On Schools of Education

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 11:03 am
PostPost subject: On Schools of Education
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In his attack on schools of education for their politically correct “disposition” (Edschools vs. Education, Newsweek, Jan 16, 2006), George Will quotes Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute and author of "Why Johnny's Teacher Can't Teach." MacDonald calls ‘ed school’ political bias and other edspeak gobbledygook "Anything But Knowledge." MacDonald believes that the purpose of teaching is to transfer knowledge to students. Period. Presumably, knowledge in the form of facts that should be memorized by students who are then ‘tested’. However laudable, this view does have its problems

The ‘knowledge transfer factory’ view of learning, the ‘philosophy of education’ currently in vogue, requires the de-valuing and subordination of child-centered activities like storytelling and recess to make room for the all-knowledge, all-day long approach to school experience.

To defend against the criticism of being academic to the extreme, education has adopted the latest approach complete with buzzword: ‘differentiated instruction.’ DI pays lip service to the philosophies of multiple intelligences and emotional intelligence, and to the sanctity of the individual student. But Knowledge is everything in education, and by god if teachers don’t pass the test by having their students pass the test, there is big trouble. Differentiated Instruction is a form of propaganda. If test-bound teachers are told to order only from the fast food menu, few will have the guts or motivation to become a master chef to tailor, sensitize, and individualize their approach. DI and test-driven learning are simply incompatible, and we all know which one dominates the learning culture. In the end, the test god receives the sacrificial lambs.

In the education universe, everything human is secondary to the numbers. What counts is only what you know, and what you know, in the end, is subject to the numbers. In the number-driven universe of knowledge, the teacher is a reflection of beinglessness. Suspended in time, the teacher takes on a stereotypical posture, attitude, voice, persona. The robotus academicus automatus has no room or time or sensibility for human connectivity. He or she is told what to teach and when to teach. As in any factory, freedom of mind and movement, the capacity for surprise, spontaneity, expression, and uncensored speech are all but banned from the locked-in, lock-step American classroom.

So, can knowledge really grow and stick in a vacuum? Does learning occur without connection, emotions, smiles, wows, without the space and time needed to make sense of whatever it is that’s going on in a classroom? Brain researchers say ‘No’. Is there something more—another kind of ‘matter’ besides ‘knowledge particles’—lurking out there in the education universe? Twenty years of brain science research tells us there is something different. Brain science tells us, yep—maybe you guessed it—that human connectivity and freedom of expression (movement, surprise, spontaneity, expression, and playfulness)—things associated with the birthright of children—things all but banned from the classroom in America—are neurological imperatives to learning and cognition; are critical to brain integration, neuronal firing, and nerve cell growth.

Proponents of differentiated instruction blandly refer to this colossal core of reality that education does not yet see—a tiny dash of seasoning among many ingredients—as ‘affect’. But ‘affect’ doesn’t just appear magically out of nowhere, especially in play-deprived, unnatural, and controlling environments like classrooms. You can call all you want for ‘affect’ in teaching, but without the right tools and human empowerment, affect is ‘out sick’ and teachers won’t change.

Too bad this ‘scientific knowledge’ has been ignored by a school culture obsessed with the religion and trappings of knowledge and grades. Education reveres the authoritarian voice of control and gate keeping, and worships the god of graduated, stratified, fragmented knowledge. If, in the words of Bill Mollinson, ‘Evil is just rigorously applied stupidity—a refusal to know what you know’, then we have created an evil system of learning.

We don’t need to worry about Intelligent Design proponents stealing away with science and evolution when our system of education drifts Titanic-like upon its own ocean of knowledge. For in education, what is the current state of knowledge if not pre-packaged, state approved, commercially published (and paid for) information? Blocks of data suitable for the hammer and vice in the hands of teachers with no time or mental drive to create or synthesize. The learning culture has been mentally neutered, the young confined to academic factory farms. It seems to me that if your objective in education is ‘Knowledge Transfer’, there are two options: you can go the way of science (toward the emotions) or the way of institutional thinking (Teach and Test). In other words, either toward intellectual freedom or toward the academic gulag.

