Friday, February 14, 2014

Maybe it's Time to Ask the Fish to Climb

The inability to avoid maddening soundbytes and oversimplified sentiments is one of the consequences of social media.  Our friends, our co-workers, people we don’t know pepper our screens with opinions, and, for the most part, we grow inured; we scroll by.  But there are always those few that creep under our self control and erupt in internal tsunami of sheer frustration.

For me, prime among those maddening memes are the ones promoting the utter uniqueness of the learner and condemning all education for not customizing teaching and evaluation tools to learners…each of whom is evidently a genius if only judged on her or his personal criteria.  When one of my friends posts one of those, I break out in hives and bite my tongue.  They drive me insane. 

It’s not the sentiment behind the quotes and statements that drives me so mad.  I’m a huge proponent of learning styles and multi-modal education; after almost 20 years in college classrooms, I’m a passionate advocate of encouraging people to learn in different ways.  It’s the implication in the posting – the suggestion that if information is not processed and presented in a way that is customized to each learner, keeping that individual within their set mode of accepting information, then they are being somehow violated.  I find that deeply, grotesquely offensive for a plethora of reasons, but for two in particular.

First of all the premise behind many of these casual assertions is the same premise that I believe cripples much of the American education system.  It is the creed that education is about conveying information.  In a world where Google’s algorithm can lead readers to more in-depth answers than many college courses and Harvard professors explain ideas on YouTube at the click of a button, merely presenting information to any learner, no matter the methodology, is a pitiful and impractical goal.  Not only that, that conveyance of information has always fallen short of the true goals of education.  Learning is not about information; it is about thinking.  If there is one thing that the American education system today cannot grasp, it is critical thinking.  You can post quotes and images that blame underfunding, lack of customization, or standards that do not take the fragile learning ecosystem of your child into consideration, but the real problem is that the education system is trying to present information instead of understanding. 

As a teacher, I encounter hundreds of students every semester who are incapable of pushing beyond repetition of information.  They have “learned” in that they can repeat what they have been told.  When they are asked to go beyond that, however, to put together the facts beneath an organizing set of ideas or principles, they often struggle.  They have never been taught to think about thinking. They know how to access information, but they have no framework of understanding on which to position that data.  From the inability to do word problems to the abysmal hatred of essay tests, American learners are lost when it comes to higher level thinking skills.  The education system has spent more money than most other educational systems in the world in an attempt to teach information in ways that learners will understand, but it has utterly failed to teach them how to understand.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

His Dreams Were All Behind Him

Sometimes it is not the complexity of prosody that carries the greatest power; it is the pure eloquence of an image, a moment, the perfect marriage of a few words that says more than whole books may convey.  Those simple things, the phrase, the moment, may touch upon something too deep to be easily explained.

I was driving home from work, listening, as is my custom, to the radio.  As I flipped the switch, letting unfamiliar voices flood the interior of my car, I found myself in the middle of an interview with an African American musician, explaining why he had chosen a particular piece of music to express his feelings about winter.  He spoke of an incident lost in the past that inspired him; the image of his father, a blue collar worker, struggling against brutal winter weather as he fought his way to work past the windows of the school where his son sat trying to gain access to the higher echelons of society through education.  The soft voice on the radio spoke of his father's bowed back, not even immediately recognizable as his parent, as he walked "as if all his dreams were behind him."

I paid little attention to the rest of the interview.  That simple phrase, those words, utterly chilled me.  There, in so few syllables, was one of the great fears of mankind laid bare, the horror of aging.  There lies truth.  It is not the fear of physical failing or of death that makes us avert our eyes from age. It is the fear that all our dreams will be behind us, that nothing will be pulling us forward to tomorrow.  Instead, the icy fear invades our gut, we will merely stumble toward the end of our earthly existence crushed by the weight of dreams scattered behind us on our path, a heavy past driving inexorably toward a vacuous future. 

As if all his dreams were behind him.

As we grow older, we accomplish goals, tick things off our "bucket lists."  But we often abandon dreams or push them off until later.  But somewhere, somewhen, there is an elusive moment where the future and the past switch places, and those dreams fall behind us.  For some, that moment conflates with the last breath; there are always dreams ahead of us, we never stop wanting, longing.  For others of us, it happens far earlier.  We give up on wanting and longing, or we give up because we believe those things are the purview of a younger generation, and we somehow have the notion that if we keep dreaming, there will be a shortage of dreams for them. 

There are no guarantees in life, but I do not want to trudge through my life with my dreams behind me.  Daily, I worry about my widower father who struggles to fill his empty days and his emptier nights.  I avert my eyes from aging, fleeing not from the fears of wrinkles or aches, but of a void without dreams drawing me forward.  Perhaps it is best to put that in words and to begin building, not a practical plan for the future, but a fortress of dreams, floating ever before me, unattainable, tempting, and full of hope.