The dilemma that we face in education is multifaceted. There is the history of public education as a commercial tool; the socializing of worker training. There is need and expectation in a democracy for an educated electorate. There are the thousands of years of human effort at understanding the vicissitudes of life and the workings of our world; all the things that have been made available to learn about. There is the need to be part of a community of experience.
There is the possibility and willingness of the society to train its young. There are the goals of segments of society: train children this way; no, train them that way; no, train only these and not those. There are the costs, short term and long term. There are the attitudes within the society: children are our future; every problem is solved by applying competition and the profit motive; social responsibility takes precedent over individual responsibility and vice versa.
There are the rules for how education is to be done; a sort of Mulligan stew of administrative conclusions and actions based on all of the above considerations along with lots of others: class sizes, teacher competence, content standards, testing, materials made available, class schedules and a dozen more details that students, teachers and onsite administrators deal with every day.
But… for me it all turns to bullshit the second that I walk into a classroom. It is suddenly a primal experience: the grown animal in communion with the juvenile animals of his species. I cannot help but generically love them, even the snarling one in the corner looking desperately for a way out, even the one trying to size me up for just how they are going to get around me in all ways – the same motive really for both.
I look over the room. If you have never had this experience, it is really like the movies, but without the sitting on the desks and ‘want-to-be’ gang leader prancing about. It is just a collection of young humans, deeply insecure, frightened that they will be embarrassed, uncomfortable in their chairs and many wishing that they could be doing something else. Frankly, that is how I feel when I go to faculty meetings.
But so much for generalities, let me try to explain the dilemma of education in the detail of the last group of students that I taught. I was teaching science and math in a small charter high school. English was a second language for most of the students.
Since the families had to make a special effort to get their kids into the school, the parents were generally interested, I would say passionate, about their children’s future success – even if they were vague about what it was that would lead to success, they knew it began with education! The students were less sure. Lied to by previous education, lied to by media, lied to by peer relations, the students’ average opinion was that school was a pain in the ass, largely useless, coercive and distracting from their social and other interests.
These were not upper middle class parents with the assumption, even certainty, of their right to make demands of the school or even of their children. These were hard-working people in a new land with a new language; brave people filled with hope and the energy derived from the desire to escape a poverty that they knew only too too well. Many worked 2, even 3, jobs. A third of the students worked full time. Over half worked 30 hours or more week.
Before you develop your own image of these kids, I wish to skew that image. They were bright, elegantly social and thoughtful, culturally complicated, delightful and funny. There were, of course, some who fell into the lower negative standard deviations on these qualities, but by and large I preferred their company to that of all but a few of my business clients and other associations.
Educationally, these students were deeply ignorant. Tenth graders were not competent in basic arithmetic; bright eyed, intelligent young people had not been allowed those skills by their previous schooling. Not one student in the school, regardless of their background (several students had standard school district histories) was ready academically for a real course in algebra. Many had strong math intuition and understood rapidly when given the opportunity; they must have never been given a real chance.
In the sciences the most basic concepts were unknown or unappreciated. And they knew, and were ashamed when it was not their shame at all.
So there you have it: bright, charming, wonderful children without the skills to take on the “standard” high school curriculum – but not unlike other children I had known and taught in the city’s biggest high school. In general, they were brighter than average, less well educated than average and had acquired a deep distrust of themselves as learners. What to do?
It is obvious that what teachers are told to do, teach the content standards for the named courses, would be a crime against these children – most perform that crime as they are told. But knowing that what you are doing, told to do, is wrong doesn’t tell you what to do that is right. Especially if what you sort of think that maybe you should be doing would be rejected, and rejected with some abuse, if you actually did those things.
I was fortunate. I didn’t care what I was told to do and didn’t have to be, but this freedom was not a solution. The students had to be met on a ground that they understood and thought of as valid. And there were the tests that they would have to pass for the school to meet its NCLB and other goals and for the student to graduate – many tests taking whole weeks out of the school year, interrupting the rhythm and flow of an already choppy schedule.
Free of all of these concerns, I would have had lab every day (life is lab anyway) . We would have discovered the beginnings of things. And this we did a little bit, though not enough. Here was one of our adventures: we measured the size of the moon, not me, we. I just set up the situations and asked the questions. No shit, they actually did it with the same simple tools, measuring sticks, used by the Egyptians and Greeks, did it in stages; first we measured a basketball from across the room and then the moon .
This took weeks. We had to wait for the moon to go through its stages and while waiting worked out the math required, just what we needed not the whole thing. So what if a student didn’t know the times table, no sin; just start to learn it so that it was easier to figure out the next step to the moon (do you see the cross-content possibilities?).
We created trigonometry the same way by measuring and tabling many right triangles and then using our own tables to solve problems. But this took a very long time!
I never thought of such activities as ‘hands on;’ that is a trap. A thought experiment is just as good; paper and pencil work is vital. Following a question out to the end whether it involves building a giant device to measure angles, reading a book or learning the way a proportional relationship works is what matters.
But the constant demand to follow content standards, fill in the forms and follow the rules took its toll. I was concerned about the tests that the students would have to pass. And then there is that our schools have been taken over by the education zombies.
I saw one group through to graduation. That was of course another lie, they had not really been educated even to our pitiful standards, but they had come a long way. Many went on to community college, as high a goal as they and their parents could realistically conceive at this point.
I left for my own sanity. My children tell me that, “You look so much more relaxed.” But I still don’t have enough time in a day to get it all done.
 This would not be true for all students everywhere – I have to say this since someone in education might read this – just for these students and only for a time. These kids had never taken anything apart to see how it worked, they just used things and then threw them away. They needed the experience of discovery and not just once, but enough.
 All the measures combined gave us a diameter of 2400 miles. If you don’t know the present best value, look it up. That is what I would tell the kids to do; or go out and measure it for yourself.