Posted by: minnow | August 3, 2011

Grassroots Education

Four of my five children have learning differences that make navigating the traditional public/private school systems difficult.  All five are highly intelligent individuals with fairly diverse interests and personalities.  But only the youngest still has the potential of being deemed “intelligent” by the system’s standards because only the youngest has the potential of proving to be a verbal-linguistic learner and the vast majority of teaching and testing is geared toward and guided by the verbal-linguistic intelligence.

The good news for my other four children and the hundreds of thousands like them is that technology is beginning to level the playing field, for some learners.  The bad news is the system standards are still not likely to change any time soon.  And the worse news is access to the new technology is severely limited unless you have your own money.

Like everything else that actually fosters change I believe a grassroots effort is education’s only hope.  As a society we need to redefine what it means to be educated.  We need to refocus our priorities for education by better understanding how each individual best learns.  We need to demand an end to standardized tests and measurements that treat all learners the same despite very real differences.  And, if the system refuses to listen we must be willing to sacrifice government’s money for the good of education.

When my son chose home school over public school going into his senior year I was appalled to discover how poorly he wrote.  Perhaps I should not have been surprised since he hardly ever had writing assignments and when he did he rarely got more than a grade at the top of his paper as feedback.  But I was.  And, the bigger problem for me was the writing he showed me had been considered average by his public school teachers.   If someone had even read his papers that person not only deemed them good enough to pass but worthy of a C.  I was outraged.  How could anyone call him or herself an English teach and think that writing was passable?

My initial frustration toward my son’s teachers has since turned into anger toward a system.  Here is the reality of my son’s situation:

The average class  load per teacher in the high school he attended is 125 students.  Class sizes vary a little depending on the subject but for all practical purposes full time teachers average 125 students.  Prep time for each different course a teacher teaches might vary depending on the subject but once a teacher has taught the same course a few times the prep per class probably averages the same.  On the other end of the equation teachers need to test and grade a variety of skills.  They also need to give students opportunities to practice those skills.  If teachers with 125 students want to maximize the time spent interacting with students and give timely feedback for their work the assignments and tests they design will be streamlined for quick and easy assessment.  Often teachers resort to template tests in a multiple choice and true false format.  Correct answers are seen under the template and everything else is marked wrong.  But, even if it only takes a teacher 5 minutes per student we are still talking more than 10 hours of correcting per test.  Most teachers average 10 hours of non-classroom time a week, five during their prep period and lunch and another five before and after school.  But before you get too excited the point is, anything over one test a week, including homework or multiple assignments, means a teacher automatically puts in unpaid overtime.

Most will immediately see the trouble with this scenario.  AKA:  Not every skill can be measured by multiple choice and true-false tests.  Homework also needs to be assigned and evaluated.  A  score at the top of a page does not give students the kind of feedback they need to improve.  And, teachers may actually need their prep time to prep.  If for no other reason than class size, even if you’re the Duggar family, home schooling makes sense simply from a time management point of view.  But class size is not the only issue.

Obviously for my son one skill not properly taught or measured by a work force pressured to streamline its methods and measurements in order to get the biggest bang for their buck is writing.  Other skills are falling by the wayside as well–research, performance, group projects, and oral communication to name a few.  History should not be reduced to a list of names and dates nor language arts to vocabulary and literary terms.  Even math and science are better understood and retained when taken beyond formulas and tables and applied to life or an even more radical thought integrated with other subject matter.

Specialization and  clear cut delineations of skills are the educational dinosaurs of modernism.  If education is to keep pace with the post-modern world we need to deconstruct our compartmentalized system and redefine not only what it means to be educated but what it means to be intelligence.  Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence has been around for nearly three decades.  While most every educator has at least a cusery understanding of MI few transfer that knowledge to the classroom and fewer rely on it to develop their classroom models because the institution’s cubical mentality makes it impossible to do so.  Until we break free of such a mindset public education is doomed to fail our children.

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