In Kodachrome, Paul Simon complained about "all the crap" he learned in high school and wondered how he can still "think at all." The lyrics to this song have always been among my favorites.
Despite all the crap at highly regarded Bronx Science which I attended in the 1960s, and there was plenty of it, I remember two good, at least interesting, academic experiences from high school. One happened in math and the other in social studies, but they share a common thread.
In 1965 I was in 10th grade. I was a solid "80" student without much effort, but I scored a 97 on the end-of-the-year New York State Geometry Regents. This must have set off some bells because I was called done to the math office and asked to explain a seventeen-step proof I devised for one of the problems, a problem that only required seven or eight steps. I looked at the two solutions, the officially recommended answer and mine, shrugged, and said "I guess I wasn't paying attention the day they went over that theorem in class."
The following year in social studies we were studying United States history. My teacher argued the Declaration of Independence was the most perfect document ever written and challenged students in the class to find any mistake or vagueness. He offered five bonus points on the next report card as a reward.
Given my consistently less than stellar performance in high school, I was not that interested in the five points. What I really wanted was to find a "mistake or vagueness" and show up the top scorers in class. I spent the night reading and rereading the Declaration and one point stuck with me.
According to the second paragraph of the Declaration, to secure the inalienable rights of humankind, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The authors of the Declaration and the assembly that voted for independence from Great Britain, argued, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . ."
"The Right of the People" to rebellion was my vague point. Did the founders mean aggrieved parties could rebel even if they constituted a small minority? Was this right being granted to an educated elite, a simple majority, or did the transformation of government require a unanimous or near unanimous vote? I concluded, and the teacher accepted my argument, that they were intentionally vague on this point because (a) they did not know how much support they really had for independence; (b) once in power, they did not want constant rebellions by the people that they would rule, especially by the lower classes; and (c) they owned enslaved Africans and were not offering them rights or human status and certainly not granting them the right to rebel against bondage and injustice. Not only did the teacher award me the five points on my report card, but he also gave me a book by historian Carl Becker where Becker raised similar ideas.
What I think these two instances have in common is that in both cases I responded to the challenge to solve a problem that for whatever reasons caught and held my interest. I could not have solved the problems without the "skills," but I never invested in learning the skills until I was captivated by the problems.
I had a similar learning experience at the City College of New York a few years later. During my first year in college my grades were between C and B, high enough to pass and avoid the military draft, which meant they were high enough for me. But in my second year in college I began to become a "serious" student radical committed to expanded student voice in university affairs, opposition to the war in Vietnam and U.S. imperialist policies, an end to racism in university admissions and society in general, and greater economic equality.
For many student radicals from that era activism became a distraction and their performance in school suffered or even ended. But I had a very different experience. I actually became a better student. For the first time since junior high school I received top grades.
Whether you agree with my political positions or not is not the point. What happened was that my interest in radical politics gave me a reason to learn. I poured over books and primary source historical documents because I wanted to understand the nature of American society and of every society. I wanted to know what made people and governments tick. I wrote, edited, and rewrote leaflets, pamphlets, newspaper essays, and even term papers because I wanted to express my ideas clearly and because I wanted to make them accessible to the people I was trying to convince of the correctness of my beliefs. The skills came because I needed to be good at the things I valued -- organizing for social change and challenging other people to rethink their ideas.
My friend, colleague, and former student Pablo Muriel has demonstrated similar things in his work at University Heights High School in the Bronx. Pablo's "Participation in Government" students are involved in a range of political actions that are meaningful to their own lives. They fought to keep their school from being closed and as a result became active in citywide campaigns against school closings. They participated in Occupy Wall Street and helped organize an Occupy Fordham Road in the Bronx. They became community activists and organized a petition drive in the South Bronx against closing of local post offices. They became HIV/AIDS peer educators and produced videos promoting safe sex. And while they were doing these things they wrote, wrote, wrote about their ideas and experiences. Students with writing phobia and histories of poor school performance became proficient at developing and explaining their ideas orally and in writing. Many of these students have posted comments on my Huffington Post blogs. Many have defied expectations and gone on to college. Pablo is now documenting their progress as part of a literacy doctorate at Hofstra University.
My points, based on my own experience as a student and later as a teacher, are:
- Students need reasons to invest in learning. It is hard work and they have to care.
- In most cases skills are not learned independently of content and purpose. Students master skills best when they are using skills to discover things they really want to know.
- Meaningful learning is about problem solving, thinking, analyzing, organizing, and explaining, not rote memorization.