Every hour, five days a week, twenty or thirty young people spill from one room in our school to another. An equivalent mechanical analogy would be to imagine the building as a giant box of chambers and chutes filled with assorted balls of various sizes and weights. Every hour a bell rings, chamber doors fly open, and the whole thing tilts, sending the balls into the hallways and other chambers. A huge, noisy-as-hell Pachinko board.
Those balls are students. And no two are alike. They enter my classroom with only one thing shared: a calendar birthdate within about a year of each other. That’s it. Race, health, gender, class, religion, culture, clothing, tastes, economics, illnesses, size, interests, comfort, physicality, psychology, trauma, experience, even language: All different.
The job of every teacher in the school is to hammer out some kind of function in each of these unique individuals. We have an hour a day to work on twenty or thirty people in the room, to instruct upon them some necessary lessons for their unknown futures.
But our students are individuals, in a society that prizes Individuality over all else, and that really complicates things.
First, it isn’t our job to tell students what to become, only that they should become something. Even though we end up creating a lot of fairly similar people, that’s the opposite of what we’re supposed to do. Second, as Individuals, our students are well aware that nobody has the right to tell them what to care about or what to become. In fact, we their teachers are the ones most vocally insisting that. And third, Individuality comes down to specifics, not generalities. ‘Reading’, sure. Everyone needs to know how to read. But what to read? That’s a matter of personal taste and value, is it not? Why should a white male middle-class gaming fanatic care about Toni Morrison’s Beloved? What possible relevance has an infanticiding ex-slave to them? Or what should the Hispanic child of Guatemalan immigrants care about Jay Gatsby’s personal reinvention for the love of a spoiled socialite? What value has that to their life?
We have twenty or thirty kids in a room for an hour. We have to teach them all something, but there’s no way we can teach each one something different.
And then about forty years ago The Accountability Movement arrived. (When ‘Nation At Risk was published, claiming America’s failing education system was an existential threat to the country.) Since then, Accountability has bricked every classroom behind walls of Standardized Curriculum and Assessments. To hold teachers accountable to their jobs, we need to know precisely what they should be teaching and when, and so every class has a blueprint to follow. These blueprints, The Standards, lay out exactly what every student at every grade should be learning and mastering every year. And to be certain that every student is actually achieving mastery (since teachers and schools obviously can’t be trusted), we’ve designed a series of unbiased, purely objective, universally applicable measurements for every student to take in order to move forward. The Standardized Exam.
Of course, the more standardized something is, the less individual it becomes. Standardization is homogeneity. But even more problematic, every subject and every measurement is still composed of parts, of details, and those details are frustratingly individualized. You can’t test reading without something specific to read. But it’s not an individualized class if every student is forced to study the same thing. And it’s not a fair measurement if one student has read it and the other has not.
The obstacle, we have concluded, is in the Content. The act of ‘reading’ is a Skill, a kind of universal screwdriver that, once picked up, can be used upon any number of screws under any number of circumstances. Once you learn ‘how’ to read, you can read anything. The same for math (though why we don’t call it ‘mathing’ is a mystery to me). Grasp the hammer of working with numbers, and any math problem can be pried or pounded open.
To respect Individuality and maintain Accountability, we should ignore the Content, even avoid it altogether if possible, and concentrate on the Skills.
Forget Content, forget Purpose. Let the kids figure those out themselves. Teach Skills.
This conclusion may sound sensible, even reasonable, but it is flat out wrong. Yet even though it’s wrong, it’s what we’re doing. And it’s killing our education system,
In my 20 years of teaching, no parent or administrator has ever questioned the skills I’ve tried to teach, but I’ve been called out on more than a few occasions on the content. I’ve been questioned on Frankenstein, Macbeth, The Bell Jar, Beloved, magazine articles, thematic unit subjects, student newspaper articles, and of course movies. But if I ever want to squirm free of criticism, all I have to do is direct attention at the skills. Unhappy with the witches in Macbeth? We’re working on mature analysis skills and vocabulary development! Can’t understand why we’re watching Star Wars? Essay writing, of course, critical thinking, presentations! Skills!
We plan our classes, and assess, around measurable skills, not known content. We are trained to think of English and Math as specific abilities, the ‘act’ of reading, the ‘act’ of doing math, which is why those are the only 2 significant things tested on any standardized exam. (It’s also why we don’t test History, or Art, or Science for the ground-level SAT or ACT, because it’s nearly impossible to mentally wrangle those things into some kind of idea of universal skill. Though that doesn’t much stop the Standardized Movement from trying.)
