Stories can offer a fresh perspective. Here’s a story about what happens in schools.
What Kind of Journey Are We On?
Young children start the journey with open eyes, ears, hands, and minds that look, listen, touch, perceive, and think. They run; they walk; they play. They are curious. They stop to investigate, either on or off the way that we’re going. Their journey is not exactly like ours, but we are more alike than not.
Everyone has a map. As children begin the journey, their maps appear simple, but they are full of promised potential. As the journey goes on, their maps will become increasingly different. Some maps will include the better paths to many interesting and far away places in great detail. Other children’s maps will show sparse, often misleading representations of poorer roads to only a few of the nearest destinations.
Parents provide much of their children’s first equipment and maps. Some children wear expensive clothes and seem to be better equipped for the long trek, while others may need to depend on others for basics. As the journey continues, some parents encourage and add helpful things to their children’s backpacks as needed. Others overstuff their children’s backpacks and may try to take over the journey. Still others leave their children to make the journey alone. Whether they have advantages or not, the littlest children are usually eager to start.
Some adults who have been appointed leaders appear as the journey starts. These adults have maps too. The maps show paths that go over mountains and through deserts, swamps, and many other sorts of terrain to reach destinations that leaders and children will be traveling to over many years.
Some leaders have better maps that clearly show the terrain and paths that make it likely that all of the children can reach destinations. The children, even those with less expensive equipment, often walk easily or even skip on the better paths, which are carefully chosen and maintained and offer refreshment along the way. The better paths reduce the difficulty for children of walking over wobbling rocks, sliding sand, or sucking mud, even though they may still find those areas the most arduous.
Other leaders have maps that are not so good. Some maps were invented by people who had what seemed to be a good idea, but unfortunately they never checked their map against the real terrain. If these devisers of maps have been called experts, it is likely that some leaders may choose to use their maps without checking for proof that they work well. Other maps are detailed for certain parts of the trip but offer no clue to destinations or why one would want to go to those places. Some maps leave it up to students to figure out their own path with few clues as to important landmarks.
As the journey continues, some children stumble more and fall behind. Many parents and leaders think that the major reason that children fall is because they are especially prone to falling, even though all students fall more often on badly constructed and maintained trails. Although some of the students who are falling have less expensive backpacks, it should be noted that those with leaders with better maps of better paths are often able to keep up with the students with the more costly equipment. In fact, children with more expensive backpacks are likely to fall behind if their leaders have poor maps.
Children are always trying to come up with better maps on their own, especially at first, but over time some stop believing that maps are any good as they spend much of their time wandering around without getting anywhere interesting. Some of the faltering children completely give up. Some go off on paths that lead them far from the others, sometimes to fine places. Unfortunately, some paths lead into ravines where children remain stuck or even to dangerous cliffs from which they may fall.
An onlooker can sometimes see some very odd things. Some leaders, especially those who seem the most compassionate, are often seen putting blinders, earmuffs, or mittens on the children and then sometimes taking one or more of these off. These leaders believe that the best walkers really need only their minds and possibly only to hear about the maps to walk to the destinations. They believe that all the other children walk best by concentrating on one of their senses primarily, so they spend a lot of time trying to identify which kind of muffler they should remove.
If children are tired or often getting lost, kind adults may carry them or offer wheelchairs, crutches, or various exercises. These children usually get to take off all of their blinders, earmuffs, and mittens, for at least part of the day. Some of the exercises are devised to build muscles that may or may not be used during the journey, although going on better paths would seem to the onlooker to be a more reasonable plan.
With some exercises, leaders see results soon; with others, it is unclear how well they are working, though many adults take for granted that they are the best available and will continue to use them for years. Some forms of assistance help children to walk without getting out of breath or even to run, some take much time to enable children to barely keep up with their friends, and others turn children into cripples. Fortunately, even muscles that atrophy can recover if the children are put on better paths and given better maps and exercises. This requires leaders to identify and use better maps to the better paths. It’s often very hard, though, to convince children to get out of wheelchairs, put down crutches, or even attempt different exercises if they have come to believe that they are unable to walk on their own.
Caring adults often make the journey more enjoyable with games and occasional jaunts to amusement parks. Sometimes these excursions help the children to make even better maps, but sometimes they lead the children into dead ends. Leaders then have the children make big leaps back to their former trails. In these cases, some children, as might be expected, would rather stay on carousel or roller coaster rides. These children dutifully or not so dutifully go on the paths they are shown, but they spend most of their free time off with entertainments that require less effort and that are unlikely to lead to many of the destinations that are available to those who travel more widely.
Some of the strongest children go very far, but even they often decide that going to some of the farthest lands is not for them. Most maps to the farthest places show what seem to be dark and confusing mazes. Children are seldom told much about these destinations, although they sometimes see glimpses in books or films of incredible vistas that some may pursue on their own. Relatively few children find exotic lands using awe-inspiring maps they construct with leaders or other adults. Other children persevere even with inferior maps and arrive in the farthest lands after much slogging and trudging on rutted paths through mazes. Sometimes, however, when they arrive, they may not even understand what they are seeing and be blind to the marvels around them. They also may think that what they see is only true there and not in their homes or off the trails.
