Saturday, February 23, 2008

Killing Them Softly?

It all started with Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry.” I read the poem to my third block class, and then asked them to spend a few minutes writing a response, reflecting on how they encountered poetry in school. They started their written reflections, but I couldn’t hold this conversation back. They wanted to talk. Students are taught to analyze poetry for rhyme scheme, meter, and literary devices. They’ve been asked to list countless metaphors, similes, and lines of alliteration. They’ve circled and defined vocabulary words. A few teachers have asked them to memorize Shakespearean sonnets. Some students suggested that poetry always seemed to be left for the end of the year, squeezed in during the last week - only if it fit.

The conversation changed directions when one student raised her hand and timidly suggested that school killed poetry. She has learned to hate poetry because she thought it was all about “digging for the hidden meaning.” Her voice was joined by an echoing chorus of agreement. The conversation grew as we started to talk about their experiences with reading in general. English class was all about “over analyzing” a work of literature, ripping apart the text, leaving it dissected on the page to expose some secret innards. Students thought their teachers saw secret symbols everywhere. When I asked the students what they thought the purpose of such activities were, a few voices volunteered the answer they thought I wanted to hear: “Because it teaches us to look at a text more critically.” And then one shy voice near the back of the room called out, “School’s not really about learning but more about adapting to particular teacher’s expectations. I interpret a text like my teacher tells me to.” My students felt that the purpose of school was to train individuals to be good at jumping through hoops. And this is where the real discussion began.

Their pent up frustration came flooding out, and the 10 minutes I had planned to spend on using Collins’ poem to introduce the need to balance glossing with an appreciation of literature, turned into a very meaningful 45 minute discussion on what my students felt about their educational experiences. The students felt that the purpose of school was to pump students full of expectations and discrete facts without encouraging any real learning to take place. They weren’t asked to come up with the problems; they were given them. They weren’t asked to discover any new solutions; they were told the answers. When I asked students how they could advocate for real learning opportunities in their classrooms, a girl who had been attentively following the conversation but hadn’t yet spoken volunteered that she thought honors students didn’t know how to rebel against such a system. After all, they had proved they were very good at working within it. It broke my heart to hear such frustration and sense of powerlessness.

Arthus Erea, a high school student in Vermont, expressed a similar sentiment in his recent post over at Students 2.0:
Frankly, I think schools are becoming far too business-like. Many of my peers often think of school as unpaid work. Of course, professionalism is continually emphasized as the highest principle for which students must strive. Schools even use the same reward/punishment system as the workplace: good grades = good job = $$$ and failing school = unemployment ≠ $$$. I think this is the core of what is wrong with schools: all students are expected to be professional students. That is, it is expected that we will only learn if we are forced to do so either because we desire the reward (grades) or fear the punishment (failing). In fact, this is setting up students to hate learning.
Many authors have written on the dangers of an educational system based on such bribery. Alfie Kohn's book Punishment by Rewards declares,

When we repeatedly promise rewards to children for acting responsibly, or to students for making an effort to learn something new, or to employees for doing quality work, we are assuming that they could not or would not choose to act this way on their own. If the capacity for responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to the contrary can fairly be described as dehumanizing. (26)
Are schools killing our students’ desire to learn? In an educational system so focused on standards and high-stakes tests, teachers find it difficult to balance their required curriculum, already packed with multiple 500-page classic novels and units on every culture in Africa, with student-chosen reading materials and self-directed learning opportunities. Very few students have the opportunity to seek out information. They are given it. How can we encourage students to be life-long, self-motivated learners in a system that is not based on developing problem-solving skills but instead rewards students for regergitating facts? When the time crunch of the semester bares down on us, it is easier and faster to teach students functional knowledge (information that is memorized and repeated) rather than promote a conceptual understanding of the themes and ideas we are teaching. Our students know our curriculums, but do they understand what they have been taught?

The conversation with my students has me contemplating how much conceptual, self-motivated learning really takes place in my classroom. How much of a say do students have in exploring issues, developing questions, and searching for solutions on a daily basis? Even though I have been incorporating more student choice into assignments and using formative assessment techniques to guide how I teach, I know that I also rely on what might be considered traditional methods of teaching – give students the information on auxiliary verbs, ask them to memorize it, and test them on it. I struggle with my role as a teacher, attempting to find a balance between being a coach and being a conveyer of facts.

I believe there are somethings that we must just know (e.g. our times tables, that potato does not end in an "e", etc.). These are the functional bits of knowledge that students must know. However, I believe the learning that sticks with us is more concept-based, that is, a type that provides the broader conceptual framework holding together the various knowledge-bits. For example, in talking with a student not long ago, he explained that last year his math teacher not only taught students how to use pi in mathmatical equations but also had the students do experiments with a number of circles to prove that the ratio of the circumference to its diameter was indeed the same number, pi, each time. "I just thought it was a number that people memorized, but now I know why." It's the difference between knowing something and understanding it. When students in my class select an issue currently facing a non-western country to research and present to an audience outside of our classroom, they understand that particular issue and how it affects the culture in a much deeper way than I would ever have time to teach. The student poses the problem, seeks out the background research, proposes solutions, and presents the information in the hopes that change begins to happen on that issue. Students are engaged and invested in these types of learning opportunities. And in talking with my students the other day, they seem to be begging for these types of experiences.

Photo credit: dro!d on Flickr
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