way, comparing results between students, classrooms, schools and boards or districts, guiding them away from any growth toward cooperation and collaboration. We suddenly label these children as “ready to learn” and completely negate the natural learning that has worked so well for them up until this point.

In some places, we impose this agenda even earlier. We degrade children's natural learning in order to make our schools into publicly-funded daycare institutions.

In the name of (take your pick here): politics, funding, equality, opportunity… we “streamline” education by age-segregating children into often packed classrooms and feed them pre-packaged, one-size fits no one curriculum developed with corporate and political interests at heart and parental convenience backing it up.

We deny individualism on every front—from development on through interests, background, natural abilities, culture, aptitudes, and freedom of choice. It is a factory model of education which suits no one well. We stifle creativity, play time and free time by bringing busy work (often called homework) into our children’s lives even in the primary grades sometimes. We do this despite the many studies that show that this is not helpful to children’s learning, and may well be detrimental to them in many ways down the road. Our children are caged by a society that spreads fear through its media, despite falling crime rates, causing parents to place unreasonable restrictions on children’s free outdoor play time. Our kids are able to name more brand names than common native species. They spend hours more on homework and hours less on meaningful learning and growing.

At the same time, we introduce a feeling of alienation by denying them the experience of true collaboration and substituting competitiveness in every aspect of their education.

Why do we allow this?

The truth is that those who can afford to often find alternatives, be they private schools, homeschooling or advocating on their child’s behalf (which can be a full-time endeavour that may lead nowhere in the end).
Some parents buy into the homework myth and/or the standardization myth. Some believe that allowing children to learn naturally and at their own pace leads to certain groups falling behind. They believe in the “political correctness” without realizing that this idea is itself upheld by prejudiced ideas of what these groups are capable of. They ignore other factors that can be addressed but are unpopular, such as poverty and mental and physical illness and problems with the health care system. They also ignore language and cultural barriers. It is easier to generalize, and in generalizing we have created “opportunity” for “all” to “achieve” to “the same” level as each other.

Opportunity = highly structured environment in which all children are treated not only equally but the same
All = those who fit in or conform to the expectations of the “average” or “slightly below average” in all given subjects at the same given time based solely on age
Achieve = obtain acceptable test scores on arbitrary standardized tests written and mandated by someone who has not met the learner
The Same = all expectations of achievement are based on the age of the child and the perceived ability of the teacher and are evaluated solely by standardized test scores written and mandated by someone who has not met the learner

This model is meant to be “objective” in that all children are “treated equal”. Being “treated equal” here though is not the problem; being treated “the same” is.
Being treated equal could allow for more reasonable goals, such as “each student will be challenged at his or her current level of ability in each given subject area”. This allows flexibility for children to move at their own pace without having their time wasted or forcing them ahead before they are ready to move on.
It is not the same as ability grouping because it is constantly up for review. Student A may find place value easy, but have difficulty with long division. She can move quickly through place value and spend a little more time working on long division.
The reality is that no child learns every subject and subtopic at the same rate and at the same pace as the “average” student their age.

One way to be certain to waste the time of every student, ensure that at least once they meet with frustration, and stifle executive function development (time management, organizational skills, study skills), creative problem solving and critical thinking skills is to follow this standardized educational model.
This model will ensure the “success” of compliant employees and middle-management, but it comes at a cost.  That cost includes a rise in health care costs, a continuing disconnection with nature, the loss of the values of science and innovations, and a loss of our souls as creativity and the arts in general are devalued.