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When is enough, really enough? (Updated)

May 3, 2011

This has been quite a year for me (and for a number of fellow teachers and other co-workers) and for the Far Northeast Community in Denver where I work.  Sometimes things happen in our lives that cause profound ripples of change within.  I have been through a painful metamorphosis of my own over the past year and on this end of it I can honestly say that I will not ever accept, nor silently remain in a job where I am expected to drill and kill kids on mere skills in the name of improving scores or improving things for kids in low SES schools.  I refuse to play along as if this were some video game rather than a question of the futures of real people with intrinsic worth and infinite potential.  As a nation, we have spent the years since at least 1997 doing just that, playing numbers games, and my unease about and resistance to skills based, teacher directed approaches as a new teacher have solidified with my own experience, education and the steady (yet insistently ignored) data that demonstrate that despite all this energy and bluster we haven’t made any significant gains for children in the US.  What a waste of resources, what a waste of opportunities that could have made a real difference.  I could go on at length but I’d rather quote from these two articles that eloquently help to sum up my perspective. Just last week, I read Alfie Kohn’s piece “Poor Teaching for Poor Children… in the Name of Reform”  from Education Week.  In it he writes:

Policy makers and the general public have paid much less attention to what happens inside classrooms — the particulars of teaching and learning — especially in low-income neighborhoods.  The news here has been discouraging for quite some time, but, in a painfully ironic twist, things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the “reform” strategies pursued by the Bush administration, then intensified under President Obama, and cheered by corporate executives and journalists.


The curriculum consists of a series of separate skills, with more worksheets than real books, more rote practice than exploration of ideas, more memorization (sometimes assisted with chanting and clapping) than thinking.  In books like The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol, another frequent visitor to urban schools, describes a mechanical, precisely paced process for drilling black and Latino children in “obsessively enumerated particles of amputated skill associated with upcoming state exams.”


Remarkable results with low-income students of all ages have also been found with the Reggio Emilia model of early-childhood education, the “performance assessment” high schools in New York, and “Big Picture” schools around the country.  All of these start with students’ interests and questions; learning is organized around real-life problems and projects.  Exploration is both active and interactive, reflecting the simple truth that kids learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.  Finally, success is judged by authentic indicators of thinking and motivation, not by multiple-choice tests.

That last point is critical.  Standardized exams serve mostly to make dreadful forms of teaching appear successful.  As long as they remain our primary way of evaluating, we may never see real school reform — only an intensification of traditional practices, with the very worst reserved for the disadvantaged.

Which is exactly what I’ve been noticing.  The worst part, is that after we’ve screwed a generation or two of kids by not equalizing the instruction to make them competitive with their wealthier counterparts, we swoop in and punish them, their schools, neighborhoods, teachers, in the name of “reform”.

Then I read another piece which I also want to share, because a big part of my own personal, quiet push-back to the madness is to strive to make learning fun for my young students.  This one is from Alison Gopnick in The Slate.  It’s called, much to my delight, “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School”. In it, Gopnick sites  studies which examine the effects of direct instruction on critical thinking among small children.  And to my utter lack of surprise, the studies suggest that kids are more creative when they are given opportunity to puzzle things out for themselves.

As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.

So do we want teaching to expand or enhance the capacity for learning?  Gopnick suggests that too much direct teaching limits children from engaging in extended inquiry.  That is not okay.  (Yoo hoo!  Education policy-makers nationwide, are you listening?)

Knowing what to expect from a teacher is a really good thing, of course: It lets you get the right answers more quickly than you would otherwise. Indeed, these studies show that 4-year-olds understand how teaching works and can learn from teachers. But there is an intrinsic trade-off between that kind of learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it’s more important than ever to give children’s remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.

So as my title suggests, when is enough, really enough?  When do we conclude that dumbing stuff down for the poor kids is just making things worse, not better?  As a teacher, I will go to the mat in favor of critical thinking skills for my small students any day.  To do otherwise would be an extreme injustice.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2011 6:40 pm

    Love your thoughts here. Isn’t this sort of the opposite of standards-based instruction (maybe not entirely, but at least to some degree)? And if it is, then isn’t there something more to be done in school than spoon-feed kids standards?

    I knew I had to quit my job in DC when my administration actually said, “If it’s not in a standard, it’s not worth learning.”

    I’ve come to see quality teaching as an act of civil disobedience, because I’d rather not be a bureaucratic tool inflicting the lunacy our policymakers have decided on.

  2. mariasallee permalink*
    May 5, 2011 6:55 am

    Thanks. I completely relate to what you are saying. Do we stay and fight an uphill battle in a hostile environment or do we look for other ways to make meaningful contributions?

    It is a shame that those of us who understand the concept and importance of quality and equality in education are being driven out and replaced by people who don’t.

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