Saturday, 8 January 2011

Conformity is happiness

Having a son a lot like myself, I'm watching in dismay as the school system does to him what it tried to do to me. A quiet, shy boy who likes to do his own thing, my son gets very anxious in group situations and tends to shut down, go off into his own head. I suspect that when this happens his teachers think that nothing is happening, that he's just standing there blank, but I know this isn't the case, because I do the same thing.

When people are too much with me (which happens in large groups or very loud situations), I daydream to give my mind some place to play. Standing in a large, noisy group of grade ones repetitively voicing lyrics for the Christmas concert would have lost me quickly, as they did my son. Somehow, his music teacher believes this means he is a failure in music. I'm not sure how group choral singing and dancing is the sum total means of assessing musical skill, but I suppose in some people's minds it is.

Ultimately, it seems that, to an elementary teacher, an unresponsive child is somehow blank. I teach myself, so I recognize the challenges of trying to get an accurate assessment of skills in a classroom full of students, but a lot of this can be mitigated by differentiating instruction and differentiating evaluation. Many opportunities to demonstrate a skill in different contexts is, again, a challenge, but if we're not there to try and create circumstances in which a student can show their best selves, why are we there?

Last year I was at a PD in which the instructor said that he was astonished to see so many secondary teachers out, because usually they don't care anything for PD, differentiating instruction, collaborative assessment or technology in education. My department head and I looked at each other and asked the obvious question, "why would you want to antagonize your audience in the first five minutes?"

He went on to (admiringly) describe elementary teachers as paragons of modern educational philosophy, masters of DI, experts in assessment, the very flowers of the education system. He was then frustrated that his room full of secondary teachers appeared unwilling to interact and ask questions during his presentation.

So here I am, looking at the system as a parent for the first time. In my view, the elementary system is designed around standardized testing. The curriculum is so tightly prescribed and detailed that teachers have little latitude in how they can present it and how long they have to assess it. As a result, they are approaching the education of younger students in a very mechanical, statistical manner. This is something that somehow proves to those in charge that elementary teachers are superior - working within a coherent system that produces students who all think similarly and demonstrate the same skills at the same skill level. Administrators must love this; what a great opportunity to produce STATISTICS.

I have no doubt that there are secondary teachers who love this kind of order (most become administrators). A wonderful world of easily organizable human beings who all do the same things, the same way at the same level. It's the stuff curriculums are made of. But in my experience, especially in the humanities and the arts (and increasingly in science and even math), secondary teachers are actually more interested in trying to arrange conditions for success with their students, rather than comparing them to an artificial and arbitrary set of standards being designed by a MINISTRY somewhere.

One way this happens is by recognizing that teaching and learning are a biological process, and that they happen for students at different times in different ways. This isn't to say that there shouldn't be expectations of what a human being is capable of, the last thing I'd advocate for is a lowest common denominator approach to human being, but an education system that is overly prescribed is probably serving its own bureaucracy rather than its students.

The board keeps showing us Sir Ken's mighty speech: You've probably seen it. Watching it at this last PD through the lens of a frustrated parent of a grade one boy born in October, I was most struck by his comments on our infatuation with date of manufacture. We have built one of the largest public institutions around this idea, mainly for the convenience of the bureaucracy that runs it. (I live in hope that peak oil will break this tyranny: )

In the meantime, I've been talking to colleagues who have atypical children and their only advice is cry long, cry loud and never let them become complacent. It makes me feel sorry for all those kids whose parents are too intimidated, or uncaring, or too busy to advocate as loudly.

There has to be a better way, for everyone involved.