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Late-night Musings of a Sometime Edu-activist Insomniac

A few nights ago I had one of those nights I often have; I couldn’t sleep. Here’s a little of how it went:

chocolate-41500_640I need to be asleep. Eyes shut. Deep breathing. Mind a blank. Nope, not happening.

The reason I can’t sleep is probably because I was sick for two days and slept most of them. No help here.

Personal observation: Hot milk does not help you sleep–even with chocolate syrup in it.

Getting up and reading Smagorinsky’s column on the definition of literacy sure doesn’t help, but tweeting it and reposting it on FB made me feel better.

Back to bed. Toss. Turn. Think. And think. And think. And think some more.

I NEED to sleep so I can get up and DO “STUFF” tomorrow. Like catching up on my bookkeeping. Going to Walmart. Revising my children’s novel. Planning next semester’s classes.

My head is spinning with chains of thought like a top. 

Tops. I remember they told us back in school that tops and other spinning objects revolve around an imaginary axis. You have to imagine an “imaginary rod,” the teacher said, going through the center of the spinning object that the rest of it spins around. But I’ve always wondered, where down deep inside the object does it not spin? There has to be a place like that, some “thing” to serve as the axis. But what if it’s not a “thing”? What if it’s a lack of a “thing,” like a tiny rod of nothing, maybe a vacuum tube one molecule in diameter that runs the entire length of the spinning object? It makes sense that if everything inside the object is spinning out and away as the object spins (centrifugal force), there would be nothing left in the center, in other words, a vacuum. Vacuums in nature have to be filled (It’s a rule!), so at the same time that there is a force slinging the molecules of the object out, there is an equal force pulling them back in. That makes gravity not a force at all but a balance, an equilibrium! Wow! That seems profound. May not be scientifically accurate, but I am now satisfied I have the answer to my lifelong “wonder” and I can put that one to bed. Maybe I can sleep now.

Isaac-Newton-Apple

And I actually did, and got up the next morning and tried to write down the thoughts I’d had—or at least some of them—during the night. I even did some quick Internet research to see if my gravity theory had been thought of before. My search came up with lots of sites that call gravity a force and at least one that confessed after all the years since Newton and even with Einstein’s insight, we still don’t know what gravity is. So maybe there’s room for my theory; who knows?

But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is the kind of thinking I was doing about the concept of gravity. A geophysicist can probably poke all kinds of holes in my little theory, but that’s not the point either. The point is that I began with a question that nobody told me I could’t ask—or didn’t need to ask—and let my mind make connections it had never made before. My thinking was not being restricted by what I’d been told or what others believe and was successful in coming up with a potential solution to the question that was totally new, at least to me. This is exactly the kind of thinking that students should be doing in school on a regular basis, but they rarely are.

Yes, I know there are examples of classrooms where this kind of questioning and thinking is not only permitted but encouraged, but the fact is, these classrooms are very much the exceptions. Most students spend their school day hamstrung by standards and high-stakes assessments. This statement is no surprise to anyone who is aware of the overwhelming demands of well-intentioned policymakers over the last twenty years or more, who sincerely believe American students won’t learn unless we “make” them (in other words, threaten them with consequences of poor test scores) and American teachers can’t or won’t teach what is important for students to know; and by the way, are teachers even needed if we have banks of computers loaded with “personalized learning” software and Internet connections?

The result of these demands has been a reaction among administrators at state and local levels to tighten controls on teachers as to what they can teach, when, and even how. Everything teachers do must be tied to the “Standards,” and all the “Standards” for a given grade level must be covered before the end of the year, no matter what, so that the students will perform well on all parts of the TEST at the (almost) end of the year. The desperate push to “cover the Standards” leaves no time for real thinking. Even when a standard seems to require thinking, the pace of the curriculum and the inauthentic contrived exercises used to “teach” the concept leave no time for questions to be asked, authentic connections to be made, investigations to be carried out, collaborations in or out of school to be developed, etc. These are the kinds of things that support and promote real thinking and learning beyond regurgitated concepts that don’t stick because they are never really learned. Covering the Standards means going very wide but not very deep.

Learning experts tell us that learning happens only when the learner is allowed to make mental and even emotional connections with what is to be learned. In order to make those connections, students must go deep. That takes time. In school, there is no time to go deep, no time for connections, no time for questions. “No,” says the teacher, often reluctantly, “we don’t have time to talk more about this. Tomorrow we have to move on to Standard X.”

A former state superintendent of education who had bought into the national standards boondoggle once screamed, “I’ll be damned if I let another generation of students be lost!” (Slightly paraphrased.) Too late. We already have.

There have been many calls from several components of American society to back away from high-stakes testing. I have added my voice to those calls. Sadly, Congress and the federal Department of Education, and consequently our state education departments, have turned a deaf ear. The 2015 ESSA retained the requirement for annual testing of students, which actually becomes almost constant testing as school districts attempt to anticipate and proactively remediate any knowledge “holes” that might otherwise show up in end-of-year tests for fear of what the ramifications of those “holes” might mean. Now I think it’s time to go further. I think it’s time to scale back standards to what they should be—aspirational goals, not requirements. Goals are laudable and can be motivational; unachievable requirements are punitive and counterproductive.

Standards are what we use for quality control in a factory. Henry Ford standardizedautomobiles-502135_1280 automobile parts and that was a good thing for building and repairing automobiles efficiently. Do we not realize that educating children should not have efficiency as its main focus? Of course, efficiency has a place, but the focus should be on graduating students who can function successfully not only in the workforce but as citizens in our representational form of government.

One standardized part looks exactly like every other standardized part of the same type. Is that what we want—children who know all the same things and no more? It reminds me of an old song from the 60s; “And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.”

To create a standardized part, we need exactly the same ingredients and we must put them together in exactly the same way using exactly the same machines. Well, that’s where the analogy breaks down completely; the diversity among students and teachers in American schools absolutely defies standardization! Yet we keep trying.

Let’s. Just. Stop. Let’s open our schools up to allow students to think and question again. Maybe one of them might eventually figure out what gravity really is. I’ll be glad to give up my own theory when she does.

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