Open thread

Published by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2009 at 01:05 PM

In order to understand what kind of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in a classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to do is the classroom’s message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly they sit and listen to the teacher. Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at least pretend to such belief when they take tests. Mostly they are required to remember. They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details. (How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in classrooms, and you will find that most of them are what might technically be called “convergent questions,” but what might more simply be called “Guess what I am thinking” questions. — Neil Postman, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1969



Comment by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2009 at 03:14 PM

some happy things to share this weekend:

maira kalman’s column in the new york times

tom hodgkinsons’s column “the idle parent” in the telegraph; unfortunately, you have to click all over because there is evidently no page that neatly organizes all of them together. it’s worth it.

while on the telegraph site clicking fruitlessly for more tom hodgkinson, i found the very funny stephanie calman:

hope everyone has a great weekend!

Comment by Arwen on March 27, 2009 at 03:21 PM

This post makes me think about my ever-chaning attitude toward the most common comment made to people thinking of homeschooling: "What about sociaization?" The more I think about the kinds of social interactions learned in school (both in the classroom and on the playground) the more I wonder why you would want your kid "socialized" that way.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2009 at 04:16 PM

school often pits children against each other, forcing them to compete, comparing their performances, sorting them, etc. it’s not necessary. children could work together collaboratively, cooperatively, helping each other. there could be a completely different, supportive dynamic. it happens in some private schools, charter schools, etc.

i hate when adults say school is necessary (in its typical form) because it teaches kids how to deal with society. who would want to live in a society like that?!

coincidentally, my husband and i just had a long talk with the boys on this very subject this week. we were talking about how school is *not* like real life, because in real life we help each other, so we can all be successful. and i was saying that my first experience with working collaboratively in school was in a journalism class at university. students working together to help each other improve their projects — what a revelation!

Comment by Lisa on March 27, 2009 at 06:51 PM

"They are almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone else says is true."
You just summed up why I homeschool my daughter and why my son hates school!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2009 at 07:52 PM

i am reading neil postman’s “the end of education” (published in 1995) and when i came across this quote from his book from *1969* i couldn’t help but think it was still largely true!

Comment by Stacey on March 27, 2009 at 08:46 PM

When I used to teach I had students who would spend so much time stressing over if their papers were set up right. I finally had to make a rule that all they needed was to be in ink dark enough for me to read it and their name on the top. It had been drilled into their heads for so long that it needed to look right rather than care about the content. In another school I worked with a woman who taught high school english and she would return any paper that was more than 5 paragraphs because 5 we're all she was willing to read. Nothing to do with what they were writing about or the ideas they were expressing. One of the older students finally started a writing grou for kids who wanted to write more, he actually had almost the entire middle and high school in his "class".

It was that school, which was suposed to be very alternative that I realized that I didn't want to raise my child in any environment where a large group of peopel were subject to the authority,without question, of a few others. For that matter I don't think I would ever want to put myself in that position either.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2009 at 08:51 PM

good grief, that’s just ridiculous! kudos to the kid who started the writing group so they could write more, but good grief!

Comment by Cristina on March 27, 2009 at 11:18 PM

The saddest part of all this is that children are losing their curiosity. We witnessed this at a clean air symposium that we were invited to. The schoolkids at this symposium were given a scavenger hunt game in order to get them interested in different aspects of the symposium and the different group's displays. We homeschoolers had set up a display about invasive plant species and how they spread. Because we weren't on their scavenger hunt list, none of the kids showed any interest in looking at our display or asking questions. They just quickly moved on to find the answers to their game so they could "win."

