Doing the right thing, the wrong way

Exactly what’s wrong with education today

The town of Turners Falls recently, in a school committee vote, retired the “Indians” logo and mascot. For many progressives and Native Americans this was welcome and long overdue. For some townspeople, it was yet another example of ivory tower liberalism. The debates on social media and in yelling matches and op-eds were frequently punctuated with the words, “I don’t understand.”

The school committee, working with the superintendent devised a process with speakers from various interest groups, in the hopes of getting as close to consensus as modern politics allow. It was a great idea. Eventually when the process broke down, when sides became more entrenched instead of more engaged, the school committee shut down the process and voted. On the one hand, I congratulate the political courage this took. I also believe they were correct in the assessment that the process had broken down and was no longer useful. But their great mistake, however, was asking modern educators to devise the process.

Modern “standards based”, “backward design” education goes something like this: First you decide what the student needs to learn. Then you devise a test which will prove they learned it. (We call that an assessment because more syllables somehow make things easier to swallow.) Then you devise a lesson plan which will instill the knowledge into the student. Then you do it, and do the assessment. If you think this sounds like teaching to the test, it is. That’s why we changed the name to assessment. Educators and legislators got to this point because they needed a way to hold teachers and schools accountable. Standards work extremely well for holding teachers accountable. Too bad that is not actually how or why people learn. Real learning comes from experience, the experience of others related in compelling narrative (we learn from stories) and from inquiry. When the school committee with the superintendent devised the “lesson plans” for convincing the town, they used the backwards design educational model, in other words they tried to teach townspeople why the change should happen. The goal came first. It should have come last. From the beginning, folks in favor of keeping the mascot complained that the process didn’t seem real. They thought the conclusion was forgone. They were right.

In my history class, we begin each semester by introducing the subject and asking students what they are interested in? What do they want to learn? What questions do they have? It looks like this.

Students are then invested in learning. I’m not forcing facts into their head; I’m answering questions that came from our discussions. These are things they want to know.

The first several public meetings about the mascot would have been far better served if an organizer planned it, instead of an educator. They should have been listening sessions. What are your concerns? What do you understand, and what do you want to understand?

For years, I’ve watched students roll their eyes in disappointment and disgust as they walk into a classroom where written on the white board are the new mastery objectives, and the “essential questions” already supplied for them, no thinking required. And as I watched the mascot debate unfold I saw that same look as citizens with deep emotional connections to the town and the traditional mascot of the school walk into meetings and be told what the essential questions are, and what the objective learning should be and what they should walk away understanding. I saw their brain click off the same way student brains click off.

The problem with politics is the problem with education. These things should not be standards based. They should not be backwards designed. Education, and politics should be inquiry based, should be a journey together with the path a path of discovery and teachers and experts using their vast knowledge as guides instead of as lecturers.

In Turners Falls, many citizens feel unheard. The students staged a walkout saying that they felt unheard. I’m reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “A riot is the voice of the unheard.” And I pray the anger finds a safe outlet. In our national politics, the election of Donald Trump was a riot of sorts, reflecting the angry voice of the people who feel unheard. The problem, at its heart lies in education, but the problem is not so much what we educate, but in how we educate. We need to let students determine the standards. We need to let people determine the questions. Will the people always be right? Of course not! As the Superintended of Schools pointed out, recorded by a student, and posted to Facebook, much of the progress in civil rights would never have happened by majority vote. But today people do not trust the very people they should trust the most, the educated, the experts, the doctors, the scientists, and academics. They will trust these people again if they feel heard first. If educators answer questions, they will be trusted.