My Thoughts on Education

I’m not an educator. I am a student. I’ve been a student, an avid and sometimes unwilling consumer of education for over 17 years. I dropped out of the educational system for the seven years while I’ve started a family. I rejoined as a mother and PTA volunteer for the last nine years as my children have attending public school.

I remember several of my first days of school. The anticipation in meeting new teachers, friends, and subjects; of reading new textbooks. Yes, I was a strange student. I sat quietly in my seat absorbing the atmosphere of the classroom. The teacher’s walk, gestures, and patterns of speech. The students: the clown, asking for attention to hide their own deficiencies in the subject, the nerd, asking for approval for their ideas from the teacher; the flirt, asking for attention from the members of the class of the opposite gender; the sleeper, always with their head down, dozing away the hour; and me the watcher. I learned my subjects, but I also learned how to teach. I spent 16+ years observing teachers and thought it ironic that for my education certificate I was required to spend more time back in those same jr. high and high school classrooms yet again observing.

Here are the teachers that I saw:
The Pontificator– this teacher loved their subject and themselves, they tended to talk above and beyond most of their students to the top 5% of the class, thus building a frustration and hatred for their beloved subject in the majority of their students.
The Textbook– this teacher had set out lectures that they went through step by step, they didn’t stop for questions or descriptions, but ran through the day’s notes. If you had skipped class and just read the notes you could get through the same material in a 1/4 of the time. The by product of this teaching method was boredom and apathy.
The Storyteller– this teacher had a great teaching method, they just tended to stray off topic, I remember a great deal of soccer stories about a certain teacher’s young children’s games, more than the matrices I was supposed to learn in that class. Students love this kind of teacher, but the subject doesn’t always get taught.
The Connector– this teacher combines the best traits of the first three, but with the added bonus of being able to reach his or her students. Being a woman I value relationships, and so this teacher who is able to build that relationship with their students is the one I prize. The example that sticks out in my mind was my tenth grade English teacher. Not only did he love his subject like the pontificator, know it like the textbook, and tell it like the storyteller, he also got the last item in place that the other three missed, he knew his students. He knew what it was to be in the same classroom for an hour-and-a-half every other day for a year. He knew what the students were interested in and reached for that place in his discussions.
The greatest flaw I found in teachers after 16+ years of observing was a failure to reach for the student. After all it isn’t the teacher who is tested on their knowledge, it’s the students. Where does responsibility for the student’s education lay? With the state board of education? With their teachers? With their parents? With their school? With the national government?
As my daughter starts school, and I look down the road to her jr high, her high school, my first question for them starts at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy: Are they providing a safe environment for learning? Are they providing a supportive environment for education? Then I work my way to other no-less important “What will they be teaching her? How will they be teaching her?”

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the demise of the public education system, in the United States, as we know it. I can see several alternatives, some of which really scare me.

First scariest alternative:
1. Alternative and charter secondary schools. At sixth grade students are tested and sent to one or the other. Alternative secondary schools handling the “second class citizens’ children” and charter handling the middle class children. (Upper class will probably continue to attend private schools, ironic how the people who instituted “No Child Left Behind” are the ones whose children won’t be affected by it.)

Second scary alternative:
2. Violence in schools escalate to the point where most sane parents send their children to private schools, home school, or pray desperately as they drop their children off at the public school and drive off to work.

Third scary alternative:
3. The federal government puts out core curriculum for all the states to follow and tests the students abilities in core areas. The fed then reduces funding for all “failing” schools, thereby furthering digging them into a pit. Schools scrap all other programs (science, arts, geography, PE, etc.) in an effort to focus only on the getting the majority of students through the core curriculum in math and English. Wait that isn’t a future alternative, that’s our current reality.

Ideal dream world:
1. Schools become more based on the public library system. Serving the public, a dish at a time, instead of a year at a time. Mandatory school is required for basic math, science, physical education, reading, social studies, but the classes go at the student’s individual pace. If a student wants to learn a year’s worth of math in two months, let them. To set up this system we need computers and/or tablets for each student. We would need educational software programs with video lectures and/or animations that the student could watch at their own pace. (You can watch at faster speeds or slower as you need, you also have options for which educator lecture series you watch, depending on your learning style.) Homework would be a matter of proving that you understood the material. Once understood you are allowed to move on. If you show a relapse through quizzes or tests then the computer pulls up a question by question review. Teachers would be used for class discussions, performance classes(i.e. orchestra, sports, woodshop, arts) and saved for students who are less self-motivated or need extra attention. The primary goal is student mastery. Grade years are too broad, students need to be broken into groups based on mastery of the material. They learn the current unit and the move up or down as needed. If they don’t learn it they aren’t automatically passed up. They are responsible for their movement through the education system.

