24 January 2011

The Follow-up Follow-up

There are times when the only way people would believe my life is if they were following me with a camera crew. For example, I was once yelling at a marching band when the top plank of a scaffolding flew off and tried to kill me. Also, I was once in a boat, with a tank full of emptied Porta-John, when it ran out of gas (I'll let you make your own alternative fuel jokes, but trust me when I say that those are pretty easy).

Another one of those occasions happened last Wednesday, when we had a professional development meeting. We have these during our planning hour, one day a month. I had of course forgotten that we had a meeting and arrived 5 minutes late. What did I walk in on? The exact video of Sir Ken Robinson I had posted here the night before. (check it out here) Better yet, the next day IT blocked youtube, making the link of the video the administration team had sent out inaccessible to us. I love public education.

Anyway, I bring this up not to illustrate how far ahead of the curve I am (about 12 hours, evidently) but because I think that Sir Ken Robinson might miss the boat on some of his claims, and that while his speech is often used as a motivational tool, there are parts of it that I'm not on board with, and further parts that are simply code words and restatements of educational philosophy that have fallen out of favor.

Actually, that's not fair to Sir Robinson. I think his view, on the larger scale is somewhat more nuanced than that video might lead us to believe. However, I think that nuance is often lost on the school leaders who watch the video online, and then decide to use it to motivate their staffs. I think the loss of nuance makes Sir Robinson's speech, in the wrong hands, dangerous. 

And so I offer my experienced but not expert opinion on Sir Ken Robinson's speech:

The Good

Passion: I think Sir Robinson obviously has a passion about schools, and about educating young people of all types. This passion is why he is such a persuasive speaker on education.

His grasp on history: Sir Robinson has a good grip on education as a tool of socialization for the factories of the world. He misses the role of schools as creators of common culture (admittedly more important for American schools with their large, diversely backgrounded populations than for British schools.) However, I think he then veers off into a place I don't love. But, I guess I'll get there in three or four paragraphs.

His take on the way parents, doctors and schools anesthetize children: His take on the over-prescription of ADD and ADHD drugs is spot on. Also, his belief that the Arts suffer because of this is, I think, pretty accurate.  I'm not sure his other conclusion is one I agree with, but again, I'll put that in the "the Bad" section of this rant.

The division by ability instead of age: Back in the dark ages (the 1980s and 90s), schools did this. It had a name which has become tantamount to cursing in education circles. We called it "tracking". In a tracked school, students took classes based on their ability, and were grouped in that way. Surely you remember this. Your school offered classes like "English 4" and "College Prep" English. Students on the non-collegiate track took classes which were intended to prepare them with life skills (like writing for applications, and reading the news critically) while "college prep" courses spent more time on material and skills which would be useful in the collegiate setting (like writing annotated research papers).

Obviously this division is one that Sir Robinson would like to avoid, since he puts for the idea that schools fail when they divide kids as intelligent (academic intelligence) and not (other intelligences). In fact, this seems like a good point for us to transition into "the Bad" with.

The Bad:

His ideas about divergent thinkers and different types of intelligence: Sir Robinson is a creative thinker, in fact, should you choose to google him, you'll note that one of the top videos is him talking about how schools kill creativity. Ok, on the surface this makes sense. But what does it mean on a practical level? How should we structure schools to address divergent thinkers? He uses the example of the paper-clip. He points out that younger children come up with more uses, because they don't bother to define the paper-clip in a set way. He thinks this is good. I'll be bold and disagree. Not because I think that I'm smarter than he is. Not because I want to stifle creativity. No, I'll disagree because I'm practical enough to understand that society needs its members to agree on certain things. We want to all have the same basic understanding of how society works, what side of the road to drive on, how to tell time, what acceptable behaviors are at work. Divergent thinkers, unbridled and unchecked by the socialization of schools, would not learn these social norms. Indeed, society would break down.

I know it makes me sound like a crotchety old man to say these things, but they're true. Schools serve this vital purpose. Now, they may too aggressively force children into certain boxes, but I think that's more a symptom of the emphasis on sending all students to college than it is of the structure of schools. In fact, I suspect that I have written about this before........ (I HAVE!) I think that schools that offer more hands-on learning don't need to restructure as dramatically as many of the people who watch Sir Ken's video would tend to think. Now, perhaps society should readjust its views on the worth of people in those traditionally non-academic jobs, and perhaps schools have to help lead that adjustment; but to advocate wholesale change because of the assertion that schools don't reach divergent styles of learners is foolish.

His (I feel) willful ignorance of the socialization role of schools: Sir Robinson, near the end of the video, says that traditional education is a myth (the cartoonist draws a nice little man with a sword, waiting to strike down evil, evil academic education). I think he's wrong. Even in an economy and society changing as quickly as ours, schools still provide a vital socialization function. You see, no matter how pie-in-the-sky we may want to be, in the end our job as teachers is to prepare our students to function in the "real" world. Now, we may want to let every student have the freedom to choose their course of study, and work independently (a very collegiate model). There's a problem with this view; it ignores the fact that teenagers are terrible decision makers. Don't believe me? Look at these. Those were some of the oldest, and one assumes "wisest" students in their respective schools. I rest my case.

So, we want to let the same kid who chose to pose with his chainsaw pick his course of study, when he's 13? That seems like a recipe for failure. Sure, Sir Robinson doesn't make that statement, but it is a short step for viewers of his video to take. Further, that's not how life works very often. Indeed, most of the time even the most creative and brilliant people have to operate within the confines of society. Look at Bill Gates. He didn't become brilliant totally outside of the box. He found a way to harness his creative spirit and use it to profit within the system. That's what schools need to do. They need to socialize their students to express creativity within the framework of society.     

Finally (I know, I know, too much in one sitting), his idea that schools are too boring for the modern teen: Really, I think he makes a valid point. I think that schools have to do a better job of engaging students who operate in a constant world of stimulus. However, they have to balance that with their job to create young people ready for the world.

An example: It's great when classrooms use text-messaging to conduct polls of students (see, I'm not so crotchety). It's not great when students text during class. We must find a way to balance the two. That is the great demand on public schools. Not raising standards. Not getting enough funding. No, the great challenge, for educators from elementary school through graduate classes is to find the appropriate balance between technology and society.

That scares me, and not just because I know that the average teacher is 97 years old (approximately). It scares me because that's an awesome responsibility.

Copyright 2011, G.B. Trudeau. All rights reserved by the author.
 Used blatantly without permission. I'll claim fair use, though it won't stand up.

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