Schooling and How Schools Don’t Prepare Children for Life

This entry is my reaction to an article on Medium:

“Stop Telling Your Kids That School Will Prepare Them for Life” by Rich Stowell

https://medium.com/letters-to-my-boys/stop-telling-your-kids-that-school-will-prepare-them-for-life-ef9e55c0b2d

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Students are being prepared….

Prepared to be obedient, to conform, to not think deeply, to not question authority, and to function at the lower levels of a hierarchy.

Several decades ago, when I was designing a gifted program for a small rural school district, a statistic that appeared said that about 4% of the population was gifted (whatever that means), and that about 19% of the prison population was gifted. However, bright kids seem to fall along a continuum from those who see the game and don’t want to play it to those who willing play the game, whether they see the game or not.

Personally, I loved kids like Joseph when I was teaching, but I was a fringe teacher. I wanted different things from my students, even when I moved into teacher education, where I tried to seed a revolution in education. But, I’m not sure how successful I was. I may have affected a few students (who actually entered the teaching profession), but I fear the majority were gobbled up by the status quo.

But, today’s schools are not interested in deep, meaningful learning. In fact, they appear to be more interested in dumbing down our kids. A dumbed down population is much easier to control than a population of deep and critical thinkers.

A friend of mine’s son, when he was in middle school, woke up terrified one night and came into his mom’s bedroom. She asked him what was wrong. He said he had a nightmare. She asked what the nightmare was about. “He said, ‘zombies.’… She told him they talk in the morning. In the morning, she asked him what he meant by zombies. He said, “Zombies are people who cannot think for themselves, they want you to be like them. … And, if you do what they say, your dignity flies out the window.”*

Tell Joseph to keep up the good work. As my friend suggested to her son, he could play along and avoid getting in trouble by “acting” the part, but he should never believe that he was that type of student. But, either way, Joseph needs to keep his dignity and integrity.

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* Bateson, N. (2016). Small arcs of larger circles: Framing through other patterns. Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press. — pages 70–75

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The Corporate—Institutional Connection in Education

Standards, Curriculum, Educational Products, and the Demise of the Teaching Profession

 

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had an opportunity to spend time examining state and national standards, as well as school district curricular documents. I was doing this while helping a fledgling educational technology company prepare materials to support their products. It has been an enlightening experience, although quite depressing in many ways.

The company and its products are actually quite good and could provide exciting approaches to teaching science, technology, mathematics, and just about every other subject matter area. But, what I’ve been seeing is the interaction of needing to sell products (or go out of business) with state and national standards and with the administrative level of schooling. The business has to sell products, but they also have a deep sense of making a difference in teaching and children’s learning. As a fledgling company this binary of selling vs. making a difference can lead to a difficult double bind.

Underlying the efforts of the business is a sense of desperation. Even though they have a great product, it takes time for educational sales to reach fruition. Typically, school purchases are made in the summer. But, the company is finding itself needing money immediately. And, then to just add some spice to the developing double bind, the sales manager says that one superintendent said they had too much subject matter content, which was then interpreted as “schools don’t want the content.” Up to that point, the curriculum people were developing content rich materials to support the technology. At the same time, the curriculum team played off of state and local standards, but did not necessarily align everything to the standards. But, the superintendent also said he wanted to see that the standards were being addressed. This is a tricky double bind in itself…. address standards, but don’t include content. I’ve seen this sort of double bind before, where the superintendent said in one breath that he wanted all elementary teachers to teach science through inquiry. In the next breath, he said he wanted all students to score above average on the state tests. Teachers saw this as a no-win situation.

The double binds have been signed, sealed, and delivered. The company, with the best of intentions, is now caught trying to do something that can’t really be done. To navigate this situation requires intensive thought and creativity, which are difficult to do, if one is operating out of desperation and from within one or more double binds. You just can’t think clearly or be creative in such situations without explicitly identifying the problems and making a concerted effort to reduce the emotional impact on the problem solving process.

This situation is a work in progress. I hope the company makes it, and that it finds a way to make a difference. But, it’s a toss-up.

 

However, my work with them allowed me to catch glimpses of the dark side of standards and school curricula. I’ve talked elsewhere in my blog about issues with standards, but a few of the issues I found more recently include:

  • Incorrect conceptual information
  • Grossly incomplete conceptual information
  • Superficial conceptual information
  • Listing things as concepts that aren’t concepts at all
  • Introducing activities that are supposed to address concepts and do not

It was shocking to me that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) present incomplete conceptual information. In one such instance, NGSS has a set of standards for learning about the states of matter.