But let’s cut to the chase. Schools may appear to be in the ‘knowledge delivery’ business, but their main purpose is to control. Most people don’t like the controlling nature of education, but control constitutes the true character of our learning culture. The reform of education is a problem of culture. I believe that the best way to neutralize the controlling nature of the learning culture is to let loose something systemic that can unlock and enliven it. I happen to believe that that ‘systemic something’ is play. Not just the benign social play we once saw confined to kindergartens, but play that has proven to be a systemic, force field of energy in the hands of many teachers I have worked with. Here is a definition of play that fits this description:

Play referred to is innate, higher order learning. Such play is largely unadulterated and uninhibited, and can be consciously, unconsciously, or semi-consciously engaged. Hence, play that is fragile, spontaneous and responsive, involving reciprocal patterns of movement, action, thought, or communication, and often accompanied by silliness, surprise, humor, or fun. This behavior may include word play, make-believe, private speech, improvisation, in-dwelling, day-dreaming, doodling, hand- or puppet play, or the uncensored manipulation or expression of ideas and imaginings. This order of play depends on a degree of feeling free and safe, and may or may not become subject to the more controlled and organized aspects of play associated with competition, electronic games, directed role-playing, formal theater, and the like.

The most effective application of play in the learning culture is—not through the air, not the computer, not through the blackboard—but through human, hand-actuated, artful, and playful communication. Change the nature of communication and you change three of the most change-resistant areas of the learning culture—communication, behavior, and content. And if we are going to transform content (play lets us get physical) let’s pull content off the page and out of the monitor. Free content from the hands of the number-runners. Spin content like straw into the gold of imagination and fun-loving interactivity. It’s not about knowledge. It’s all about what you do with it, how we interact, behave and respond to it. Our unnatural and isolated classrooms could be thriving, energized, healthy habitats. Could reflect what children are made of, instead of the agenda of adult ‘knowledge’ force fed children and teachers daily.

In my education universe, I don’t care what you teach or where you teach or how good your resources are to help you teach; nor do I care how much you know or how well you know it or test on it (the best mathematicians can be the worst teachers)—if you can’t connect, raise smiles and heart rates, engage emotions, create a ‘moment’ or an experience to help you and the kids together to climb ‘inside the subject matter at hand,’ then you are spouting hot air. Kids may not know all their stuff, as the saying goes, but the stale smell of hot air? That they know well. For they live and breathe this air every day of their young lives that they are in school. Talk about second hand smoke. The quality of the air—a direct result of lousy, lackluster communication in the classroom—puts every child and thus the future of this nation—at risk. Why? Because it deadens the brains and malnourishes the spirit of children and teachers alike.

If ed schools have failed teachers and American education, it’s because ed schools hand down the culture of isolation. They have walled teachers—the first responders after the family—off from the very nature of children they are supposed to be part of. The schools have refused to look beyond the great universe of knowledge. Education leaders and policy-makers remain behind that wall, hiding, posturing, controlling. They are not interested in the nature of communication or the nature in the kids they teach; they fail to recognize that communication properly rooted in human nature—in play and curiosity—should be the primary pathway of education process. Charmed, emotive communication must precede the acquisition and empowerment of Knowledge. Communication fully vested with warmth and the energy of play, movement, chemistry alters the nature of conventionally manufactured knowledge, gives it life and meaning, meaning into understanding and understanding into memory, and memory into self and identity.

The knowledge brokers are back-breakers and spirit crushers dressed in academic garb. Anna Quindlen correctly identifies their test-based trade as ‘child-abuse,’ plied with no love or respect for the richness of a child’s mind. Education needs to train teachers to communicate, to explore with children instead of stand over them. And, above all, teachers need to learn to exercise and speak the linguistic birthright of the young—to play, to be spontaneous, to construct content using the tools and actions that children need for their imagination to thrive and their knowledge of the world to make connections—just like the nerve endings in their brains. Without play and emotion, knowledge falls off the Tree of Learning like leaves well before their time. Learning is a modern word for evolution—millions of years of human learning contained in the brain’s one and a half pounds of mass and a dim power consumption of 14 watts—and it’s time that people responsible for training teachers learned that lesson, and shared it with the education students they serve. It could start a revolution—perhaps even a renaissance—to re-create an education that we in America could be proud of and that our children could thrive in.
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