Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Year of Silence, Explained

Image result for speak no evil
My last blog post was over a year ago.  There is a reason: Nothing has changed.

Policymakers are still pushing for bad education policy, teachers are still yielding their authority to data, and students still cannot win.  All my previous posts are still (unfortunately) relevant today.

Have I given up?  Absolutely not.  I have been fighting in my own classroom.  I have been doing my best to mitigate the effects of bad policy, I have been asserting my authority to assess students, and I have been explaining the big picture to my students so they can scramble for a win if they choose.  This has not been an easy year because it is difficult to undo 10 years of institutionalization within a system that dehumanizes and devalues every person within it. 

In Atlas Shrugged, the main character was offered advice whenever faced by difficult decisions: check your premises.  This year, I have checked my premises.  When working with students, I operate under the premise that school sucks.

From the very first day of kindergarten, school gets it wrong.  On day one, students learn quickly that their value is not determined by their own exploration or understanding.  They learn quickly that their value is determined by an adult.  They do not own their own experience, it is determined by a score, a mark, a grade, a sticker, some external validation that is judged by someone other than themselves. 
Knowledge itself is absolute and concrete, but the evaluation of knowledge is not.  Knowledge can be gained through an infinite amount of methods and experiences.  From day one, those methods and experiences are narrowed down to a small finite set and paired with a strict timeline that determines winners and losers, judged by adults.  Students lose the intrinsic motivation to inquire, explore, and question that they were born with.  From day one, they are programed to perform then wait for validation.  They are programed to ask “is this correct?”  They are programed to silence their natural inquisitiveness. 

No matter how creative a kindergarten teacher gets, no matter how much care and effort is put into their work, the teacher still must assess the students with a score.  And the students know it.   They know they are scored, ranked, compared, and judged.  They know because the teachers (not all, but most) talk about how important the scores are, their parents and guardians talk about how important the scores are, every element of the media stresses the importance of scores and grades.  No matter how a senate hearing is viewed when there is a disagreement between “growth” and “proficiency”, it’s still a judgement based on scores that dehumanizes students and teachers.  This message is driven home at each grade level and with increasing emphasis as the years go on.  At the very beginning, school emphasizes external rewards at the cost of each student’s self-worth and intrinsic desire to understand the world.

Sooner or later, students value their scores over what they actually understand.  The students who score well will think they have knowledge.  By the time they get to high school, students who score well will spend most of their time asking “Does this count? Is this right? What’s my grade?”.  They will do work for the sake of doing work because they know that work counts for a score.  They won’t understand the bigger picture of curriculum because they are too focused on individual assignments.  They figured out early on that understanding isn’t necessary and they can simply forget anything they learned because what they know is not as important as what they score.  These students can score well in any classroom, but they may or may not understand what they have done.  And it doesn’t matter to them, their parents, or their school because they can provide the necessary scores that look good. Once they are confronted by anything that is difficult or complicated, they will stress out or freeze up or break down.  They will not know how to handle difficulty.

Since scores are extremely important to all elements of educational policy, schools and teachers make critical decisions based on them.  Test score data is all the school cares about.  From the teacher’s standpoint, passing the class is what they care about.  The teacher feels pressure from a variety of sources (self included) to make sure students have a minimum score required to pass the class.  Many times, this pressure is applied regardless of what the student knows or has shown.  In some cases, a student can show no work or demonstrate no understanding and still pass on to the next class or grade because of these pressures.  Appropriate interventions for helping students understand things are not as important as passing scores.  By the time they get to high school, the students who do not score well in school early on will have one of two views:  they will either think they are incapable (stupid) or they will know that they don’t need to apply effort since they will be passed on (lazy).   When confronted with anything challenging or complex, they will either feel they have no need to attempt it or they do not have the ability to perform well. 

In most cases, students have predictable reactions to difficult tasks.  They either don’t attempt them, panic, or give up.  They equate difficult tasks with impossible tasks.  These reactions are a direct result of what was initiated on day one in kindergarten and amplified throughout school years. These reactions are logical since students sacrifice their intrinsic love of learning for extrinsic rewards bestowed upon them by beneficent adults.  The problem is that when students behave in the logical way the school trains them to behave (stupid and lazy), we then turn around and beat them up for it.  We label them, we reprimand them, we punish them, we place all the responsibility on them.  There are some students who can continue striving for success in this environment, but for many students, they just can’t win.  We beat them up for behaving in a logical and rational manner. 

My premise this year is that school sucks.  If that's the case, why do I still teach?  Because why not!? This is the way I continue to fight.  I do my best to have students unlearn what we have institutionally taught them.  I do my best to have them ignore scores and focus on learning.  I do my best to have them prioritize their understanding over their grades.  I do my best to convince them that “it’s hard” does not mean “I can’t”.  I do my best to show them that I truly believe they are capable of learning anything they wish to learn.  It’s been challenging for me because I see how difficult it is for students to view school this way.  I see how tightly students cling to the narrative that school exists to judge them, that they are recipients to whatever school bestows upon them, that they are not in control of their own learning. Since my last blog post, I have also seen how the direction of education policy is only making it worse.  And that should explain my silence.