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Step Into The Ring With A Teacher

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image by urbanneighbourhood.com

I have a particular fondness for educators and a distinct dislike of the system in which they work. Despite what you may hear on the news, the vast majority of teachers are heroic. They are deeply dedicated to serving their students in a world that increasingly prohibits them from teaching. Currently, teachers are the scapegoats for an antiquated assembly-line system that was designed in another century to produce workers for an industrial economy (you know, for all those jobs we’ve shipped over seas); it was designed to produce people with a minimum competency. No amount of testing or fixing will make it something other than what it is: out-of-date. Teachers are driving a Model T in a Formula One world. It is madness.

When I call the current system of education outdated or madness, I’m not just slinging hash. Here are two examples of what I mean:

We (Patti and I) recently worked with a group of teachers for a week and a dedicated, intrepid young teacher told us this story: “I work in a district that is 95% free lunch (which means the children attending school are mostly very poor. A proper meal is a primary reason many of the children come to school in the first place). In my community many of the children come to school never having heard of the alphabet. There are no books in their homes and no one has ever read to them. I teach the first grade so one day early in the school year I was teaching the kids the alphabet and my principal came in to observe. Later, he told me that I had to stop teaching the alphabet. I asked him why and he told me that the state standards say that children in the first grade should already know the alphabet – so I needed to do what the standards dictate. He actually told me to stop teaching the alphabet and teach the kids to read. I said, ‘but they don’t yet know the alphabet.’ And he told me that my job was to teach according to the standards and I was not to teach the children the alphabet.”

I wish I were making this up. Madness.

Only in an assembly-line mentality does the notion of standardized tests make sense; in that mentality there are standardized students, standardized communities, and standardized teaching practices (which brings me to story #2…in a moment). Of course, the conversation that we as a nation are NOT having is the one about equitable funding, that is to say, standardized funding for all schools. It is worth noting that the teacher in the story above, out of his meager pay, buys light bulbs for his classroom so that the children to whom he is forbidden to teach the alphabet aren’t sitting in the dark. Now, there’s a metaphor!

Story #2: In the world of assembly-line thinking variance is anathema: it is imperative that all widgets look and act alike. So, removing the teacher from the equation is a top priority. There are now curriculums that require teachers to start lessons at the same moment as the teacher in the next classroom, to speak the same words at the same moment, to turn the pages and deliver the same content using the same language – all at the same moment. No kidding – and that’s not my story. My story is that the media is reporting an alarming drop in creativity; there is a crisis in homegrown innovators. Of course, teachers are catching the blame. Our national response to the reported crisis in creativity is to further hamstring the teachers by removing any capacity for meaningful engagement from the classroom by doing more of what is causing the crisis in the first place.

Patti and I have been hired to work with educators to “infuse” creativity into their curriculums – to teach them how to be more creative. The educators that hire us know that this is madness. They already know that creativity is not something you infuse into anything or anybody – especially in a system that is so clearly averse to variance. These educators are asking us to address a bigger question: how do we keep childrens hearts and minds engaged and vital (and teacher’s hearts and minds, too) in a system that is so dedicated to dulling them? They’re hiring us to help them have the conversation that the politicians, the media, the unions, the text book publishers,…are not having: the system isn’t broken, it is antiquated and the people best qualified to imagine something new are being attacked.

Not only is our current content-driven education system antiquated, it is at odds with what the latest learning theory and brain research suggests: 1) learning is most effective when it is process-driven, and 2) the process is infinitely more effectual when students are self-directed and self-regulating, and 3) The learning is most successful when it has immediate application. This is not new news: empower the learner and you will ensure powerful learning. Said another way, content takes care of itself when the pursuit is real.

In ancient times communities would stand in a circle around a goat and ritually heap blame onto it for all the ills the community had suffered. After purging themselves, they would drive the goat into the desert or they would kill it and eat it (a communion meal). This ritual cleansing was meant to rid them of their bad luck and, more importantly, to absolve them of their sins. A scapegoat is supposed to afford the community an opportunity you start the year with a clean slate. However, outside of a ritual context, a scapegoat serves an entirely different function: it absolves the community from taking responsibility for their participation in what they know to be wrong; it provides an excuse that alleviates self incrimination, self reflection, self direction, self regulation and the possibility of actually doing things differently.

We have known for 40 years that our education system was off the rails. Standing around our teachers and heaping blame upon them is to pretend that there are no other players in this game; it is to pretend that our education nightmare is happening to us and not created by us. The sooner we stop  blaming the teachers and step into the ring with them (and students) the sooner we’ll have the opportunity to design a system of learning appropriate for the 21st century.

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