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2009 at 12:01 AM

i am so sick of adults constantly telling kids what to do! organized activity after organized activity!

when i was a kid, if you wanted to play ball, you carried your ball, glove, or bat — whatever you had — down to the empty lot and played with whoever else showed up. (yes, i am that old!) now my friends complain that their children sit on the bench because they aren’t star players, listening to parents screaming at the umpires!

your scavenger hunt reminds me of the junior ranger programs at so many of our big parks .. you see kids walking through museums and exhibits with their heads down over a booklet, concentrating on filling in blanks or collecting stamps, rather than actually immersing themselves in what’s there, just so they can collect a plastic badge.

i think the idea of kids racing around following their own interests *bothers* a lot of adults — like they’ll be too noisy, too whatever, so *let’s get them into an activity, now, shall we?* bah humbug.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2009 at 12:06 AM

british teachers are boycotting standardized testing ...

quote: “Testing narrows the curriculum and makes learning shallow, because the tests are simply regurgitative. Then the results are published in league tables, and schools in the toughest areas, where you've got hardest to teach children, are ridiculed on an annual basis. There is high stress for children; some will already be spending up to 10 hours a week rehearsing these tests. It's a complete waste of time. It is unconscionable that we should simply stand by and allow the educational experience of children to be blighted.”

... hello, NEA? anyone over there got a spine?

Comment by Sarah Jackson on March 28, 2009 at 12:48 AM

This reminds me so much of the very sad conversation that I had with Gunnar's teacher today when I asked her for a recommendation for his application to a charter school. First she said "I don't want him to leave, because I don't have many strong 5th graders and I need him in my class next year to be a leader and set an example. But, if I were his mom, I'd be moving him too." She then expressed her increasing frustration over how her job has changed over the years and how saddened she is to see a school that was a place she was proud to send her own children become just another school. We discussed her difficulty in getting him the assistance he needs in reading fluency - she was told to just teach him the same way as everyone else and eventually he'll get it. Then she said "I just don't know how much longer I can wake up every morning and do this." I felt terrible, but even more convinced that we're doing the right thing for Gunnar.

And on the organized sports, since I'm writing a short novel anyway. I got into yet another argument with my father-in-law over Annika (age 6) being in team sports. I said she was too young. He basically said that everyone else is doing it, so we need to also, or she'll just be behind on skills and be frustrated when she starts. I don't even want my kids participating in organized sports *at all* until they're old enough to a) want it, and b) be emotionally ready to handle the stress that comes with it. And if they never want to? Great! I hated them, myself. Oh, and being in tennis lessons that they both love is not good enough because "individual sports are so much more difficult to learn that you should just put them in team sports where the skills are easier to pick up." So, they shouldn't challenge themselves in something they love doing. They should just go play soccer and baseball like everyone else, even if they have no interest whatsoever. Ugh.

I'll save my standardized test rant for later. Because next week is AIMS week, and Gunnar is already full of dread. I'm seriously considering just opting out and taking a road trip next week.

Okay, thanks for listening! I'm going to go read Lori's happy links now.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2009 at 01:24 AM

the thing about team sports is, they only have fun when they’re five or six — by the time they’re eight, they’re being graded and sorted and the adults are taking it seriously, and fun is out the window. at least, that’s the way it is here.

L O L re: skills being easier to pick up in team sports — in my experience, skills aren’t even taught, at least by the coaches. the kids are only put through drills to separate out the ones who are naturally gifted (who, perhaps, were trained by their parents at home or by a paid tutor — and yes, parents pay tutors to train their 7yo little leaguers!) from those who are not.

if you decide to skip AIMS, be sure to tell us what the school said! i imagine they’ll be very upset if one of their strong students isn’t there to represent.

Comment by Dawn on March 28, 2009 at 04:23 AM

Wow! I just think about the day we had this and ...once again thank goodness she is not is school!
I couldn't agree more about Cristina's curiosity comment. So sad. So true.

And that socialization...and idea of "winning"... our neighbor has a son same age as Fionna. I am always shocked a little when I hear him play. It is always a competition. We are just not like that at home so it always takes me back a bit. Fionna is trying to understand him but often comes in from their little play times... after he gets out of school... with intresting comments about him "winning" at something. We talk about it and basically conclude that it is fun to just play... and not have a "winner" all the time. It is a good learning experience for her but I am happy that she is only subjected to it maybe a few days a week at most.

Comment by allie on March 28, 2009 at 09:49 AM

I am so grateful to be teaching the littlest ones -- fours and fives -- and sometimes I feel like I need to be ready to teach even younger ones if the testing and standardized assessment bug catches on if universal Pre-K catches on...but that is another discussion, isn't it!

