Saturday, July 18, 2015

Err On The Side Of Open

My school district, like most I imagine, has a book approval policy in place. We need to get rid of it.

As has been said many times and in many ways, we live in a very different world than the one most of us grew up in. As a result, schools are dealing with a large number of legacy systems (and legacy ideas) that don't make much sense anymore. A book approval process is once of them. We are now dealing with the contradiction that as soon as I hit publish on this post, any teacher in my building can immediately assign it to their students to read. But if they want their students to read Drive, or Mindset, or Go Set a Watchman, or anything else that is relatively new, they have to go through a fairly lengthy and time-intensive process to get someone's approval. When we have the sum total of humankind's knowledge a click away, why would we require approval for knowledge that has been printed on paper?

I think the main reason for the book approval process (and the main reason we have restrictive Internet filters), is a fear of ideas. We are afraid of the unknown, and we are afraid of any ideas that might conflict with our closely held beliefs. But isn't that one of the main purposes of education, to examine and interrogate our ideas to either confirm them or determine that we need to modify them?

A second reason is trust; we don't trust our teachers to make good decisions. A book approval process is in place because we're worried that some teachers might choose "inappropriate" books. But I find that logic troubling in several ways. First, as soon as you set up a district approval process to determine what is "appropriate", you restrict the learning opportunities of your students. As a rule, organizations - and especially schools - shy away from controversy, shy away from conflict. Yet cognitive dissonance is the basis for how we learn and, in order to catalyze that cognitive dissonance, you have to be exposed to ideas that are different than your own.

Second, I think the logic breaks down because we're willing to trust our students physically with these teachers, but somehow we're worried they're going to ask them to read a dangerous book? We're more afraid of dangerous ideas than we are of dangerous people. And if a teacher was intellectually dangerous in some way, wouldn't you rather discover it because they assigned an outrageous book instead of them flying under the radar interacting with your student each and every day? Our district has a clear and easily invoked policy that students can opt-out of reading any assigned book, so why wouldn't we open up the process and allow teachers to make professional judgements about what is best for their students?

I believe that in many ways this is analogous to other rules we have in place at school. Rules that end up restricting the vast majority of students (and/or teachers) in order to protect against a very small number who might "take advantage" of those rules. Here's one example, although I'm sure you can come up with many others at your own school. We don't allow students to have their water bottles out in the classroom. As best as I can tell, we have two stated reasons for this: they might spill and they might have alcohol (specifically, vodka) in those water bottles.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being insignificant and 10 being major, where exactly would you put spilling water in the classroom as compared to all the other things that can occur in the classroom? For me, it's less than 1. Especially considering most of the water bottles our students have would limit any spill to a very small amount, and most of our classrooms have tile floors. This is not a reason to ban water in the classroom (especially considering all the health benefits of drinking water).

Whenever we are reminded of this rule, someone always mentions vodka. Because once every decade or so, a student will fill a water bottle with vodka (or some other clear alcohol) and bring it to school. So, lets review. We have 2150 students at my school, so we're going to ban all 2150 of them from drinking water in the classroom over a period of ten years, because one student might bring vodka on one day during that ten years. Keep in mind, students are allowed to have water bottles outside of the classroom, and at sports and activities, just not in the classroom. It makes no sense.

I think there may be one more unwritten reason why we have rules like this. I think some folks really like rules. Some folks really like being able to say, "I'm the teacher, I'm the adult, I can have water in the classroom. You're the student, you're the kid, you can't." It's about control, and it's about power. I think we need to do everything we can not to have any teachers who think they are more important simply because they've orbited around the sun a few more times.

I think that book approval processes are also about control, and about power. But in that case it's about controlling teachers and exercising power over (restricting) ideas. None of this is to say that teachers won't ever make mistakes in choosing a book to read (or in the hundreds of other decisions they make each and every day related to instruction). But I think if we're going to make a mistake, if we're going to err, we should err on the side of open.

1 comment:

  1. I could not agree more! But you said it much more eloquently than me.