When I began blogging here at Huffington Post in January, I hoped that in addition to sharing my own thoughts on educational issues of the day, I might be able to provide space for the voices and experiences of teachers and students. Like many (but not all) bloggers who post on this page, I write from the perspective of an outsider. Yes, I taught middle school in Chicago for many years, and I still work with practicing teachers in my graduate classes. But I no longer spend the bulk of my days in K-12 classrooms.
We stand to learn a lot from young people and adults who do.
A couple weeks ago I received an email from a former student who now teaches at an alternative high school in the Chicago suburbs. She wrote to share an essay that one of her students, Liam Burns, had written. Liam is 17 and has attended three different high schools. He's struggled, he says, because he detests the "rigorous bureaucracy of the typical high school setting" that forces students into prescribed boxes and standardized ways of thinking. His essay touches on themes I highlighted in a post last month about the damaging impact of corporate-model education reforms. As Liam sees it, schools don't encourage imagination or individuality in students -- instead, they demand conformity, obedience, painting inside the lines.
What I've Learned in School
By Liam Burns
I have learned a lot in my 12 years of compulsory schooling: I have learned that creativity has no place in the classroom. I have learned that it's not really the student but the grade that counts. I have learned that the American education system is a rusted, malfunctioning machine, rewarding only those who march in line and keep their mouths shut. This is the system that determines our livelihoods, and it's in dire need of repair.
Whenever a system is put in place, it is usually good practice to look at how said system affects those within it. The students themselves must be Primary Concern #1. The current method is to put all the children to the same standard: everyone's equal, everyone's the same. The problem with this mindset is the simple fact that we, as living, thinking beings, are not equal. True, we all deserve equal rights and equal opportunities, but that is where the similarities end. The expression about snowflakes comes to mind -- none of us is the same as anyone else. So why is our educational experience based on the tragically misguided assumption that we are all, in fact, the same?
It is a psychological fact that everyone learns in a different way. There are visual learners, kinesthetic learners, fast learners, slow learners, short learners, tall learners. Trouble is, schools only acknowledge one or two of the endless array of learning types. When teachers teach the children all the same way, only a small percentage are getting the proper attention to their own unique style of learning. The result is that certain students excel while others fall behind, with no accurate representation of actual intelligence.
The work a student puts out is a direct reflection of his or her personality. Someone who finds dates, times, formulas, and quotes mundane and tedious would not spend their time filling a paper with such things. Conversely, someone with no concept of a world outside their own would not waste time trying to convey a fictitious event. However, when time comes to do an assignment, only one of these minds will be where it belongs; the other will be lost in strange territory. This is because the grading system has been set up like a checklist. Instead of gauging the quality of the work, teachers grade the assignments based solely on specific, narrow criteria.
The grading method used by schools is called "Standardized Assessment." This is the defining problem in the American school system today. It gives all the students the same assignment with the same guidelines, regardless of who the student is or whatever individual quirk might need compensating for. Any divergence from the guidelines means either lowering the child's grade or failing them altogether. This strict adherence to the rubric leaves absolutely no room for variation, which limits creativity to a fraction of its potential.
In my sophomore year, I was told to write a 5-paragraph essay about the Civil War. It had to touch on the topics of slavery, equality, and patriotism. Since I abhor writing like a textbook, I was not excited about writing this paper. However, instead of blowing it off entirely, I modified it into something that would make me actually want to do the work. The result was a 5-page short story about a Confederate soldier named Jakob, who struggles with the idea of killing his countrymen. I hit every required topic and put in 3 solid days of work. When I handed in my paper, confident that my effort would make me a star in my teacher's eyes, I was told to redo the assignment according to the guidelines. With no time left to write an actual paper, I copied and pasted five paragraphs worth of Wikipedia. That paper got a B. The point here is that all my hard work went totally unnoticed for the sake of "sticking to the plan."
So what does all this mean for future generations? Eventually the standardization process will take full-effect, turning all children into unoriginal blobs of gray goo. Feelings of inferiority will increase in children and teens, leading to different methods of self-correction. Some will find that simply changing their work habits is enough to bring them up to the so-called "standard." Others will not be so lucky. Another, more horrifying result, is the dissolution of our imaginations. The period in our lives that we are in school is when we develop who we are. If that child with a beautifully wondrous mind is constantly being reprimanded at school for "having his head in the clouds," he is going to pull his head down, and the world will never know what it could have had.