I see teachers of first and second graders in my school talking about how the children help design the rubric for their writing and they have three or four drafts before the "final paper" is handed in...and they think this is better for the children. In reality they are having the children practice being the same. Over and over again. I do not see the sense in that. I don't have a lot of memories from my schooling at the age of seven, but I don't imagine that seven year olds like to rewrite their one page essay on the human body every day for three weeks.

If teachers had the freedom to step back and observe, to take notes and photographs, to get to know each child as an individual, then they would know much more about them than a test can tell you, and much more valuable information to share with their next teacher. I have that freedom in my job now, and others have it, too. But they choose to use the teacher's guide and teach down to the children day after day instead of listening. That is hard for me to wrap my head around.

This is quite the topic, Lori! You've really got me going!

Comment by Susan Ryan on March 28, 2009 at 12:36 PM

Good find, Lori! John Holt and Neil Postman had it figured out.
Our college student son asked for Neil Postman on his Christmas list and really wanted me to read him. I didn't get a chance to, but you've got me curious again.
I just read the quote above to my husband and we're both a little shaken that this was from 1969..and so dead on.
Generation after generation of children not being able to ask substantive questions day after day.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2009 at 01:38 PM

re: the curiosity thing .. i am always thinking of (and referring to) an editorial in the chicago trib a few yrs ago written by a consultant who helps parents get their high-school grads into ivy league schools. he said that these kids had no curiosity, no interest; they didn’t even know what their interests *were*, they were so used to doing what they were told. he said rather than curious and alive, they just seemed *weary*.

allie, i agree so much re: time to observe and document .. we used to say the same thing to our parents — we knew exactly where each child was, because we spent so much time doing just that. yet again and again teachers i worked with from other schools said documenting was “doing nothing” and they couldn’t be caught by a supervisor “not teaching”!

susan, agreed! 1969 .. and what has really changed?

here’s some more neil postman, from the preface to “the end of education”:

“I began my career as an elementary school teacher and have not for a single moment abandoned the idea that many of our most vexing and painful social problems could be ameliorated if we knew how to school our young. You may conclude from this that I am a romantic, but not, I think, a fool. I know that education is not the same thing as schooling, and that, in fact, not much of our education takes place in school.

[A]t its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living. Such an enterprise is not easy to pursue, since our politicians rarely speak of it, our technology is indifferent to it, and our commerce despises it. Nonetheless, it is the weightiest and most important thing to write about.”

Comment by Alice on March 28, 2009 at 03:58 PM

"the thing about team sports is, they only have fun when they’re five or six — by the time they’re eight, they’re being graded and sorted and the adults are taking it seriously, and fun is out the window. at least, that’s the way it is here."

Funnily enough, one of the main reasons she wants to stay at school is because she has so much fun in her sports (and music) class. In fact I know that I would be hard pressed to find an alternative. Sports and music at school are taught in a much more general way, whereas after school activities are much more intense. As her sports and music teachers are both external teachers, I could actually take her to private lessons with them, but she would have to learn an instrument, or take calisthenics and would be under much more individual pressure to 'perform'. At school they have fun with their bodies, their voices, and simple physical or muscial games.


Comment by Alison Kerr on March 28, 2009 at 04:42 PM

'“Guess what I am thinking” questions.'

So, so, true. Is it any wonder that sensitive kids who want to please the teacher end up totally turned off? How can we read her/his mind to get the smile and acceptance that comes from being right? Really, so much of tests written by teachers require knowing the teacher's point of view to know what answer they expect. In this respect standardized tests are actually an improvement over tests written by individuals believe it or not! At least there is just one set of rules to learn to figure out what is required on standardized tests, not a different set of rules every year for each different teacher.

Last year I was using an American Citizenship course with my teen homeschooled daughter which I took from a website which had free texts and quizzes for Florida standardized high school graduation requirements. It was truly a joke the way this material was written. After a couple of weeks my daughter told me she didn't like it and she'd find something else. Now she is using Hippocampus, I think it's AP level, which is more in-depth and interesting than any of the other stuff and she likes it and is learning a ton more on the "harder" course.

Watered-down education is not education at all, just a way to keep kids occupied.

