A Matter of the Heart

automaton.jpg.pngWhen I entered high school placing students in particular tracks had become all the rage. Based on grades and an entrance exam I ended up in what was known as the Honors group. Things were a bit nerve racking for me because the principal inserted a caveat to my designation in a face to face meeting in which he indicated that I would only be part of that cadre on a probationary status. In fact he suspected that I would be removed within the first grading period because I was barely qualified for the academic rigors to which I would be subjected. Through sheer determination I hung on for four years and graduated with an Honors designation. It would not be until I was an adult that one of my former teachers would reveal that my peers and I had been part of a grand experiment that did not work as well as the adults had hoped.

Educators have a tendency to be constantly searching for what I call a magic bullet, a way of doing things that will transform the way we teach our children and result in dramatic advances in knowledge and critical thinking. Sadly as such attempts take place there is always a risk that they will not bring the hoped for advantages and may actually do damage to the students who become living guinea pigs. Thus it was with me and many of the other people in my class. Each of us became known more by our labels and less as the individuals that we were. We tended to believe that sets of numbers defined us, and in my own case I worried that everyone would learn that I was a fraud. Because the principal had so clearly indicated that I did not have the intellectual acumen to be a member of the elite Honors class, I was constantly stressed and uncertain of my abilities. Little did I know until that fateful reunion with my teacher that I was not alone in the emotional trauma that the untested methodology unleashed. The fact that the plan that had driven the daily routines of my class was eventually changed to address its blatant problems was of little comfort. The damage had already been done and it bothered me even though most of us had managed to overcome the difficulties perpetrated by faulty methodology.

As a teacher I understand the need to find the best practices for reaching students. Still I have watched a parade of bandwagon theories that have ultimately been rejected long after they have had an ill effect on the youngsters who were used to determine effectiveness. I don’t suppose that we are able to tell whether or not something will be successful until we try it, but for the group that is subjected to massive changes it can be disastrous. We watched the new math of the seventies be rejected because it never really clicked with either the teachers or their pupils. We worry about that the constant standardized testing and the thirst for hard data has somehow ignored the heart and soul of each individual. We sense that numbers alone are incapable of measuring the content of a mind. We try different styles of note taking, tutoring and delivery of lessons, only to realize that there is no one size fits all way that works for everyone. We labor to individualize learning and teaching but then insist on scripting lessons. We’ve tried cooperative learning, behavioral modifications, and on and on. All are noble and well intentioned efforts but instead of taking an entire group and radically changing the way they are taught, why can’t we try such interventions in small doses until we are certain that they are effective?

There is a trend in many schools today to modernize teaching by using technology with a nod to B.F. Skinner. Students watch educational videos or read lessons at their own paces. If they fully understand the concept they are free to keep moving forward. If they are confused they ask questions of the teacher who becomes more of an interventionist and less of a direct instructor. Interactions between teachers and their pupils are thought to be more targeted and thus more effective, but for many it has become a frustrating venture leading them to confusion and a loss of self esteem. As someone who has always understood that there is never one best way, I have to wonder what proponents of such radically different systems were thinking when they decided to abandon all of the traditional ways in favor of a grand experiment. Why not instead insert such changes in small doses and then measure their effect on each student? It would make much more sense to see what happens in a trial run rather than simply accepting that all of the old ways should be left behind. It really is possible to teach in a number of different ways and still get phenomenal results.

I would like to propose that teachers select the methods that work best with a particular set of students rather than tossing out the baby with the bath water in favor of new ideas that are still untested. We should instead tread lightly with innovations, use them sparingly until it is evident that they truly are effective. It’s never a good idea to overuse any practices. They can become too routine and boring to students. Variety truly works well and provides opportunities to try the latest educational ideas. The most important thing is for teachers to still be teachers, not just conduits of information. In other words the goal is to help every student to attain mastery of concepts. That takes patience and creativity because sometimes the secret to unlocking a mind lies not in how information is presented but in how an educator touches a heart and turns on the magic that lives inside everyone. There are truly some aspects of learning that have little to do with data points.

We have rubrics and measurements for literally everything today, neglecting to take our differences into account. Students who don’t quite fit the mold often feel that something is wrong with them. Only a talented and sensitive teacher knows how to help them to find themselves in a world that seems so intent on judging their worth based on numbers. We really do have to move beyond the test scores and grades to encourage our youth to see learning as a magical and exciting experience rather than one that places daily stresses on them. If a student does all of the steps correctly to find the equation of a line when given two points but then accidentally multiplies wrong to reach an incorrect answer, we need to be willing to give that person credit for what they did right and use the mistake as a learning tool. All too often we instead slash a big red mark over the entire effort and leave the child feeling inept. That borders on educational malpractice.

There are those who speak of today’s students as snowflakes, kids who can’t handle conflict or difficulties. Nothing is farther from the truth. Today’s children are busy checking off boxes that indicate that they are moving steadily toward success. It is an almost robotic atmosphere in which they must complete so many requirements just to move from one phase of education to another. Square pegs have to fit into round holes no matter how painful the process of doing that may be. Universities make it more and more difficult to land an acceptance letter. Students must have resumes that include rigorous courses, leadership roles, extracurricular activities and even community service. They work from before dawn until well into the late hours of night attempting to accomplish all of the expectations. Many of them are enduring mental distress in the process and questioning their worth when they falter. It is as though we have embarked on a nationwide experiment with their very lives and souls. We have become Tiger Adults who push and push and push without thought of where all of this will lead. It is little wonder that so many young adults are pushing back on the system once they come of age to make their own decisions. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to demand that schools take a long hard look at the effects of what they are doing.

I made it through my high school and graduated as the Valedictorian in spite of the negativity and pressures that were placed on me by well meaning adults. Not everyone is so fortunate in such highly charged situations, and we have to take every person’s needs into account. There are indeed great teachers who have found the keys to reaching students without destroying their confidence and we should observe them and learn from them. Isaac Owoyemi teaches mathematics for mastery, providing students with multiple opportunities for learning concepts in an encouraging environment. Seng Dao Keo understands the necessity of starting from the point where students are on the learning curve rather than failing them for not being ready for a particular idea. Chrystal Hunter deconstructs the most difficult aspects of mathematics and simplifies them so that her students will comprehend and feel accomplished. Dickie Written reaches the imagination of his pupils by making literature relevant and exciting. Lisa Sandifer understands that many students need the arts to reach their full potential. Jenny Brunsell brings the heart of an angel to her kids and they always respond. Such educators realize that while there is an element of science in teaching it is in the execution of its art that the true miracles happen. They do not rely on scripts or preplanned lessons or the latest fads, but instead select what is needed in a specific time and place. This is the trend that we need to follow. Until our children feel the joy of learning all of our efforts will have been in vain. We reach them first through the heart and then the mind follows.

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