educational paradigms

Today was my last day teaching CITS. it's been a good experience for the year, and i can't wait till next year.

That being said, i'm going to go in a slightly different direction with this post. The teacher was discussing how each year it is getting harder and harder for him to get students to do any work. This year's beginning group, he said, was one of the worst he's ever seen, and, as a whole, he has seen the program decline. In fact, he told me that the school in general has been in a steady state of decline over the past few years. The main culprit, in his estimation? Lack of work outside of school.

I'm not one to take up one side of a story and run with it as fact, however, this is not an isolated incident. I have heard of school districts where teachers are actually afraid to assign homework. What?!? SERIOUSLY?!? yep, it's true. One school, in particular, has had several teachers leave over the last few years completely based upon the threats of parents. Yep, parents are coming to this school, complaining that the teachers are giving far too much work, that the assignments are far beyond what any 6th grader could ever accomplish, and threaten the administrator and teacher with legal action.

OK, i'm not even positive what legal action could be taken. "My son/daughter says doing a 2 page book report on a grade level 6 book is far too difficult. I don't have time to help him/her, so i'm coming in and TELLING you that s/he is NOT going to do it. And if you fail him/her, i will sue you." I REALLY hope that this is a complete exaggeration, but i don't think it is in all cases.

Now then, i'm not saying that perhaps the parent does have a point. Maybe, just maybe, it is too much work. for me, as a 6th grader, i would have laughed my head off. I remember having to write a 500 word book report in 6th grade (this is about a page and a half to two pages, double spaced) and having HUGE problems summarizing the 350 page book in 500 words. Granted, i was reading something a little larger, but, seriously? and even if they don't hit 2 full pages, they won't get automatically failed.

There has been a continuing shift from teacher oriented to learner oriented learning. Basically, the mode of transmission, originally the teacher lecturing, has been moving toward giving students more free reign in deciding projects and assignments as well as assessment. This is supposed to give students more flexibility to work on projects that interest them, take advantage of their strengths, and hopefully produce better outcomes. But...is that the point?

Education's main purpose, to me, is to create life-long learners. I'm not concerned as much with outcomes assessment, or skill creation, or even knowledge transference. All those things are a part of education, but if we (teachers) cannot create learners that are able to learn on their own, and WANT to learn on their own, and have the ability to learn on their own, then we have failed. why? let's take a simple model:

a student is working in his English class, preparing a book report. The teacher is having all students write a report on the exact same book. unfortunately, this student did not like the book, and struggled to even finish it. He is a bright student, gotten mostly As and Bs throughout his career. The teacher has decided, seeing so many students "struggle" with the book, to go over it in class for about a week. the student, being grade oriented (he cannot play sports if he doesn't keep at least a 3.0 GPA) pays attention in the lectures and takes a few notes. Prepared with the notes from the teacher going through the book in class, he writes a 3 page book report that is, in fact, nothing more than a regurgitation of the notes. He checks it carefully for spelling and grammar, and turns in the report. The teacher awards the student at A because of the perfect spelling and grammar. The teacher agreed with the content, of course, because it was his own words rewritten in an eloquent manner. The student receives the A, is pleased, and goes on with his life.

Now, what's wrong with this picture? i can name a bunch of things, in my opinion. And whose fault is it? everyone involved. First, having everyone do a report on the same book, while a good exercise, always has the danger of having students thoroughly dislike the book. There is something to the "you have to learn to work through things you don't like," and i can appreciate that, however, if the point of the assignment is to get into a book and write a good paper, then it is not a good approach.

I'd say the teacher failed in these ways: 1) clear objectives were not giving for the assignment. Why is everyone reading the same book? What does he specifically want from the report? 2) instead of getting to the root of why the students are struggling, he assumes it is just too difficult of a book and walks them through it. how is the achieving his (unstated) goals? 3) giving a good grade based upon grammar alone trains students to expect that is how ALL papers will be graded. Again, this problem really goes back to #1, because how can he grade it in any other way without clearly defined goals for the assignment.

The student also failed in this assignment: 1) if anything was unclear, he should have asked for clarification. 2) when struggling with anything, asking questions is the way to approach the problem. how else can a problem be rectified?

i could keep going on and on, showing each failing i see at each level, from teacher to student, to parent, to administrator. In the end, education is a chain of ALL levels working together. And what's most important, again in my estimation, is creating a life-long self-sustaining learner. Once you're out in life, there isn't a teacher to hold your hand, or even, sometimes, a parent or friend to guide you through the process. If I want to learn a brand new piece of audio software, i may get lucky and know someone that has used it, but, more than likely, its me, the program, a 2000 page instruction manual, and a few tutorials. i better have a way of learning this program all on my own.

In the end, that is the greatest thing any student can learn. yes, the transmission of some specific knowledge is required to function in society (yes, red means stop and green means go. not knowing this is, well, a big problem...) as well as skill building (from mechanics to math to suitable typing and language skills) but if a student can never learn to be a student on his/her own, then life after high school will be nearly impossible, be it going onto college or entering the work force. It becomes a trial by fire, a sink or swim environment where people learn to learn or they lose quickly and fall back only on the skill they have accrued to this point.

Do i have an answer to the problem? no, not really. I'm becoming a fan of contractual learning, where students, teachers, and parents all get some input at some point. It's much like providing a syllabus with a few blanks that can be filled in. Open communication at all levels is also of huge importance, and making sure that the communication line is not garbled. Telling a student to tell his/her parent(s) about something isn't a great way to do things. Written communication is better, especially something that can be sent directly to the parent. I dunno, i still have a lot more questions than answers and am still working on identifying problems. Some of the problems are obvious, others are much more covert. maybe, by the time i'm 175, i'll have worked out something suitable.

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