Friday, January 09, 2015

What If We Just Tried It?

Michael Feldstein, Dave Cormier (1, 2), Stephen Downes and many others in the comments had an interesting discussion around student learning and engagement that's worth your time to check out. While I agree with Chris Lehmann that perhaps engagement isn't always the word we're looking for, I think the discussion in the above posts is using engagement in the right way; the students aren't just engaging in the activity, but in the learning.

You should read the posts (and the comments), but I wanted to pull a few quotes out to highlight and think about.
So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.
The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about. (Cormier, emphasis mine)
I've had many discussions with fellow educators around these same ideas, and I find it interesting that we so quickly dismiss "caring about learning" as a lost cause, and therefore have to find all these other ways to coerce students into learning. I wonder if we would just step back and really think about that statement, and what it says about what we're doing, if we just might figure out that we're doing it wrong.
Why bother learning how to use all these “effective instructional strategies” when people aren’t even going to engage with them? (David Wiley, in the comments).
For my purposes, I might modify that to say "when people aren't even going to care about what they're learning." More and more I'm struggling with the idea of learning about what someone else cares about, for someone else's sake, which is what I feel like we're doing. Yes, folks will argue it is still for the student's sake, but if they don't care about what they're learning, then aren't we putting our needs in front of theirs?
The issue for me, then, is more the mismatch between my students’ desires to connect and what I, or the curriculum, wants them to connect to. Almost all my students want to connect to certain people, ideas, skills, and professions, but most of them do not want to connect to academic writing, the subject I happen to teach. Schools are not adept at, or even interested in, identifying students’ existing interests and playing to those interests. We should be. There is great capital in students’ interests and desires for connection, and we are squandering it. (Keith Hamon, in the comments, emphasis mine)
Separate from the institution of school, when you think about learning, doesn't it start with interest? Then why in school do we think we need to start with curriculum and hope that it will generate interest?
My take is different. I see education less as an enterprise in making people do what they don't want to do, and more as one of helping people do what they want to do. (Stephen Downes)
Stephen is referring to ‘education’ and not to ‘learning’. That word usually indicates that we are talking about the institutions that support learning inside of our culture rather than the broader ‘learning’ that happens as part of being alive. Our education system is always a victim of the need for bureaucratization. It’s terrible… but it’s a necessary evil. (Cormier)
I wonder at the assumption that it's a "necessary evil." I often argue the practical side as well, so I totally get what Dave is saying, but I wonder if we've ever really tried to do it differently? Given the affordances of modern learning (technology, access to information, connectivism, relatively high standard of living - at least in my neck of the world), perhaps we should examine the assumption that 'education' and 'learning' need to be so very different.
I’m suggesting that we need to replace the measurable ‘content’ for the non-counting noun ‘caring’. Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything. We simply don’t need all that content, and even if we do need it, we don’t have it anyway . . . We currently have ‘this student has once proved they knew tons of stuff’ as our baseline for ‘having an education’. That’s dumb. (Cormier)
If you have a second, Dave, check out Matthew Lieberman’s book Social, particularly Ch.12 where he discusses education. He echoes your point on page p.282 where he writes: “We spend more then 20,000 hours in classrooms before graduating from high school, and research suggests that of the things we learn in school, we retain little more than half of the knowledge just three months after initially learning it, and significantly less than half of that knowledge is accessible to us a few years later.”
Brutal. Yet we continue to double down. (Dave Quinn, in the comments)
I think most of us know this, both intuitively and from experience, yet we continue to "double down." It's like we acknowledge that what we're doing is ridiculous but, hey, it would be really hard to do it differently, so let's just keep doing it.
The Gallup Purdue Index Report picks up where Wellbeing leaves off. Having established some metrics that correlate both with overall personal happiness and success as well as workplace success, Gallup backs up and asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?” They surveyed a number of college graduates in various age groups and with various measured levels of wellbeing, asking them to reflect back on their college experiences. What they didn’t find is in some ways as important as what they did find. They found no correlation between whether you went to a public or private, selective or non-selective school and whether you achieved high levels of overall wellbeing. It doesn’t matter, on average, whether you go to Harvard University or Podunk College. It doesn’t matter whether your school scored well in the U.S. News and World Report rankings . . .
What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were
  • 1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams” 
  • 1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning” 
  • 1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person” 
  • 1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom” 
  • 1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete” 
  • 1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]” 
. . . It really comes down to feeling connected to your school work and your teachers, which does not correlate well with the various traditional criteria people use for evaluating the quality of an educational institution. If you buy Gallup’s chain of argument and evidence this, in turn, suggests that being a hippy-dippy earthy-crunchy touchy-feely constructivy-connectivy commie pinko guide on the side will produce more productive workers and a more robust economy (not to mention healthier, happier human beings who get sick less and therefore keep healthcare costs lower) than being a hard-bitten Taylorite-Skinnerite practical this-is-the-real-world-kid type career coach. It turns out that pursuing your dreams is a more economically productive strategy, for you and your country, than pursuing your career. It turns out that learning a passion to learn is more important for your practical success than learning any particular facts or skills. It turns out that it is more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be . . .
. . . The core problem with our education system isn’t the technology or even the companies. It’s how we deform teaching and learning in the name of accountability in education. Corporate interests amplify this problem greatly because they sell to it, thus reinforcing it. But they are not where the problem begins. It begins when we say, “Yes, of course we want the students to love to learn, but we need to cover the material.” Or when we say, “It’s great that kids want to go to school every day, but really, how do we know that they’re learning anything?” It’s daunting to think about trying to change this deep cultural attitude. (Michael Feldstein, emphasis mine)
And there it is. It's a systemic problem, and we depend on that system to create order out of chaos and, of course, for our employment. It truly is daunting to think about trying to change this and yet . . . we should try anyway.

