Saturday, October 6, 2007

Changing the Way We Teach Our Kids

About Jena: Changing the Way We Teach Our Kids
by Paul Barrow

Education has taken a distant back seat in this election cycle, pushed aside by the Iraq war, immigration and health care. But as the incident in Jena, LA., shows, we need to be paying attention.

One of the greatest problems in public education today is the militaristic fashion by which children are taught. The objective primary responsibility of an educational system is to teach, not to regiment or play to all these games of power with neighborhood hoodlums and gangs. The objective primary responsibility in public education today, as we now have it, is to meet goals, follow schedules, describe uniform teaching methods, to establish performance norms, and to treat the children as a herd of animals who must be trained to perform exclusively within such a highly ordered and regimented system which itself is the the highest priority.

It all sounds very good on the surface, because you would think that these are the fundamental requirements for teaching period. But what we are doing instead is simply maintaining class divisions within society, creating opportunities of the sort that occurred not only at Jena, LA, but at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and in more and more places every year.

Having homeschooled my own two children since their second grade in public school, both of whom who have since gone on to college, I have gained over the years some knowledge about what it takes to motivate kids, how to overcome difficulties in learning, and how expectations based upon some objective and impersonal time frame keyed to a statistical performance scale average isn't what you ultimately use.

If your son doesn't understand how to solve a problem, you don't say, "Too bad, Michael. Sorry you didn't get it, but we're moving on." You have to stop and help him figure out how to solve the problem. He's not some idiot on the student roll who must learn or else.

Teaching requires respect for the teacher, yes, and respect for what he or she stands for; respect indeed for the teacher's sense of professionalism about learning about all that it takes to bring kids into the conversation. But teaching also requires respect for the student and a full commitment to finding a way to share what we know with those who follow us. It's not about grades. It's about human beings. It's about loving our children and giving them not only all that we have and know but giving them a path and the fundamentals to grow ever beyond our own limitations.

We aren't supposed to be in a race to see who can be taught and who can't within a specific time frame. We are supposed to be about the job of finding a way to give everyone the knowledge necessary not only to survive but also to live happy, productive and creative lives with a sense of fulfillment.

Tests are not supposed to be threatening, intimidating gates between a life of success and complete failure. They should only be used to discover who needs help and who doesn't.

Graduation is not only for the special or unique or gifted in our midst. Graduation is for everyone, regardless of I.Q., regardless of whether it takes two years or ten.

Grades should be eliminated, and the bright ones should be enlisted to help bring the others along, rather than being allowed to move into a different educational elite status, so called appropriately, a "class." The need to break down "class" and social barriers among students is of supreme importance, and this can be achieved through such a process where learning is a group endeavor and the least educated and most ignorant become the most important. The one who just doesn't get it in some particular subject must immediately receive the most attention not just by the teacher but by all those students who do understand the formula or equation. That's an enormous resource right there next to him that needs to be directed properly.

The fundamental idea behind this view about education could actually be called Biblical. "Do unto others....." If you've got something I don't, it's not about flaunting it. That's just a cheap ride. The real ride is the joy you get from watching someone else grow because of what you contributed.

A person who is way ahead in class shouldn't be moved away from those who are a little slower about picking up what he can so much more quickly. Public education is not a race. Public education is not about giving the advantaged more special advantages. Public education is not supposed to be a filter by which we select certain kinds of people to be treated with greater respect and given greater privileges. But it is is a fact that the very kinds of divisions which are set up in school are the guidelines by which society at large evolves into its disparate parts.

To view this rather simplistically, we've got the "working class" who were too slow to keep up and have to settle for the grunge work. Then we've got the "middle class" who may have been just so so or maybe just a little bit lazy about doing what was needed to get a better grade. And then we have that group that is always ahead of everyone else, always has the answer, and invariably shows up in some elite college the first year after graduation from high school.

The political mindset of those with advantages is to figure out a way to keep them, not to share them with others, and the result is that the same conservative mindset tends to rule in an elite power structure which can control the means to power as well. This mindset, however, can be changed from the bottom up. The future of American politics is not merely in what you teach your children; it is in how you teach them.

The mothers and fathers of children in our schools are the ones who can set policy and change the way schools are structured, and they need to rise up in their PTA meetings and speak out about a need for change. They need to pressure public schools into making the change contingent upon the threat to leave public education for online homeschooling if there aren't changes. And we need to merge public education with online homeschooling so that families become a more integral part of education.

We need to shift our notion of possessing advantages in knowledge from one of being an opportunity to compete or to gain social and career advantages along with it to one of being an opportunity to share that knowledge with others. We need to think about educating our children, not sorting them into piles.

Paul Barrow


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