In the last “progressive education” post, we discussed the notion that most students don’t come to school primarily to learn.  They are often willing to learn, but their main reason for going to school is because they have to.

Schools for less affluent kids wear the compulsion more nakedly.  Some schools resemble nothing so much as  prisons.  Students are processed like prisoners, by armed guards.  They have very little freedom in the school, and the fact that they are in school because they have to be is starkly evident.  Evident largely from the fact that many
students evade the requirement.  Do they want to learn?  By and large, yes.  But they do not connect their desire to learn with school.  They do not see school as the place to do their learning.  They see school as a requirement that they can evade.

Sometimes the evasion is internal.  That is, kids will be physically present in their schools, but they will not agree to master the mind-numbing tasks set before them.  They will not work to memorize the information that teachers attempt to transmit to them.  Thus, when the time comes for students to regurgitate that information on a high-stakes test, they cannot do it very well.  When large numbers of students in a given school don’t repeat back transmitted information successfully, it shows up in these NCLB days as a school that is not making “Adequate Yearly Progress.”  It shows up with a dunce cap on the school in the form of a label of “School in Need of Improvement.”

What does that mean for education?  Too often, it is assumed that new educational methods must be tried only in those schools that show the compulsion of attendance more nakedly.  In those schools where large numbers of students do not agree to the social contract.  Where students do not agree to work to memorize and repeat back chunks of information.

Educators say that they need to try new methods for “these kids” who aren’t succeeding in the traditional school environment.  The assumption is that students who come to school regularly and willingly, students who sit docilely through transmission-style classes and submit to tests of their reception of that information, the assumption is that such students are doing well in the traditional system.  But that’s not good enough.  All students, whether they are
willing to submit to school or not, must first really come to school tolearn.  If we start by assuming that those students who can repeat back transmitted information can do so because they’ve come to school to learn, we’ve put the cart before the horse.

A traditionalist might object at this point that we can’t sap the students’ responsibility for their own education.  If we don’t assume that students come to school to learn, a traditionalist might say, in the end we’re weakening them
even further.  We can’t do everything for a student.  They are not hothouse flowers.  It is a good point.  But it represents a misunderstanding.  Schools and teachers must not coddle students.  That is counterproductive in
both the short term and the long term.  But dismissing the simple assumption that students come to school to learn does not mean that we will turn school into what students desire; we will not turn school into a purely social event, where they can meet and mingle and enjoy themselves and one another.  A traditionalist might object that if we assume that students don’t come to school to learn, we have to radically decrease our expectations of student motivation.  But there is another solution.  Instead of making the tasks easier in order to encourage student buy-in, we must increase the responsibility we assign to students.  We need to begin our thinking about education by assuming that we must engage students in learning.  We must get students—even students that weren’t protesting too loudly against schooling as it was—to connect schooling with learning.  In short, we must convince students to come to school to learn.  What will that mean?

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  1. Donald Byrne

     /  October 29, 2011

    I agree with the thrust of this post. But there is a gray area around high-stakes testing. The place where you say,

    “Where students do not agree to work to memorize and repeat back chunks of information.”

    — this may be a mischaracterization of the end-of-course tests (and even some textbook multiple-choice tests) given by the States in classes like English I, US History, and etc. I say “may be” because it is not clear to me that these multiple choice tests do not include questions that demand rigorous, analytical thinking. If I remember right, they in fact do include such questions. If these tests demand rigorous, analytical thinking, then they are not all bad. Full disclosure, as an ESL teacher I am professionally against high-stakes testing in general. In general, high-stakes, NCLB-style testing sucks for a whole slate of reasons, especially for my ESL students.

    • Donaldo,
      Thanks for the note. I’ve been working for the past couplefew years with New York schools, and they have long had high-stakes tests, beyond the NCLB demands. I work closest with US History tests. For the 11th-grade version of these–required for high-school graduation–students must answer questions and write an essay based on a series of documents. (For those familiar with the AP tests, this is a similar kind of Documents-Based Question format.) As you say, the idea of this test is more appealing than a simple list of multiple-choice questions. The hope was that students would be forced to do some fairly authentic historical thinking. The documents would be included in the tests themselves, so the playing field would be evened out a little bit. Students, the argument went, would confront a set of unfamiliar documents, analyze them, and have to come up with a coherent, cogent thesis about them. The test would get at their thinking skills, not just their docility and memorization. Sounds good. But in practice, what happens is that some students get rigorous training in how to do exactly this kind of skill. Other students don’t. The test ends up testing how much training a student received in the particular skill of writing this kind of essay.
      Don’t get me wrong, I am generally more in favor of standardized tests than a lot of folks I work with. In my opinion, such tests have lots of easy-to-criticize flaws, but IF we are going to process large numbers of students without vast increases in school budgets, THEN we need some way to evaluate those students quickly and cheaply. Standardized tests fit that bill. It is a qualified endorsement, but an endorsement nevertheless.

  2. Jon Anuik

     /  October 31, 2011

    I agree strongly with your suggested practices, especially the line of more learner responsibility for education. I build the environment in my classes where learners may “turn on” their already exisitng critical thinking and feeling skills, right from the beginning! The first assignment always is: comment on your lifelong learning journey, reflecting on how you have come to be in this program and in this class (i.e., right now: in the faculty of education, taking my concepts of childhood in history class). Then, as you say, connect your desire to learn to a learning journey–reflect on an important event in your life, turning it into a program of research!! Thus, learning becomes a student’s responsibility, less of a passive engagement with scholarly work through, for example, choosing a list of essay questions crafted by the professor. Instead, taking your own interests and passion and converting them into an essay topic and question. It reminds me of a headline from a science fair in my grade nine year–the newspaper headline for the student who did win the science fair read: “student turns his lifelong interest in the Titanic into an award-winning science project.” I hope this makes sense!!

  1. PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION Ic: WHY COME TO SCHOOL? (cont…) « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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