"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." ....C.S. Lewis.

Commentary of the Day - July 27, 2013. Educator's Digest, Vol. 36.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Summer is a perilous season for public education.  That's because with teachers and students out of the building, the dangerous minds that run our school systems can pipedream entirely unfettered by the inconvenient reality of actual students and classrooms.  Not that education's leaders are ever overly troubled by reality or actual students.  If they were, most of what’s gone wrong in public education for the past forty years would never have happened.

Across the nation policymakers have decided that schools suspend too many students.  The way these reformers see things, removing disruptive, dangerous students from class means they don't receive an education, rendering them a future burden on society.  Reformers fail to grasp the fact that disruptive, dangerous students' conduct and lack of effort mean they already aren't receiving an education.  Owing to their disruptive behavior, not removing them means that neither are any of their classmates, making everyone a future burden on society.

Trend-setting Los Angeles recently passed a law making it illegal for schools to suspend students for "willful defiance."  Proponents of the new law haven't yet identified what they see as the virtues of willful defiance, but they're definitely against giving school administrators "unrestricted discretion" to suspend willfully defiant students.  For example, a principal might "ensnare" a student for refusing "to take off a set of headphones" during class.

Now, I'm not arguing that wearing headphones should be a hanging offense. However, refusing to remove those headphones is definitely a reason I'd send a kid to the office.  That's because the act of refusing is the problem.  Defying school rules is a legitimate reason for suspension, the same way adults who defy the law need to be excluded from society.

Bear in mind that reformers oppose suspending defiant students because they don't want those students missing out on their education.  How much education can you get when you're wearing headphones during class?

Advocates argue that instead of suspending a student "who flips a chair over in class or causes a significant disturbance," schools should "be getting at the reason why students are defying authority."  That presupposes that there could be a good reason to throw a chair in class.

I can't think of one.

I also know that when educators talk about in-school "alternatives to suspension" and "restorative practices," what they really mean is that disruptive students will cycle in and out of class, without consequences, further disrupting those classes.  It means that students who cause trouble will receive extra attention and consideration, ineffectual counseling, and appeals to their social conscience, while students who behave and do their work will occupy crowded classrooms where their education will be stolen and serially sabotaged as the disrupters return for repeat performances.

On the curriculum front, Gallup recently surveyed one thousand eighteen to thirty-five-year-olds regarding their acquisition of "twenty-first century skills."  The survey was based on an index developed by Microsoft and Pearson, both of which are prime corporate engines behind the Common Core and prime benefactors of the substantial Common Core expenditure that states will be making.

The new, innovative skills that schools purportedly need to start teaching include "knowledge construction, skilled communication, global awareness," and "self-regulation."  Reformers have been jawing for thirty years about these allegedly new "skills."

The terms themselves are somewhat misleading.  For example, "knowledge construction" doesn't mean students learn any knowledge.  Constructivists don't believe in teachers who tell students anything.  They believe that students are "the makers of meaning and knowledge."  Rather than teach, they want me to "facilitate" the twelve-year-olds, or six-year-olds, in my class so they discover "knowledge" for their student-centered selves.  This "knowledge" is "personal," may be "correct or incorrect," and is always subject to change.

Other touted skills are hardly revolutionary.  I don't know of any schools that ever set out to teach unskilled communication.  Schools, parents, and philosophers have been promoting "self-regulation," formerly known as self-discipline, since long before it popped up on the Microsoft-Pearson list of virtues.  As for global awareness, thanks to constructivism, it typically means that students "feel" more about other countries and cultures even though they actually know less.

According to the survey, believe it or not, college students work on more long-term projects than high school students do, with graduate students doing more long-term work than college students.  Equally shocking, the further along you are in your education, the more likely you are to be engaged in "developing solutions to real problems."

Reformers cast the results as an indictment of public education, which they believe should be more "real-world" and "project-oriented."  Based on how much I knew when I was eight and eighteen, which is more than most of today's constructivist students know, I'm not distressed that we're not relying on fourth graders and sophomores to fix the world.  If instead of teaching them, we allow them to pretend to "develop solutions" to our problems, they'll never know enough to one day really solve them.

Yes, Isaac Newton invented calculus when he was sixteen.  But most students aren't Isaac Newton.

Finally, if you've ever wondered what educators mean when they talk about "research," a study of 184 elementary students, conducted by two major universities and published in the professional journal Child Development, has concluded that gestures help communicate things.  Two groups of students were shown videos of a math lesson, one where the teacher used gestures and one where he didn't.  The students who watched the video where the teacher pointed at the numbers he was talking about scored higher on a test the next day.  This indisputably proved that "gesturing can be a very beneficial tool" and that teachers should keep their hands out of their pockets while they’re working.

Experts deem this study of what they call "embodied cognition" particularly relevant in light of the current "concern over childhood obesity," presumably because students who see their teachers pointing at things will likewise point at things and get some exercise.  Experts also cite our "rising technological capacity to include physical action in learning."  I'm not sure if that means teachers will be better able to point at things now that we can videotape them doing it, or if watching teachers point at things on videotape is supposed to be more effective than watching them point at things in person.

Fortunately, we have experts to figure these things out. And they've got the whole summer to do it.

 © 2013, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: Poor Elijah does seem a little bit crankier than usual with this issue of the digest, though the IP agrees with much of what he says.  With regard to suspending disruptive students, the IP does think that a warning is in order before suspension, and that remedies short of suspension should be tried first, such as detention or transferring a disruptive student to a continuation school where the staff is trained to deal with students with discipline problems.  These are better alternatives than putting the student on the street.

And, while the IP thinks that constructivism is overblown, he also knows that what a teacher teaches, and what a student learns often are two different things.  It's not uncommon for a student to develop misconceptions about what has been taught.  Part of the job of the teacher is to help a student correct those misconceptions as well as misconceptions that students develop on their own just by observing the world around them.  As an example, when teaching students Newton's laws of motion in elementary physics, it often is necessary to have the student realize that his or her ideas about the physical world may be incorrect.  We often find that a sizeable number of students in introductory physics courses believe that it is necessary for a force to be exerted on an object to keep it moving at constant velocity.  That is untrue, but it flows from an idea that the student "constructs" in his or her own mind based on observation.  Frictional forces are nearly omni-present in the world around us, but we don't take them into account when we push on an object to keep it moving at a steady rate.  In reality, the force applied to the moving object just balances out the frictional force, and no net force is required to keep an object moving at constant velocity.


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