I think Carol Black nails it when she says,
This is when it occurred to me: people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools
I think we've forgotten that despite all the good intentions behind the idea of schools, and the fact that good stuff does indeed happen in them, they are terribly artificial constructs. Again, as Black says,
Traits that would be valued in the larger American society –– energy, creativity, independence –– will get you into trouble in the classroom . . .

When you see children who do not learn well in school, they will often display characteristics that would be valued and admired if they lived in any number of traditional societies around the world. They are physically energetic; they are independent; they are sociable; they are funny. They like to do things with their hands. They crave real play, play that is exuberant, that tests their strength and skill and daring and endurance; they crave real work, work that is important, that is concrete, that makes a valued contribution. They dislike abstraction; they dislike being sedentary; they dislike authoritarian control. They like to focus on the things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore . . .

But any Maori parent knows that you have to watch a child patiently, quietly, without interference, to learn whether he has the nature of the warrior or the priest. Our children come to us as seeking beings, Maori teachers tell us, with two rivers running through them — the celestial and the physical, the knowing and the not-yet-knowing. Their struggle is to integrate the two. Our role as adults is to support this process, not to shape it. It is not ours to control. 
Last night my wife was talking about one of her first graders who is really struggling with school right now and she said something like, "He doesn't want to do anything he doesn't want to do." That makes us both wonder, "Then why are we making him do it?"

So many of the problems that our children have in school are a result of school itself, not any inherent problem in the children.
So one hypothesis is that American schools are not only assuming the normal developmental window for reading to be too narrow, they’re also placing it too early. In other words, it’s not like expecting all children to take their first steps at the average age of twelve months: it’s like expecting them all to take their first steps at the precocious age of ten months. In doing this you create a sub-class of children so bewildered, so anxious, whose natural processes of physical and neurological development and organization are so severely disrupted, that you literally have no way of knowing what they would have been like if you had not done this to them.
“Grade level standards,” please recall, do not exist in nature; they are not created scientifically, but by fiat. And there has been almost no serious study of cognitive development in children whose learning has not been shaped by the arbitrary age grading of the school system. Finland simply sets its standards at a place where most children will succeed. The U.S. sets them at a place where a really significant percentage will fail. This is a choice. In making it, we may be creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to learn to read on their own developmental schedule. (Black)
So what if we stopped making them "do what they don't want to do?" What if we tried helping them do what they want to do?
We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. (Cormier)
What if we just tried it?


  1. Karl,
    I think you do have something to say. The invitation is still open. I'd love to hear you speak about this.

  2. Hi Karl,
    What if we do this starting in kindergarten? What if we back off enough and trust each child knowing that children WANT to explore, create, learn. They come that way and they naturally support and help each other in the adventure of learning. Too often my anxiety changes a child. My fear that he won't "be ready for first grade" gives a child the message that reading, writing etc. as dictated by educators are the measures of success.
    My waking dilemma every day is how to honor the child, empower the child, and create an environment where he/she will learn because of the joy of learning.
    Kathy C

    1. I think that because we doubt our children, and because we doubt ourselves, we have never (well, I guess I have never, I'm sure some folks have) given ourselves a chance to find out.