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.

That failing leads to the second infuriating element of the soundbytes; students should never be asked to reach beyond their learning style or capability, and they should never be judged by a standard not created based on their personal merits.  Although that idea may be noble – the notion of each student as a special snowflake deserving individual treatment – it is abysmal preparation for the world beyond the classroom.  

One of the most important skills we learn as we mature is mental flexibility – the ability to, at least in some degree, adapt and learn in different modalities.  It is that adaptability and the stubborn determination to succeed that comes with it that fosters success in the real world.  Whether the setting is classroom or workplace, it is not always the smartest individual who does the best; it is frequently the one who is  most determined and most willing to work at finding ways to make things work…even when those ways might not suit him or her personally.

And yet that mentality, so heavily a part of the casual education meme, has become a part of our world. Many youth (and some not so youthful) feel that they should not have to reach beyond their comfort zone or be pushed to change in order to succeed.  They are, they feel, special in their own way, and the world should accommodate them, not judge them on unfair standards that do not consider their particular needs or shortcomings.  Adaptability and the ability to create an image is more and more often used in negative connotation.  We should not have to learn how to adapt; the world must adapt to us.  We should not have to do any job or duty that does not fit our personality type, skill set, comfort zone, etc.  That’s unfair…just like trying to educate a child in a way not custom tailored to his or her skill set is discriminatory. 

Back in school, I was taught that one of the things that set the higher primates apart from other creatures was the ability to adapt and use tools.  And, of course, in the case of humans, the ability to establish themselves at the top of the food chain in spite of being weaker, slower, and less prepared for most challenges of nature, marked a sense of superiority. But both that use of tools and that pinnacle of the food chain come out of a sense of innovation and reaching beyond comfort zones.  If we merely sit back and, in the imagery of a deeply abused Einstein quote, declare that we do not need to climb a tree because we are fishes, we will never improve. 

That quote, and others like it, are beautiful and insightful.  Einstein’s quote, ““Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” is often used to suggest that every individual should be judged on their own merits because every person is special, and generalized standards are discriminatory tools of a demonic establishment that doesn’t understand the delicate nature of our children and ourselves.  Obviously, those using it in that context haven’t actually thought critically about the statement.  Einstein’s point is understanding the purpose and context of the creature; what it was meant to be, and judging it on that basis.  If one really wants to apply that to the education of children, we must fall back on a Platonic Republic in which our learners are judged on their purpose – whether they are destined to be philosopher kings or garbage men.  In that system, they can then be seen as geniuses because they are in their proper environment.  The question becomes whether we are willing to see different learners as only suited for certain environments, as a fish is suited for water.  If, then, we see a child as never needing mathematical skills, we may emphasize his genius in physical ability, but by refusing to challenge him in math because it is “judging him” by something not a part of his skill set, we doom him to a particular environment that we have judged appropriate. 

In promoting the idea of every child as genius if he or she is only taught in the perfect way, I believe we are destroying the standard of achievement that so often drives us forward.  As Pixar pointed out in The Incredibles, if you make everyone special, then no one is.  If our goal is to make each individual comfortable and to simply bow to their genius as they are without pushing them to reach beyond their limits, to live up to a mutually accepted standard, we have given up the concept of excellence, of being special.  We have taken away the need to excel by promising that each one of us is okay as we are.  Instead of pushing a fish to try its luck climbing a tree, we assure it that the ocean is a wonderful place, and that there is no need to adapt to land.  In such a world, learning and excellence lose their meaning; everyone gets blue ribbons for who they are, and conveying information becomes the only goal, since information requires no effort or variation; it only requires different presentations for each learner. 

That may well be the future, a system where each child is presented with information in a way that she understands and a way that accommodates his learning difficulties.  If it is, however, it guarantees that the United States will fall even further behind in the global education standings.  Instead of lowering our standards to accommodate each special “genius,” we need to find a way to pull those learners upward, to teach them new thinking patterns that will allow them to reach beyond their limitations and view information as tools and patterns.  We need to honor “special” in a way that encourages others to strive for it rather than emphasizing either its impossibility or its universality. 

Until we can teach learners how to think, not just regurgitate pre-digested information custom tailored to their interests, we will fail.  Our students will never rise above the mundane, even though they will be convinced of their personal importance and entitlement.  The failure of education is not in its funding or its customization; it is in its attitude.  Our teachers do not think about thinking.  Teaching is far too often not a profession…it is a fallback for those who do not know what else to do.  Finland, currently the top ranked education system in the world, revitalized its education by closing teacher colleges and making education one of the toughest professions to access.  It gave it respect…made sure that its educators were "special," capable of critical thinking, individuals who were willing to set a standard of excellence and success that accommodated students, but also demanded that they think, adapt, and rise to a new level. 

We are capable of no less here in America.  In fact, if you ask me, we’re capable of more.  But instead of expecting educators and learners to adapt, to set standards, and to rise to higher levels, we are expecting the abasement of standards to a place where the lowest common denominator’s uniqueness is appreciated.  How sad…but until we wean ourselves away from the addictive convenience of data flow and look at the larger framework of achievement, those convenient memes will say all that needs to be expressed about the American education system, and I’ll keep fuming in silence.

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