Of course, as much as we want to think of reading or mathing as a skill, we cannot divorce any of it from specific content in the classroom. You’ve got to count something. You’ve got to read sentences and paragraphs that are about something. A common solution to that dilemma is to choose material that’s a free of complication or conflict or individuality as possible. Which makes lessons almost insufferably boring. A less dull solution is to focus on unobjectionable moral frictions, like bullying or prejudice.
But not only are these attempted solutions problematic themselves — bored students don’t learn much, neither skills nor content — they ignore a more fundamental problem, which is that skills actually cannot exist without purpose, and purpose is content-driven and specific. Nobody learns a skill for the sake of the skill; they learn the skill to get something done. This predicament is most clearly revealed these days by the vast army of social justice warriors ‘cancelling’ college professors and confusing the hell out of everyone. These (mostly) college students were created in Primary and Secondary Schools, because Social Justice is the Content we’ve been using for at least twenty years now.
It may be that we’ve misunderstood the simplicity of early development as some kind of universal foundation. Most young children, after all, do learn the same things in the same way. They produce the same words when first speaking — variations on ‘Ma’ and ‘give me’ and ‘no’. They learn the same basic symbols for words and numbers whatever their language or culture. But even those simple systems are purpose-driven, for no child learns any of it without some kind of external compulsion to do so.
And it all diverges into individuality almost immediately. Every human being, if capable, may learn to walk on two legs, but by 5 or 6 they are all walking and running and jumping in different ways and for different purposes.
Even basic skills become Individualized. Most students, early on, decide whether they are ‘Math’ people or ‘English’ people or ‘Not School’ people altogether. And there are a lot of other skills — physical, social, mechanical, agricultural — that we don’t teach as subjects, much less assess, at all.
By the end of elementary school, the basic foundations — reading and writing and math ‘skills’ — diverge even more, to the point that no skill is defensibly ‘universal’ at all. There’s one question asked by older students more than any other. That question: Why do I have to study this? There are variations — What use will this be? How will I need this as an adult? What job will ask for it? and so on — but the gist is the same. Most teachers hate the question, but it’s still legitimate on a number of levels, because not only is there an accuracy to questioning how Algebraic functions or Poetry have ‘practical’ value, the skills we ostensibly teach through Algebraic functions and Sonnets are specialized towards whatever’s supposed to go on in college.
Assessment is also perilous, because a ‘test’ is itself a kind of content. So what we end up struggling with in every grade is the apparently inescapable problem of classes and schools that succeed by teaching not skills, but test taking.
Weirdly, our futile attempt to create a testable, universally consistent yet individualized education has produced one with a single exit. If students are molded as they move from room to room within a school, whatever changes or growth we teachers might try to impose upon them are now almost universally designed to shape them for a single door out. One that takes them to college.
The hard truth we can’t seem to face is that skills do not exist without content, that there is no such thing as a fundamental, foundational ‘skill set’ that can be separated from content or purpose, much less taught and learned without content and purpose taking over.
Without Purpose or Content, Skills are quite literally meaningless.
Skills are, in fact, inhumanly machine-like. A robot does not ‘know’ what it does or why. No tool, however precise it may be at the task, however ‘skilled’ it is, knows its purpose. And no human, charged with a task simply for the skillful performance of it, divorced from purpose or meaning, does so without suffering. Demanding people — children — know how to read, testing them on the act of reading, with deliberate disregard for content or purpose is both impossible and cruel.
Solutions exist, or at least better systems than we have settled upon today. Project-based learning initiatives show great success. Self-directed learning schools have promise. Technology certainly keeps expanding possibilities for individualization. Personally, I think we might see results in moving our current skill-centric curriculum to something modelled after the newspaper. (Essay Here on that.)
We very much need to recognize that our present obsession with College, while perhaps ultimately beneficial and noble, is also at least in part an avoidance strategy. It’s clear now that every generation on the planet will need more education than those behind, so more years of some kind of school are inevitable. But we’ve also now spelled ourselves into the belief that ‘skills’ and academia are the same.
And at the very least, we must grapple with the true purposes and real consequences of the Standardization movement, especially in regards to the monsters of exams they have spawned.