Saturday, February 9, 2013
Some Small Saturday Thoughts about Education
Last week, having lunch with some long-ago colleagues in Kent, Jerry Brodsky and I were talking about how the public school curriculum has become so standardized--so regimented. How different from our own days as students and teachers and (in his case) an administrator.
Jerry reminded me that back in the 1950s it was common to hear disdain for the Soviet Union (well-earned), and among the criticisms? Something like this: Over there, all over the country, every kid is doing the same lesson at the same time every day! A half-century ago, we thought such a thing was a horror.
We were right.
But now it seems the old Soviet system has become a goal in the public schools of the United States. Standardized tests are driving everything in school--from the elementary school curriculum to the evaluation of teachers and school systems. The tests have become the curriculum--and woe to those teachers on the testing freeway who see an interesting detour and head down an appealing off-ramp.
Every good educator I've known (as a student or colleague) had plans for the day-week-term-year. But the great teachers knew that plans were like, oh, like an itinerary you compose before you head off on a long, cross-country car trip. Sure, you can stick rigidly to your plans--but what if, along the way, you see something interesting? Something you didn't even know was there? Do you drive right by, muttering about how it's not on the plan? Or do you slow down, pull over, take a look?
I've written here before that the greatest teachers I had--and knew--were agile. I had a friend at Western Reserve Academy, Tom Davis, who was constantly reading books by new writers. And sometimes he would get so excited about the book he was reading that he would order a set for his classes--and off they would go, discovering together the wonders of this new text. A teacher's passion is the fuel of learning.
Years ago, I once spent a week observing a primary-grade class out at Lake School in Aurora, a class taught by Vivian LoPresti. I never saw anything like it. She was the greatest I've ever seen at taking a kid's question--or an event that had happened in school or in the world--and transforming it into something meaningful. One day--some kid had brought in some stuff for blowing bubbles. Surreptitiously, he launched one across the room. And Vivian--far from confiscating the stuff--stopped what she was doing and used it. Soon they were learning about what a bubble is--why it has a reflective surface; they were experimenting with the movements of the bubble through the room. They tried to see how long they could keep one "alive."
Throughout my career I often wished I were more agile than I was. I tended to plan each day carefully, perhaps too afraid of what would happen if I added a little elastic to my plans. Probably it all goes back to the primal terror I felt early in my career about empty moments in the class--What will happen if I finish early? Chaos! Who knows?
But I do know this: I can't think of a more effective way to separate education from life--from actual experience--than to impose a regimen of standardized tests. And I can't think of a more effective way to dissuade the Tom Davises and Vivian LoPrestis from ever entering the profession in the first place. And I can't think of a more certain way to show kids that learning is not exploring, discovering, pursuing, loving.