Monday, January 30, 2012

What should every citizen know? My Answer.

What should every citizen know? That was the topic of a conversation that passionate educators were grappling with at this year’s Educon. Educators got to work quickly to make their case for what they felt must absolutely, positively be included (visit this link to see some of the thinking). Some educators went as far as to outline when each person should acquire the knowledge they believed was most important.

  • A math educator shared…
    math students would need to know to think critically. They need this math just to function in the world and do things like balance their checkbook, cook, and tell time.
  • A history teacher shared…
    what every citizen should know is American history and how it relates to that of other countries as well as have an understanding of the political system and how issues become law.
  • The English teachers explained…
    why their subject was the most important if citizens wanted to be able to understand, communicate, and share ideas.
  • There were science teachers who told us…
    science was of utmost importance because we would never know how our world and universe works without an understanding of science
  • There was also discussion around topics like empathy and compassion…
    because we need to ensure there was a good dose of that mixed in too. But how since it’s not a subject? Maybe modeling.
  • That prompted a conversation about the importance of knowing religion and the bible…
    which is the foundation of much of what made America the country it is today. 
  • Then, was an educator who shared that we shouldn’t be teaching the subjects in isolation…
    We need to teach thematically!
There was a lot of head nodding in response.

This moment reaffirmed for me that my beliefs about learning often make me feel like I’m in a foreign land.

How is it that other people should have the right to decide what everyone should know? Why does everyone need to know all the same things? Do people really think we need to know all these things to be successful? When we have so many (too many) things is it any wonder we've forced teachers to teach to the test? Do we really believe a free and democratic society has the right to tell others what they need to know or should such a society provide the “opportunity to choose to learn?”

It came as no surprise to those who know me (thank you to the wonderful conversation orchestrator, Dan Callahan) that I was given the go ahead to blurt out: 


“’WE’ don’t all need to know all these things and anyone could be perfectly fine, and even successful, without them.”

“Not true!” someone said and he explained why he thought a citizen must know each of these things. 

It was at that point I shared something that many educators are afraid to reveal…

I KNOW VERY LITTLE OF WHAT THE EXPERTS (AND THESE EDUCATORS) SAY I NEED TO KNOW.

I expected the response I got when I revealed this.  While there were some that understood, and even agreed with where I was coming from, there were others whose answers, understandably, helped justify their existence and their jobs.

I was told, “No! That’s not true.  You know things. You just don’t realize you know them.” I appreciate their belief in me, but the truth is… I do not. I used to be embarrassed by this. I mean, I spent more than a dozen years in the school system and I excelled! I was an honors student who started college at age 15, while I was in high school, and graduated college at the top of my class when I was 19…but the truth is, during that time, I learned nothing that was important for success in my life. Wasted years lost to a system that could have been spent with more meaningful pursuits.

Instead, I was forced to take classes from teachers who used the "sit n git," "memorize n regurgitate (onto a test or into an essay or project meant for the class, not the world)" method of learning. As a result I don’t know the science, math, history, or the religious foundation everyone said was necessary for an informed citizenry.  In fact, I have no doubt I would fail the standardized high school tests given in my state on each of those topics today. I do happen to be a proficient reader, writer, and user of technology, but that is despite, not because of, school.

I pushed further asking, “What about all the people who, like me, don’t learn from teachers talking, textbooks, or tests?   

Some of the responses to that were predictable. We need to expose students to these things or they will never know about them. My response: “Schools don’t expose. They impose.” It is one thing to expose people to a variety of wonderful possible choices. But that is not what we’re really doing. Instead, there is a curriculum that students are forced complete in a standard and often boring way at a time that doesn’t honor the student’s readiness, interests or include any of the elements that lead to effective learning for many of us. What’s more, there is often little to no explicit connection made to their real worlds

 Ugh.

I realized I was sort of derailing the conversation and felt thankful that I was in an environment where this was okay and even welcomed. Sadly, though when we discuss what an informed citizenry should know, even innovative educators often revert to the familiar content areas and carry on about why the one they are responsible for (or passionate about) is of utmost importance. This mindset is supported in our current climate.

We have Common Core
We have become a society that is quick to follow orders of a government that imposes their agenda into families dictating how all our children must be raised. Teachers and parents are going along with this, even though many realize what they do is hurting children.  The government imposes force in the form of "do what we say (such as teach to and take the tests) or we’ll cut off funding" and the sheep are forced to follow.  We’ve become a top down nation where our president wants to force young people tostay in school until they’re 18. This makes a nice sound bite for the na├»ve, but the informed know that he is not addressing the problem. Most young people leave school because it has little to no relevance to their lives. Students are seen as numbers and data, not human beings . If school is so wonderful, why make it compulsory? Why must we force people to go there rather than ensure it is a wonderful place that people want to attend? 

We now have the common core standards designed to push EVERY child down the same narrow path to college, even though it is necessary only for few, and the mentality has cost us to lose due respect for many. This decision however will result in huge profits to the government via the student loan scheme (our next bubble to burst). It’s ironic when many of our nation’s founding fathers, our nation’s leaders, and our most successful businessmen never graduated college themselves.

The conversation came to an end with the usual, well, there’s a lot more to figure out and discuss and we won’t be able to come up with all the answers in one workshop.

I disagree. This is not a new conversation. The answers are right in front of us. It’s just that many of us are not ready or willing to see them.

People are not widgets and no one should try to coerce individuals to become part of a Stepford citizenry. Our students are rebelling with dropout rates at 33% nationally and around 50% in large cities like Las Vegas, New York and Chicago.  Our teachers are sick and tired of being forced to engage in a test-based curriculum that lines the pockets of publishers while killing the passion and creativity of students. Many of the good ones have left or are leaving.

An informed citizenry is made up of many people. Every person does not have to hold all the knowledge that a group of strangers thinks is important for their success in moving through the conveyor belt at the same rate and exiting on the same date.





We need to stop with the force, coercion and imposition of knowledge upon others. We must give people the freedom and trust to pursue the learning that “they” value as important. We need to spend some time learning more from the unschooling community and Democratic schooling environments where we’ll find out that when given choice and provided with necessary resources, along with a supportive and caring environment, people will discover and learn what they need to know for "their personal success."  This all comes without force, coercion or even traditional teachers, tests, textbooks or classrooms.

We need to stop trying to figure out what everyone needs to know and let our nation’s young people take ownership and make decisions about what they want to know. 

We must move away from the industrial model of testing for the standardization of students when they get off the end of the school conveyor belt and move toward customization of what each individual chooses for their own personal success.

The role of the educators in a building must move from imposing knowledge to inviting curiosity, discovery, and providing support in helping young people determine an individualized plan for success.

Personal success does not mean participating in a system that creates a bunch of standardized cogs who meet the manufacturer’s specs.   

It means we must realize one-size-fits-all really only fits some and strips the uniqueness and creativity from most. We want more than turning our children into processed and manufactured cogs in a system that sees them simply as uniform producers of data to be analyzed and tested in ways that reap huge profits for those providing and measuring a one-size-fits few solution to an informed citizenry.   

It means providing environments where the mechanics, farmers, game designers, home builders, stunt people, Olympic snowboarders, artists, adventure travel operators, soldiers, football coaches, television directors, winemakers, talk show hosts, poets, firemen, chefs, restaurant owners, wildlife conservationists and more (note college degree not required for any of the aforementioned) can have the freedom to discover and explore a customized learning experience that honors and respects them as the successful individuals that they have the potential to become. It’s time we stop trying to produce graduates that all look the same and are prepared to follow the herd and start empowering young people to discover, choose, and pursue their own paths.
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