Old School Can’t Teach Students New Tricks

(This post is inspired by and based on Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams Manifesto-http://www.thedominoproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/StopStealingDreamsSCREEN.pdf)

A one buttock player, as coined by Maestro Ben Lazare, is a technical term to describe what passion and drive looks like. In his manifesto on education, Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin applies the term to paint a picture of what an ideal school would feel like, atmospherically, referencing the Harlem Valley Academy (HVA) as a prime example. One-buttock students who genuinely care about learning are in hot demand at colleges everywhere, because interest matters.

The current school system in the United States still looks pretty much the same as it did years ago. Our education system is built to produce good test takers, and people well versed in rote tasks that require no out-of-the-box thinking, students fashioned for the industrial workplace. As Godin puts it, “Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system” (Section 3, paragraph 4). This was all well and good in the 1990s, but nowadays the job market is full of predictable factory-type workers. The innovators, designers, artists, even engineers are all pushing through into the 21st Century of the work force. This modern day work force requires people with the ability to think on their feet and adapt. But schools remain rooted in the factory model. If the schools haven’t adapted to the seemingly ever-changing world around them, then what about the students?

In order to solve all the problems stemming from our current education system, Godin takes a step back and asks a preliminary question that ought to have an easy answer: “What is school for?” Generally, there are four goals mentioned by Godin which can be summed up as follows. The point of school is “To create a society that’s culturally coordinated, to further science and knowledge and pursue information for its own sake. To enhance civilization while giving people the tools to make informed decision, [as well as] to train people to become productive workers” (Section 4 paragraph 1). But in actuality, the first 3 goals, are simply byproducts of the system made to staff factories with educated people (goal 4). The students were tailored for a factory life, and schools were designed with this end in mind. Over time, the other three goals emerged as (often positive) byproducts of the system, but as a side goal, they aren’t currently being well fulfilled.

School in this day and age ought to focus more on the process, which encompasses the first 3 goals. The end result we desire from schools remains the same. What has changed is what is necessary to meet that goal requirement. The workforce, as stated above, no longer fits a cut an dry factory environment. A new set of skills are needed, and schools should help students gain these skills. Students and prospective workers in the future need to be Aware, Caring, Committed, Creative, Goal-setting, Honest, Improvising, Incisive, Independent, Informed, Initiating, Innovating, Insightful, Leading, Strategic, and Supportive. (Keep in mind this is a sampling, not an exhaustive list of good qualities for people to have).

The reason Howard Mann created the concept of a common public school was to get equal education for everyone. Mann recognized the importance of education, believing that “we build a better society when our peers are educated” (Section 8, paragraph 1). The point of school was to make society a better place; more educated people means more adept government. However, the idea that “elementary education is the three R’s mechanically treated, is based upon ignorance of the essentials needed for realization of democratic ideals”(Section 8, paragraph 2). Basically, in order for school to fulfill its purpose and better society, more than the basic 3 R’s is necessary. Godin challenges teachers to ask themselves “Does the curriculum I teach now make our society stronger?” If not, it’s time to take another look at it.

Multiple choice tests, one of the most widely used testing devices, were designed by Kansas Professor Frederick. J. Kelley in 1914, as “a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders” (Section 10, paragraph 2). It was used originally as a method of quickly sorting immigrant students into appropriate grades, so as to finish the required 2 years as soon as possible then enter the desperate WWI work force. The SAT, “the single most important filtering device used to measure the effect of school on each individual, is based (almost without change) on Kelly’s lower- order thinking test” (Section 10, paragraph 5). After the implementation of his test in education, Kelly revolted and preached against the education usefulness of his creation, saying “that it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned [in education]” (Section 10, paragraph 4).

By supporting this system of systematic knowledge testing and compression of information with the multiple choice tests, schools erect themselves as industrial institutions in the business of mass producing students. To keep the masses in line, schools must utilize the element of fear. This fear, while keeping students in school and “learning”, also supports conformity therefore destroying individuality and passion. Maybe this is why students find it so hard to appeal to the college cry of “Be Yourself! Be Unique!” It’s possible that all the uniqueness and individual passion has been frightened out of them. Students pass days in school mindlessly memorizing information, not for the sake of learning, but because it’s required and they need the information to pass the next test. Which is most likely multiple choice. Killing more individuality and passion cells, one bubble at a time.

This mindset of learning for the tests, to pass the SATs, to simply succeed at the system, is skewed. School is where students can be taught all the goodness and information that is needed in their lives, where students should be able to learn, with their teachers’ help, all that they want to know. Emotions and values CAN be taught– imprinted, so to speak, upon children. Teaching good values can leave a deep impression and such an impression helps students use those values to create a happy world community. Unfortunately, “School has become an industrialized system, working on a huge scale, that has significant byproducts, including the destruction of many of the attitudes and emotions we’d like to build our culture around” (Section 12, paragraph 9). This is the result of a culture geared towards making children efficient test takers, and masters of lower-order thinking skills.

In the process of destroying values, emotions and attitudes, school is also molding students to aim lower. Jake Halpern found in a survey of High School students that most girls don’t aspire to be a rock-star anymore. Their dreams have downsized so that they content themselves with being the rock-star’s assistant. School teaches students that being the president or a famous actress or a world-renowned anything is rare, that it’s better to aim within your reach than to reach for the stars. What schools should be doing is quite the opposite. Schools should fuel and support the dreams of the students and be there to guide them along their way instead of pulling them down. Godin asks, “Is this the best we can do? Have we created a trillion-dollar, multimillion- student, sixteen-year schooling cycle to take our best and our brightest and snuff out their dreams—sometimes when they’re so nascent that they haven’t even been articulated? Is the product of our massive schooling industry an endless legion of assistants” (Section 15, paragraph 5)?

We’ve realized that currently school is in the business of mass-producing assistants (or other factory type worker), with basic knowledge, little to no creativity, suppressed individuality and minimal passion. School isn’t even fulfilling the basic requirement to better society, forget about the nice goals of furthering science and knowledge, creating a society that’s culturally coordinated, and pursuing information for its own sake. The system itself is outdated, trying to serve a world that no longer exits. It’s time for school to get a makeover!

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