  • “Gases and liquids are made of molecules or inert atoms that are moving about relative to each other. (MS-PS1-4)
  • “In a liquid, the molecules are constantly in contact with others; in a gas, they are widely spaced except when they happen to collide. In a solid, atoms are closely spaced and may vibrate in position but do not change relative locations. (MS-PS1-4)
  • “Solids may be formed from molecules, or they may be extended structures with repeating subunits (e.g., crystals). (MS-PS1-1)”

There is no mention of the 4th state of matter, plasma, which was discovered over a hundred years ago. One might say,”well, that is just something that isn’t that common and isn’t part of children’s everyday experiences” (as if much of what is presented in science classes are part of one’s everyday experiences). But, plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe. Stars are primarily plasma. However, plasma also is a lot closer to home. If you have fluorescent light bulbs in your home, the gas inside these tubes is excited into the plasma state when turned on. Lightning is plasma. A welder’s arc is plasma, as well. So, who chose not to include plasma? Why? Did they not know or did they think it insignificant?

A school district’s treatment of Pluto as a dwarf planet said that the criteria for changing Pluto’s status was its size. Yes, Pluto is small – 2,360 kilometers in diameter, while Mercury is about twice as large, but is still small at about 4,879 kilometers in diameter. However, from my understanding, the real issue in downgrading poor Pluto, was that its orbit crossed another planet’s orbit (Neptune’s), which is a no-no for any upstanding planet.

The standards are riddled with all sorts of problems. At the core, they are all biases towards the corporate sector. The Common Core is a prime example in that the whole enterprise was staffed by lawyers and corporate people. The NGSS seems to be a sell out to the corporate sector. And, all of the states have bought in, as well. But, some of the biggest problems aside from this core issue, have to do with falling back into factual mode, where authentic inquiry, place-based, and project-based approaches are downplayed. Under the guise of integrating the sciences with technology and engineering, the NGSS pushes so much at teachers that they will never be able to address all of the “pieces.” Either big parts will be omitted or they will resort to teaching for rote memory or some of both. And, then there are areas that receive superficial treatment in lieu of giving much greater emphasis to technology and engineering. Although they refer to “environmental” concepts, they have moved this conceptual area from what should be the major focus throughout schooling to technology and engineering concerns. I don’t think they quite get the double bind that is embedded here (technology and engineering have created the environmental mess in which we are living, yet they think that technology and engineering will save us from the very thing that is The problem).

All of the standards and politicization have created another mentality in schools, as well. The issue of “time” has been around for a long time in schooling. But, it has reached its pinnacle. What the sale manager in the company I’ve been discussing says, is that elementary teachers typically have 30 minutes twice a week for science and social studies. The have on the order of 2 hours a day for literacy and somewhat less for mathematics. Superintendents want teachers to cover everything as quickly as possible. Efficiency is the name of the game. Deficiency is the result. Children learn to read through phonics. You sure can pronounce those words, but forget about comprehension, not to mention reading speed or the joy of reading. But, we’ll spend 2 hours a day on it. Math is done by memorizing algorithms. And, never let a child figure out an alternative way to solve a math problem or do a problem without a pencil or pen (and never a calculator).

Our children should have time to engage with important and interesting topics. They need time to play with ideas and with “stuff.” They need time to develop richly and deeply interconnected ideas. They need the time to explore. They need time to develop multiple identities as artists, scientists, poets, writers, musicians, mathematicians, and so on. But, time is squeezed until the whole of schooling becomes claustrophobic. Children and teachers turn into zombies (those who stumble along and who can’t think). They can hardly breathe for being squeezed so tightly.

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Federal and State Standard, and Local Curriculum Guidelines – Disturbing Documents

I’ve been examining local, state, and federal curriculum guidelines and standards over the past week or so. And, I’m shocked at what people have put together.

I’ve never been a fan of standards and prescriptive curricula, so reading these documents have been difficult to stomach from the beginning, but what I’ve been finding is quite disturbing. I probably can write a book on the analysis of the science learning standards alone, but I don’t have the time or interest, at least at this point. However, I will list a few of the more shocking things I’ve found in this blog entry.

  • There are a surprisingly large number of conceptual content errors, such as:
    • Three states of matter instead of 4 (solid, liquid, gas, and plasma). The latter state is the most common in the universe, too.
    • Velocity is direction and not speed plus direction.
    • They refer to 3 characteristics of cells, when there are at least 4 characteristics.  At this point, the characteristics are (a) cells have a surrounding membrane, (b) cells have cytoplasm containing all of the organelles, (c) cells have DNA in and/or out of the nucleus, and (d) cells have RNA for carrying information with the cell.
    • They refer to Plants and Animals as the two Kingdoms,when there are at least 6 Kingdoms, depending on what theoretical framework and research one is using. These Kingdoms are: Animals, Plants, Fungi, Protists, Bacteria, and Archaebacteria.