All of the children grow up and believe that they know all about the journey. Some even want to lead children on the journey. Some reuse older maps, which vary in quality, often adding some bits and pieces that they remember or that they’ve heard of along the way. Some choose the maps and trails, often advertised on big billboards, that are most mentioned by other travelers. Many times leaders are only interested in a small portion of the journey and only look at maps for that. They themselves as children may never have learned much about the far places, and they don’t think that they need to learn about those places now.
Other leaders have realized that better maps most clearly show better paths through heights, valleys, and other kinds of terrain to the most amazing destinations, which are often more interconnected than most people know. They realize that even the youngest children on better trails can appreciate both nearby scenery and long distance views. These leaders help children to construct their own well-designed and useful maps, showing them how to check their versions against the terrain that they are representing. The children who travel with these leaders learn how to make journeys of their own for the rest of their lives.
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What Happens When Children Go to School?
Ok, this is the tedious part where I explain what I meant by some of the allegory. Don’t feel like you need to read it, if you have the gist already.
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The crux is that too many students and adults in the U.S. do not reach higher levels of proficiency and knowledge because of educational materials and methods that range from inferior to excellent, but that most often are mediocre. If something is mediocre, it is of average quality. Average quality may be fine if standards are high, but when standards are not high, average is not good enough if we want all of our students to fulfill our dreams of universal education and opportunity.
Even those children who start out well on the educational journey may have fewer options for learning, fewer paths open to them, as time goes on. Math and science are often taught in ways that hide their clarity, beauty, and power and confuse the majority of students, who give up early. Even when students pass tests, they may not understand the concepts behind the formulas they’re using. In the U.S. currently, many see students’ lack of success and interest primarily as something about those children, instead of recognizing that those of us who teach can set all children up to succeed and appreciate our world at much higher levels for many more subjects.
Often with the best of intentions, when we see a student who is not doing well, we concentrate on the idea that there is a deficit of some sort in that child. There certainly are differences between children’s “backpacks” – the financial and educational backgrounds from which they come, parental and community support for education, what they know and are interested in. There are also individual differences in children’s resources according to neuropsychological or other kinds of assessments.
But some current interpretations of differences, including the most predominant ideas about “learning styles” overemphasize differences at the expense of good basic teaching. Too many educators get hung up on what students can’t do rather than providing materials and methods that work better for all in the first place. Educators can spend too much time differentiating after children don’t understand. Sometimes what is used in differentiating is an improvement (by letting children use hands, eyes, ears, and minds more effectively). Sometimes interventions are just more of the same. Perhaps the most dangerous educational ideas are those with pseudo-scientific rationales that focus on non-essentials and distract educators from what is most important for their journey with children.
What can educators control? We can identify and use accurate maps of interconnected knowledge and skills to involve students in mastering the deep, rich, and fascinating structure of the subjects we teach. If subjects are not interesting, comprehensible, and memorable to students, it is likely that one or both of two things is true: first, our knowledge is superficial and, second, our teaching is not designed well for human beings.
All people are most likely to make mistakes and learn poorly when the most important information is not clearly available in an understandable and memorable form. If experiences of inefficient or ineffectual learning continue occurring over time, students are more likely to fail.
Students who are failing often lose their initial interest. It’s easy to lose interest in activities that require effort and perseverance for what seems like little immediate return. Some educators intimate, or even say outright, that the main reason for schooling is to get a good job later. Students who already feel that they are wasting their time in things that don’t make sense may find this carrot unappealing. Those students who believe it are likely to grow up and pass on the same belief.
Poor details in educational materials and methods may seem negligible, but they add up. When educators try to help students by using bits and pieces of learning principles out of context to teach topics that are only superficially understood, students are likely to stumble and learn poorly. If all students encounter poorer materials, all students will learn less. Those students who learn more become the educated elite, more likely to visit farther lands both figuratively and literally. The students who learn less are likely to encounter dwindling educational opportunities. Some will be diagnosed with learning disabilities because they couldn’t “break the code” for reading or had other difficulties in learning that are to a large degree avoidable with clearer, better designed materials. Some will drop out of the educational system entirely.
Occasionally children excel by going outside the system. Some inventors and other high achievers have found motivation and ways to succeed outside of schools. Children may pursue one of the arts, science, business, or programming, using resources and perhaps mentors outside of schools. Often these kinds of possibilities cost money, unless they are available as part of a club, religious organization, or other program. Children in the U.S. who read are fortunate to have abundant, free materials to choose from in public libraries. Some good educational choices on television and the internet are available, too. Children usually already have some interest and encouragement from family or friends if they choose to spend their time on these kinds of activities outside of school.
But why not make all schools the places where all children have a real opportunity to master and enjoy learning?
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