Recovering Humanity

Resign yourself to the boring things you must do to get by. Put your desires aside, comply and endure. Go ahead, dull your emotions. Be bummed, be numbed, mutter “meh” and flump through the hoops.

Marinate in this malaise as it will prepare you for the life of listless work ahead.

Is this part of the hidden curriculum of a school you know?

What is this force that deadens the individual and collective spirit of some teachers and many students?

We spend too much time tracing and painting-by-number. We lack the confidence (and courage if we fear “they” won’t let us) to sketch and choose our own colours and subjects to paint. To use another metaphor, it’s like we keep practicing and running drills with our students as we tell them, that someday, they have to or may have to play in a game, and it’s our job to prepare them for that possibility.

The incite for this post comes from a recent week where I substituted in a few high school “credit recovery” programs, visited another school’s program and discussed similar school programs with other teachers. Students in these programs have taken part or all of a course and not received a passing mark. In each program, students are supplied with booklets that must be completed to receive credit, in one case, to a maximum of 50%.

What was initially meant as a way to assist students in getting credits for required courses, for a variety of reasons, it has become an option to get out of a regular class, to complete the self-paced, mostly low-level task questions. Almost 10% of students in these schools are in some kind of credit support program.

The idea of a “credit recovery” program is well intended. Students are required to take certain courses and require a total of 30 credits to graduate in Manitoba. The programs provide student support to ensure graduation.

Here’s the problem: “We perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive, and our awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those for which we have mental maps or categories” (The Art of Possibility). When we focus on credits rather than learning, the end finds the means. We go through the motions, teachers and students, agreeing to an unspoken pact that completing worksheets, regardless of their personal or educative value, is proof enough that “work” was done to “earn” a credit.

In doing so, we dehumanize ourselves, both teachers and students focused on surviving rather than thriving.

For whom is this dramatic act being performed? And what is our definition of education anyway?

Education is the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life. Mark K Smith

In conversations with a number of students in these programs, I found students who had personal learning interests. I met artists with personal portfolios and plans for the future. I met a grade 11 student who told me that no one had asked her what she wanted to learn before. She didn’t have an immediate answer. The lethargy in a number of students was palpable. At the end of one class, a group of boys I chatted with, each shook my hand as they exited the class, as the teacher assistant looked on, mouth agape, “What just happened?”

People want to be heard and know that they matter. Compassion and empathy require curiosity, a curiosity without assumptions.

The one-size-must-fit-all, manufacturing notion of producing core-knowledge-and-skill humans is an explicit and implicit idea that must end. Shouldn’t schools constantly recreate themselves to meet the unique students, rather than students being asked to diminish their uniqueness in order to conform to the the schools?

We complain too many young people are complacent and not well prepared for work or further study. How much choice and responsibility are they being given? They are justifiably bored. Do we lack trust that they can and will take more responsibility for learning?

A survey from a few years ago showed that at least 40% of Manitoba teachers are disengaged with teaching. I don’t believe they are disengaged with learning. My guess is they feel stuck with having to comply with assumed or explicit directives of what is expected of them, which does not fit with their own value of learning. I believe the majority of teachers went into teaching because they love learning and interacting with young people. Feeding the mechanics of the system diminishes who they want to be as teachers.

What role does the design of learning programs have in supporting or furthering the resigned complacency I witnessed? Like most formats of schooling, teachers were placed into these existing programs.

I hear many teachers expressing their desire to do things differently, and recognizing the need for change, though they aren’t sure how or what to do or where to start.

My advice, don’t wait for someone to give you permission or direction for what to do. Do seek out other colleagues who are either already trying things or who want to try new things, and are also seeking support.

If you’re not sure where to start, start by figuring out what to stop.

Stop one: STOP doing what you’re doing now if you don’t have clear, relevant reasons why you are asking your students to do what you’re asking them. Do the reasons support the individual or the system?

Stop two: STOP measuring for the sake of measuring so you have a record of something you measured.

Stop three: STOP thinking the problem lies with the students who simply aren’t applying themselves enough. Everyone wants to learn. Everyone knows something someone else doesn’t. Approaching students from a content deficit perspective, a perspective framed with “They need to know XYZ,” assumes knowledge is an object that can be transferred into students’ brains, and then tested to see how much went in based on how much we think we observed coming out. It’s not hard to find something “missing” in others.

Stop four: STOP thinking you can’t teach differently. You can’t get somewhere if you don’t start going somewhere.

Naming things matters. It shapes our reality.

Start one: Revision yourself as a professional learner. Why do we learn? How do we learn? What do we do with what we learn?

Start two: Focus on learning rather than activity goals. You’ll know you’re on the right track if students find relevance and want to do more on their own. Yes, some will say they prefer to be simply told what to do. It’s easier, and if the goal is to get a credit completed, then “I’m fine with worksheets,” makes sense.

Start three: Uncover and challenge assumptions, those taken-for-granted beliefs that make teachers replaceable parts in the education system. You’ll likely find limiting beliefs like, “We’ve tried a bunch of things before and nothing makes much of a difference, so we may as well keep doing what we’re doing.” Keep asking questions. Cynics are idealists in disguise.

Start four: Learn how to learn by, well, learning how to learn. You don’t know what you don’t know so learning comes from a place of not knowing. There is no map for where you are going. You have to become a map maker. Your new focus is creating, not consuming. With the access we have to information, we are shifting from teaching content to teaching how to find content, how to make meaning with content, and how to navigate complexity and uncertainty as we create our own content.

Start five: View every young person as a beautiful work of art, every student as an “A” student. Focus your energies on drawing out and carving out the possibilities of who they are.

If we want “lifelong” learning to be more than simply another adjective we throw in front of “learning,” we have to embrace lifelong not-knowing. And that means living with certain uncertainty. This is the heart of inquiry. We pursue learning with heart, head and soul, alone and together.

It’s not credits we need to recover, it’s our humanity, our ability to look another in the eye and say, “You matter. You belong. You have something to offer the world. Let’s work together to make it happen.”

(After writing this, a friend shared this inspiring and inciteful post about what needs to change in teaching Art: (R)Evolution: Much Overdue Changes in Contemporary Art Education to action.)