Then, the authors of these standards and curriculum guidelines just leave out important concepts. In one document, “force” is omitted entirely when talking about motion. I don’t know how you can talk about motion and not talk about force.

But, even more disturbing are:

  • The attempts to cover a large number of conceptual areas in short periods of time.
  • The introduction of very difficult concepts to young children without the necessary background experiences and knowledge to help them develop meaningful and deep understandings.
  • The same old attempt at determining what subject matter content is “covered” at what time and in what grade.

The people who worked on these standards and curriculum guidelines have not gotten past the positivistic and mechanistic approaches to teaching. The results of such standards and curricula include damaging children even further. The number of new vocabulary words are overwhelming, not to mention how some very difficult concepts are attempted, where even university students have trouble with these concepts.

These documents are deeply disturbing. It’s as if the designers of these documents are clueless about children, how they learn, and classroom teaching. The documents are a pitiful attempt at trying to control every last detail of children’s learning. The national science standards have all but done away with inquiry. They say to “demonstrate” inquiry. They do not say engage children in inquiry. So, children are going to be left memorizing material for tests, while their curiosity, interests, and passions are dismissed and suppressed.

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Connecting to Another

Stephan Harding’s “Encountering Another Being”

 

In this video, Stephan Harding talks about a sense of knowing that is non-conceptual. It is in a sense pre-conceptual. In Buddhism, this sense of knowing is considered to be what is called prajna or knowing that is direct and clear of conceptual baggage. Although this experience of directly seeing and directly connecting with our world is discussed in Buddhism, it certainly is not something exclusive to Buddhists. This type of knowing is accessible to everyone and is, in fact, experienced by us to some degree from time to time. It may happen when we look at a beautiful sunrise or sunset before we start thinking about how beautiful it is. We can encourage this sort of seeing and knowing by just sitting or lying down in whatever kind of environment we are. We can notice the sounds and smells in ever-increasing layers of distance while softly gazing at our environment. If we do this in a forest or meadow, we begin to blend into the environment. The animals start to come out and see us as just another part of the context. And, we are part of the context, but we’ve lost that connection with all of our speediness, aggression, and self-absorption.

This type of knowing needs to be encouraged throughout schooling. From little children to university students, we should be building in regular times for experiencing directly the contexts in which we live. This should have been done a long time ago. Maybe corporations would have taken more responsibility for living within our ecological contexts.

 

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Linearity 2.0 – Crushing Insight and Creativity

Most teachers keep control over the direction of discussions in the classroom. In fact, most classroom discussions follow the pattern of:

a. teacher question

b. student answer

c. teacher evaluation.

Such a sequence is frequently referred to as IRE sequence or Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (Bloom, 2006; Cazden, 1988). Such a sequence allows for no divergences. Classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school follow this pattern… a dead-end pattern. It doesn’t really enhance student learning. And, promotes rote memory and an attitude of “playing the game.” As students get older, they expect this game. Those who are interested in getting good grades, become quite good at playing this game. And, those who are not interested in grades, who are often the rebellious and brilliant, resist playing this game. They see through it and aren’t interested in playing.

The IRE pattern kills creativity, curiosity, insight, deep learning, complexity, and REAL discussions that are meaningful and relevant to the students. Teachers hold to the IRE sequence out of habit or out of fear that they will lose control or some combination of these and other factors.

But, divergences are where the action is. Discussions that spin out into recursive circuits of interconnections, fantasies, and personal experiences can become intense learning situations that promote creativity and insight. There are teachers (and I’m one of them) who keep a look out for those divergences and keep providing opportunities for them to arise. To promote divergent discussions, one has to ask different questions and avoid evaluating student comments at all costs. Teachers have to stop talking so much and defer to students. Student arguments and free-flowing discussions need to be encouraged.

“Invite chaos, trust complexity” (Bloom, 2006)

 

 

 

References

Bloom, J. W. (2006). Creating a Classroom Community of Young Scientists (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Cazden, C. B. (1988). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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The Assumption of Linearity in Education

I was listening to a educational materials salesman talk about the “curricula” teachers want with the materials he’s selling. He kept going on about at what grade level kids should learn one thing or another, and that to repeat it again at another grade is a bad thing. My stomach was tying itself in knots. But, this is exactly what Standards do, as well. They lay out a sequence of concepts and facts to learn, to which no one will return.

