Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is "success" failing our children?

In Overschooled but Undereducated, John Abbott writes about chickens:
Poultry farmers, listening carefully to their accountants, put each of their laying-hens into little wire cages and install conveyor belts to provide constant food and water, keeping them warm and content with reassuring music and dim lighting.  The eggs literally roll out, frequently and regularly, while the farmer watches as his profit margins expand….Through lack of use, those chickens’ legs and wing muscles simply wither away….Free-range chickens are adaptable, but battery hens have had adaptability bred out of them in favour of a specialized efficient function – egg-laying – and have lost their ability to survive on their own. 
He compares the poultry farmers’ initiative to the modern curriculum that prunes everything to its basic motivation: to raise test scores to get a better job to make more money. The result: battery hen children who don’t know how to think for themselves.

Our intentions are good, of course.  We want our children to succeed.  But then we stumble up against the question of what success is.  We want something richer and broader than a high-paying job in the future, of course, but if a whole system is going to work on success we have to have some common agreement on what it is and how to measure it. And before you know it there are tests and graduation rates and everyone scrambling to figure out how to get each child to do well on those measures.

Lately, because children are still failing, educational leaders have begun to think that the measures are at fault and have been busy changing tests and curriculum. To combat the “battery hen” problem, there has been greater attention paid to improving students’ capacity to think critically, creatively, collaboratively, ethically, innovatively.  But the focus remains constant. How do we ensure that each child succeeds at whatever measures we decide on?

Our latest efforts have been to “engage them in their learning.” The thinking:  worksheets, rote learning, and repetitive tasks stop children from “engaging” their minds; therefore, they fail.  Remove these "battery-hen practices” and we can ensure that each child succeeds.

 And so “good” teachers make sure that every day is filled with unique, thought-provoking, intriguing, diverse activities that motivate students.  They find experiences that are flexible and open enough to be both enjoyable and “just right” learning (neither too challenging nor too easy) for each of their 30 students.  They “gamify” the classes, so that their lessons are like video games: absorbing, a constant source of micro-feedback, stimulating.  And connected to each student’s passion.  Day in and day out.

If students are not engaged, then the teachers must make changes. After all, disengaged students won't succeed. The advice?  They should search for new lessons, incorporate project-based learning, drama, art, technology, find video-clips, add virtual field-trips.  They should re-examine hard things, potentially dull things, things that aren’t “relevant,” any practice that might be “boring." And the latest thrust: teachers should orchestrate the environment to keep students’ attention engaged:  paint the walls beige to prevent distraction from learning, play soft music to block distracting stimuli, add “wiggle pads” for chairs to allow students to sit longer, put play-dough at desks to keep their hands busy and their minds free for learning.

Students need only sit at their desks (preferably in soft chairs under ambient lighting with reassuring music piped in) waiting to be edutained.

And while teachers are working harder and harder, it still doesn’t seem to be making a real difference.  Too many students still struggle to succeed (no matter how we measure it).

The poultry farmers’ goal is the egg, as many as possible.  They don’t care that the chicken can no longer walk, about its ill-health or anxiety.  We, of course, care very much about our children.  But in our continued focus on “success for all” (the egg) are the results – no matter how we change the way we tend the chicken – so different?

Our deep desire for the best for our children leads us to do more for them.  We develop increasingly complex solutions to ensure "success for all" and technology is making them possible. But lately I've been thinking that we might simply need to do less.  Perhaps we need to remember the “free-range” child.  I’m not sure how.  I’m just worried that when we spend so much time ensuring that every moment of our children’s lives is “perfect,” their own capacity to create a world that is perfect for them is lost.

1 comment:

  1. Shelley,
    You express here what I've felt intuitively for a number of years. Great analogy; I hope more people in our district get an opportunity to read this. So true!
    Kristine Walker