2. For the social aspect some school classes could consist of inter-state or even international groups of students who progress through the years in cohorts, where cooperative methods are encourage, but individual accountability is also fostered. The product is reasoning, responsible, intelligent, and caring adults who go on to productive careers furthering the world community as well as their neighborhoods.

I think that we are part way there, but there are gaps.
Here are some of the big ones:
ESL – immigrants struggle with learning a new language and culture, where children are in-betweens, not at home in their parent’s culture or in their new land’s.
Cheating – When the emphasis is placed on the grades rather than on mastery of the information, some students take the route of cheating. This isn’t teacher problem this is a problem of our society. As long as we emphasize appearance over mastery this will be an issue.
Families – I could say parents, but I think that children have a role here too. Do we need families? Yes we do! They are essential to the support system of students. When students don’t feel secure at home, or aren’t fed, clothed or provided for, learning becomes much more difficult. Should high school students work? Should jr. high students work? Should college students work?
Money – We get what we pay for. If we expect a highly literate, competent and creative work force we better invest in education.
Technology – I’m not talking about introducing technology into the classroom, that’s a nice idea, but it’s stupid. It’s like taking a battery powered typewriter back to Laura Ingall’s classroom. It would be an interesting tool, but only one child could use it at a time. When it ran out of ink ribbons, or batteries, it would be a nice piece of junk. Technology is so much more than just a power point presentation with neat graphics. If technology is used only to supplement the classroom it’s like using a typewriter instead of a computer. The typewriter is nice for typing, but you can network, explore, create, build and learn using a computer. The only activity a typewriter is superior at is for filling out printed forms. Some students graduate believing that computers are used only for typing term papers, and others graduate believing that they’re only for violent games. Every child needs access to a computer at school all day!

The first adaptive test that I ever took was the GRE(after four years of college.) I understood the principle behind it, the more correct answers you get, the harder the questions are, conversely if you get the questions wrong, the easier the questions get. Your score isn’t based on the number of correct answers, it’s based on what you answered correctly. Using this test in a classroom setting would make it harder to cheat, because the test changes with each answer that you put in, and it accurately places your knowledge level. Besides that, it’s cool. The idea of a machine that takes in consideration the fact that if you don’t know the answer to the medium question, you won’t know the answer to the hard questions. You don’t have to answer a bunch of questions that are too easy or too hard. Instead of looking at every inch along a measuring tape to get a height, you just look at the three or four inches of tape around the top of the object. Schools spend a lot of time looking at every inch along the way, instead of just the ones at the end that matter.
I was bored in school. I was bored with the teachers, with the students, with the repetition, and with myself. I wasn’t a straight A student. Looking back, I think that I could of been, but I didn’t want to be. It was a subjective number game that I didn’t want to play. Why waste hours each week making up the difference between my effortless B’s and those elusive A’s (only elusive in the tougher subjects)? If I could go back and do high school again, I think that I’d work on getting more material covered. I think that I’d read a lot more out of class, and maybe in class. I’d ask more questions, I was too much of a watcher and not enough of a participant. But I learned a lot. I learned how to write left-handed (it kept me entertained in otherwise very dry classes). I learned how to teach. I learned how to write challenging multiple choice test questions. (That can be tricky for math, but I’ve got it covered.) I learned how to leap through bureaucratic hoops. I learned how to march, I learned how to listen for test questions in a teacher’s lecture. I learned how to run a campaign. I learned how to sit still in a desk for six hours every day. I learned how to navigate the halls. I learned how to drive.
I wish that I’d learned how to re-wire the twisted circuit in my house. I wish that I’d learned how to change the oil in my hybrid car (the mechanic gets it wrong sometimes.) I wish that I’d learned how to change the laws. I wish that I’d learned how to scuba dive.

Do we want a reasoning, creative, and scientific society? Or do we want worker bees who excel at working quietly for hours at a time? Do we really value our place as a leader in the world in technology and innovation, or are we content to let it slip away? Other countries are willing to put in 10+ hours a day into a student’s education. Let’s not match the time, but let’s put the time that we have into better use. It will require infrastructure, new ways of organizing students (more by where they are in their educational path and less by age,) computers at every desk instead of a computer lab in every school and using innovative software. We don’t realize the power that we already have in the combination of the internet, wonderful teachers, creative students and able administrators. We’ve been dragging the cart and the horse. Let’s put the students in front of the cart and let them lead. If they are motivated, have access to technology and have the support of the adults around them, instead of dragging the horses, we’ll be running to keep up. And isn’t that what we want?

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