It’s really too bad we see education as a linear process. This linearity appears in a number of terms: learning trajectory, scope and sequence, and so forth. No where in most public and private education does the idea of “recursiveness” appear. If we think of learning as a recursive process, then the idea of returning to concepts over and over again is fundamental characteristic that is of great importance. Think about some conceptual area you feel that you understand well. Now, try to remember how many times you spent learning about that conceptual area. I doubt very much that this was a one shot deal.

In recursive learning, we can revisit topics and go into further detail and extend the contexts of the topics. We can even start making connections to multiple other contexts. In each recursion, we can enrich the learning. This is a really good thing to do, especially if we hand over more control of the learning to the students. Follow their questions and curiosity. And, as teachers, we can suggest directions or connections students haven’t seen.

The linear approach is really a dead-end approach. You go down one alley and stop. Then, you get helicoptered to the next alley. It’s a nowhere approach. The end result is an uninformed and dumbed down citizenry, which is exactly what politicians want. An informed and intelligent citizenry can’t be so easily controlled. So, under the guise of increasing standards of learning and accountability, they are really just trying to dumb us down.

 

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Linearitits

Linearititis = a psychological disease that involves being stuck in linear thinking and the inability to think recursively.

Symptoms:

  • Breaks into a sweat when faced with complex situations, uncertainty, and unpredictable situations;
  • Desperately tries to make everything orderly and predictable;
  • Bursts of anger when life doesn’t follow a predictable path;
  • Underlying fear that life is unpredictable and uncertain.

Causes are multiple in origin, including:

  • the influence of the super-paradigms of positivism, mechanism, and reductionism;
  • linearity of media programming;
  • linearity of news media;
  • linearity in all of schooling;
  • linearity in familial relationships and discourse;
  • linearity of imposed interactions with economy and business;
  • linearity of medical treatment, diagnosis, and research;
  • linearity in just about all contexts.

Effects are multiple:

  • Inability to handle complex situations;
  • Inability to think and work recursively;
  • Extreme difficulty handling uncertainty;
  • Intense desire to solidify and simplify thinking and actions;
  • Intense desire to block out contradictory information;
  • Intense desire to create linear representations and models of complex, nonlinear phenomena.

Other information:

  • Highly contagious;
  • Most likely sectors or contexts to suffer from this disease:
    • Scientific community
    • Medical community
    • Financial sector
    • Corporate sector
    • Education community
    • Psychoanalytic community
    • Political sector
    • Most members of the Complexity Sciences community (ironically!)
    • The media (news and programming)
  • Least likely sectors or contexts to suffer from this disease:
    • Artistic community
    • Poetry community
    • Performing Arts community
    • The more creative and revolutionary science parts of the Scientific community
    • Small portion of the Psychotherapeutic community

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Inquiry, Systems, Relationships, and Learning – and the Loss of Integrity in Science Education

Once upon a not so distant time, I was a “science educator,” and more specifically a science teacher educator. Some of you who may read this may have known me in that role or an even further back role of science teacher. However, for most of my career, I felt somewhat uncomfortable with these roles, but much more so in the new millennium.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, science education research and practice were rather exciting. Many of the past assumptions were being questioned and new directions were being explored. The national science teaching standards of 1996, even though they had some problems, were basically pretty decent. They heavily emphasized teaching through inquiry and trying to manifest a sense of the nature of science. Personally, I liked these two emphases. I’ve never been a fan of conceptual standards, but in the 1996 version, these standards were general enough not to be too restrictive on what could be explored in the classroom.

In the 2013 “Next Generation Science Standards,” inquiry receives only cursory treatment. In fact, what they’ve done is to trivialize inquiry and remove it as the core around which children’s curiosity and engagement can revolve.

Here are a couple of second grade standards:

2-LS2-1. Plan and conduct an investigation to determine if plants need sunlight and water to grow.

2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.

These types of simplistic inquiry standards miss the essence of inquiry almost entirely. Inquiry arises from curiosity and one’s engagement and play within a certain context or set of contexts. Teachers might as well just take the lead and tell children what to do step by step. There’s no context for the inquiry, no curiosity, no engagement.

The second of these standards makes “observation” look like some secondary and not very good option for getting information. Observation may be the entirety of inquiry in some fields, like astronomy and some parts of earth sciences. And, there is much more one can do with observation in second grade than just compare the diversity of life. What the hell were they thinking? I guess they weren’t. What about the patterns of form and function? What about such patterns and their appearance across diversity? There is so much young children can explore given the opportunity, but too much knowledge is certainly a problem for a corporate oligarchy.

Teachers need to be creating environments where children can explore and play with materials. They need to be ready to capture the questions and curiosity of children and help them design more engaging and complex (aka “real”) inquiries. Children should leave school everyday with questions and come back the next with more questions and maybe some ideas for further inquiries. Maybe they’ll even come back with evidence to support some idea they’ve had.

