Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Killing Them Softly, Episode Three: Revenge of the Hierarchy

Did you all do your homework?  Perhaps you needed a shorter version.

Of course you didn't, and if you did it was because the topic interested you. In no way would watching one of these two videos or reading 21 pages about human needs better your income level or satisfaction with life when Frank Underwood was available at the click of a button or tap of a finger.  I don't blame you. Why then would I blame my students?

Let's run a quick set of scenarios to get this party started.

A well-adjusted adult, let's call him Arthur, wakes up in the morning to the sound of an aggressive alarm. He then spends twenty-some minutes preparing himself for a day at work. Due to traffic, he takes a piece of toast for the road or waits twenty-some more minutes in line for coffee and a stale pastry. Upon entering work, Arthur sits at his desk for seven to ten hours, moving papers from one side of the desk to the other. Sometimes he puts them into new folders, does a math problem with a ten-key on his computer, makes some copies, and organizes his paperclips. He also takes several brain breaks by checking his social media account, losing a game of Trivia Crack, or complaining about the amount of work he still has to finish. When the work day is over, Arthur feels drained. He and his working partner travel home to face the challenges of cooking, cleaning, taking care of the needs of their family, and organizing bits of paper needing signatures so that their money can transfer into the hands of others to ensure that he and his family are warm and fed. Now it is time for Arthur to do his homework.

Depending on Arthur's financial status, this reality splits into two.

If Arthur makes enough money that his family is fed, his house is comfortable, and he is ultimately happy with his place in life and society, Arthur's homework may be learning to play guitar, or to paint. Maybe he will tinker with a Raspberry Pi with his children in the garage. Arthur's homework will be based on either gaining new information he is excited about, or creating beauty with his own hands. Maybe Arthur hikes or gardens, because he loves the outdoors. Perhaps he coaches a children's basketball league with a group of friends for the camaraderie, exercise, and a sense of community. None of this homework will better his life financially, nor will it make him safer or more valuable to his employer. His basic needs have been met. If we told this Arthur that he had to complete a course of really boring material that holds no interest for him and offers no benefit to his near future, he would look at his life, look at us like we were crazy, and go back to his guitar.

Now, let's say Arthur's financial situation is less than he would like. Arthur is taking online courses to get more education and a large piece of paper that states he is more valuable and should therefor be paid more for the work he accomplishes. His basic needs are not met. As he pours over screens of data and videos of slide shows with a voice reading the same words on the screen, he ignores his own social needs. As he takes online quizzes in one window while finding the answers using a google search in a accompanying tab, he blatantly disregards his higher order needs of morality for the quick pencil-whip to benefit his more basic needs. He crunches through hours of work each night in the hopes that it will better his situation financially in order to provide safety and stability for him and his family. He barely internalizes any of the information he encounters; he doesn't grow. The screens in front of him are no more than the papers he moves from one side of his desk to the other. The stress of knowing that people are depending on him causes his diet to fall apart. The acidity in his stomach leads to ulcers which he ignores due to the cost of going to a doctor. Hell, does anyone know how much these classes are costing him?

These two scenarios are incredibly close to what the reality our adolescents encounter every day, and the biggest difference is that the work they do for those seven hours at a desk doesn't pay them a dime. They also have the added stress of their own mutinous brains telling them to focus on social needs above all others. Some students, whose needs are being met, see no need in the busy work that doesn't seem to benefit them or challenge them intellectually. Sure, they complete the worksheet, but only by looking at the first example and mimicking it throughout the rest. Reading directions has been a dead art form for a couple of decades. How many of you try to fix your sink after watching a youtube video, rather than reading a manual or calling a plumber?

A large portion of our students live in situations where their most basic needs are not met, so their minds are not poised on the benefits of learning the differences between Italian and Elizabethan sonnets or how to avoid dangling modifiers. Don't get me wrong, those are great to learn, but I am not sure it is the skill we are teaching when we examine how we teach, but that will be in episode four.

This is where the nostalgic adult in all of us jumps in with a reminder that completing homework from school will earn students good grades (their pay?) and opportunities to attend better schools, which will ultimately provide a stronger financial base (our pay?) so these foolish children can grow up responsibly and enjoy life when they are old, like us.

Yes, we see that timeline because we have all lived it and mucked about in it for years. We have adult brains and the experiences that help to develop those brains; kids don't. In fact, the adolescent brain would have a hard time understanding any of the sentences found above for longer than it takes for them to smile and nod their heads to get us to walk away, feeling like we made a difference. They are smart, in their own way.

Now we have to ask what we want out of our public education system. We need to ignore the smoke of the politically popular arguments and discuss what we feel is the purpose of education. Do we as a nation still believe that public education is for the public good and that we want schools to be places that challenge future citizens to become self-actualized and intelligent participants in a democracy, or do we as a nation see public education as a place for students to learn the process of pushing paper from one side of a desk to another for financial benefit?

This is the moment where I, as a teacher, have to ask myself the purpose of every assignment I demand completed and every rule for which I demand compliance. This is where I have to question if learning and education are the same. This is also the point, as a teacher, where I have to ask what my department, building, district, state, and nation want from me. The answer to that question is not very clear.

We ask more from our students now than during any time in history and we do so with the knowledge that they come to the table at different levels of met needs. As a society, do we build and value a system that meets students at their needs, or perpetuate a system that expects them to be at the same level of learning readiness based on date of manufacture?

Tomorrow, we will explore the insane expectations we currently put on our students that we would not take on as adults and how, as parents, we reinforce the very myth we see tearing our children apart.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read and think. I think the comments are working, but if not, feel free to email comments to leejosephbutterfield@gmail.com or find me on Facebook. You can follow me on Twitter, and by all means, subscribe and share these posts if you like what you read. One sided discussions don't get very far.

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