The MEGnitude of Change

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 22 2012

The American Education System: Intellectualization v. Contextualization

“Classrooms have become fear-based, test-based battlefields, when they could so easily be organized to encourage the heretical thought we so badly need. … Decades of school have drilled that into us — fear, fear, and more fear. Fear of getting a D-minus. Fear of not getting a job right out of school. … Here’s what we’re teaching kids to do (with varying levels of success): take good notes, show up every day…” — Seth Godin, Linchpin.

I am frustrated. I am frustrated with the assumptions many privileged people make when writing about our education system & how it needs to be changed. Yes, Seth Godin, I am frustrated with you.

Idealistic notions of what schools should be often do not match what today’s students need schools to be.

When many people hear tardy bells & see school uniforms & read lists of school policies, they immediately think only of conformity — that schools are trying to teach kids to become clones. But what if we expand the list of values behind these rules?

What if we choose to see tardy bells, not as a means of teaching conformity, but as a way of teaching reliability? Being prompt is not an arbitrary skill. We show respect for others by being on time for our meetings with them (in American culture, at least). We show our kids that we love them by not leaving them sitting on the curb for hours, while we follow our own schedule. Time helps us connect to one another — and respecting time often means showing respect for each other.

What if we choose to see taking good notes, not as a means of teaching tedious details, but as a way of teaching accountability? By taking good notes, students are asked to pick out important details & record them for themselves. They learn the skill of creating personal records, which is certainly important in one’s personal life. It may not be significant to know specific dates for the War of 1812, but it is important to know your mom’s birthday. Slowly, they learn to take notes that make sense for them — including questions for the teacher or highlighting parts that may be confusing to them.

You have to walk before you can run, march before you can dance. While I love the idealistic notion that schools should be places where students freely pursue their own academic interests, students must first learn within a structured environment before they can create their own structure. We must build a foundation so that they can build on top of it.

I’m frustrated because many academics do not know what it is like to teach or learn in American schools. While they are far from perfect, there are elements that cannot be understood from an external perspective. It’s one thing to think about the American education system intellectually, but it’s another question entirely to contextualize it in specific school communities, given the needs of specific students.

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