I don’t want to do a complete analysis and critique, but there is another confounding point I must discuss. Ecology only receives superficial treatment and a very poor one at that. Ecology appears briefly in kindergarten, grades 2 and 3, middle school, and barely in high school. Ecology should be the central focus.

Although they mention cycles and interdependent relationships, they keep emphasizing linear cause and effect processes. Ecosystems are “complex systems,” and they interact with a number of human social—political—economic systems, which are also complex systems. Complex systems do not have linear cause and effect relationships. They are unpredictable and self-maintaining systems. To discuss these systems as if they were mechanical systems and to dissect them into parts (which they do) is yet another abomination.

And then, in a high school section, what does this standard “sound like” to you?

HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

This standard appears under the category of Human Sustainability.

To me, it sounds like a side-step to the issue that current climate change is due to human activity. It reverses the statement to how climate change influenced human activity. What? If one was studying early humankind this may be an interesting question. But, in a contemporary high school, this standard is an abomination to the integrity of science and scientific inquiry.

I think the science education community has lost its integrity. It’s sold its soul to the corporate oligarchy. Look at the standards. Every section throughout deals with technology and engineering. And, they make a concerted effort to align with the highly flawed Common Core (SEE my earlier posts about Common Core: The “Common Core” of Ignorance; More on the Common Core: Who Decides?; & The Common Core Standards – Keeping Our Kids Dumb).

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AS…

As ecosystems are stressed and careen towards collapse…
As the world population increases beyond the limits of capacity…
As communities split apart and are consumed by fear and hatred…
As nations come apart at the seams or barely hang on to some semblance of coherence and sanity…
As cultures lose their identities, but are feared and hated anyway…
As families disintegrate and disperse around the globe…
As religions mesmerize the masses and are lost in the quest for power and money…
As corporations plan their take-over, while abusing their workers…
As politicians seem to have lost all sense of what it means to govern…
As tyrannical despots take over positions of power…
As the use of nuclear weapons moves from past memories to distinct possibilities…
As people lose their senses of empathy, compassion, integrity, and generosity…

We approach a POINT…
A point around which we find ourselves spinning.
We may spin out of control towards total self-destruction.
Or… we may spin into new ways of thinking and relating.

So far, schools and their corporate over-lords have been complicit in the movement toward total collapse.
But, if there is to be any hope, schools must step up and take the lead.

Schools must prepare our children to create new ways to live together and within our ecosystems.
Schools must prepare our children to collaborate and think in more complex and creative ways.
Schools must help children learn to survive and thrive as ecosystems collapse or change.
Our children are the generation that will face the brunt of all that humanity has done wrong.

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Intelligence and Context: Epistemological Errors

A recent article in Phys.Org, Apes’ Abilities Misunderstood by Decades of Poor Science (see also: Leavens, Bard, & Hopkins 2017), briefly discusses the biases of scientists that have led to many misconceptions about the intelligence of apes. They make a good point. However, they also seem to fall into to some problematic traps.

Just from the title of their article (Leaven, Bard, & Hopkins, 2107), they get into trouble by saying that the problem and solution is in the way they “measure” intelligence. I’d like to see the dimensions of intelligence that can be measured. We make the same mistake with children in “measuring their intelligence” and “measuring learning.” Trying to measure qualities or psychological processes that cannot be measured are epistemological errors given to us by Descartes, Newton, et al. (By “epistemology,” I am using Gregory Bateson’s notion, where epistemology is the personal construction of knowledge or our personal ways of sense-making. [See Bateson, 1972/2000]) We think we can break down everything into parts and develop mechanical models of everything. And, measuring things that can’t be measured falls into this view.

But, the authors and many other people make another error. They try to use the same context to compare two different animals (i.e., people and apes). So, they take apes into homes and allow them to experience the same things. But, this is problematic. Although it may be interesting, our homes are not the normal context for apes. In fact, such actions are contextually displacing the apes. To really understand their intelligence, we need to observe them in their own context. And, this goes for understanding intelligence in other living things. As more and more research is coming out about intelligence in all sorts of animals, in plants, in fungi, and in bacteria, we need to find ways of understanding these organisms’ intelligence in their native contexts. And, yes, decontextualizing or contextually displacing intelligence is another epistemological error.

References

Bateson, G. (1972/2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leavens, D. A., Bard, K. A., & Hopkins, W. D. (2017) The mismeasure of ape social cognition, Animal Cognition, August 4, 1—18. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1119-1 (Accessed at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-017-1119-1)

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