Comment by Amy Payson on March 28, 2009 at 05:24 PM

Words of wisdom: 'How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone'

from one of Lori's ealier links...I think it says it all. That said, I am horrible at implementing it. And when I do implement these wise words I feel guilty like I am being a "bad" parent.

Comment by Becky Johnston on March 28, 2009 at 08:35 PM

Re: Amy's comments on the Idler.

I agree that it's hard to achieve the balance between leaving alone and feeling like a "bad" parent. For example, my son is the one asking to go to the Aquarium and the Zoo at least once a week . . . so we do a lot out of the house, but we try to spend an equal amount of time hanging out at home and just walking around in nature. It's always a challenge, which seems easier as the weather warms and get less stir-crazy by the weather in the Northwest.

Comment by Amy on March 28, 2009 at 09:09 PM

I hate those stupid scavenger hunt activities at museums. They all have them around here, like someone sat down and decided that's the only way a kid is going to get interested in anything, and that if a kid checks off those 10 things or whatever he'll actually have seen "everything" and thus the visit is a success. I try to steer my kid away from them. I've told well-meaning (at least I *think* they were well-meaning) docents "no" quite firmly when they persistently tried to give us those sheets or mentioned it over & over, as if I and my children couldn't possibly get the most out of our visit if we didn't do their stupid scavenger hunt. ARGH! And why, again, do kids have to see "everything" on one trip? I would much rather spend all our time in one or two exhibits, if that's what the kids want, than try to fit in everything. We have quite a few memberships, and I always tell the kids, "If we don't see everything, we'll just come back another day." It strikes me as so sad when a kid is really, really interested in whatever he's doing, and the parent is ushering him somewhere else. "Come on Bobby, it's time to go see the penguins." Will the visit be a failure if Bobby never sees the penguins because he's so fascinated by the Belugas?

re: organized sports, I have no interest in competitive sports whatsoever, but we've dipped our toes in. My 7yo's soccer coach in the fall was wonderful and, in my opinion, emphasized all the right things. I observed some other coaches who were way over the top, and I think I would have pulled my son. As it was, he enjoyed it quite a bit. He'll be doing "instructional" baseball starting next month, with my husband as a coach. The league is so laid-back, according to what I've heard and the woman I spoke to when I registered. The goals for me are fun and fun and more fun and oh, some confidence building, too.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2009 at 10:28 PM

alice, that’s wonderful that she enjoys music and sports at school. in some u.s. states you can opt in to public school only for certain classes, like PE, music, art, science lab, etc.

alison, re: “guess what i’m thinking” .. that made me think of how filtered knowledge is by the time it gets to the kids .. first by the state standards, then by the school, then by the individual teacher.

amy, that’s really interesting! my husband and i were *just* discussing that very thing at lunch, or at least something similar — how so many parents say they want to give their children extraordinary opportunities (like music lessons, dance lessons, sports, vacations, etc.) even though all the studies seem to say over and over again that the best predictor of success (and avoiding common teenage problems) for kids is how much time they spend with their families. to me, that quote (tom hodgkinson is quoting d.h. lawrence) just means to not butt in so much and control so much, but to leave them space to do their own thing — along the lines of my recent post about leaving room for them to have their own ideas. leaving open time in their schedule, not over-scheduling, etc.

becky, i don’t have much problem being the “bad” parent. ;^) in fact, when other parents quiz us about how the boys aren’t in activities or how we’re not planning a trip to disney world, i like to deadpan “oh, we’re bad parents.” ;^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 28, 2009 at 10:36 PM

amy, re: the museum planned activities, i’m glad i’m not the only one! ;^)

and i agree with you so much re: not trying to see everything but just letting them move at their own pace and really examine the heck out of whatever it is that is really captivating them. again, it’s skimming vs. depth! i would rather they have a really strong memory of one particular thing — that they can remember and keep thinking about at home, and maybe go on to investigate by reading more about it or whatever — rather than feel like we “saw as much as we could”.

this reminds me, too, of that post i wrote about the kids we saw who were miserable at the visitors’ center ..

.. that idea that you can turn the most fun thing into something “educational” (simultaneously teaching kids that education = boring, controlling, etc.).

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