I was in the third grade when Indiana’s standardized math and reading test, the ISTEP, was introduced in public schools. I remember parents expressing fears that these tests would be used to drive what was taught and to rate teachers and schools. I remember school officials swearing up one side and down the other that it would never happen. Yet before I graduated from high school, passing the test became a condition of graduation.
My sons are in public schools. Until a few years ago, when the ISTEP moved from the fall to the spring, they complained loud and long about how the first month of school was just review for the test. They hated the boring repetition of material they already knew well. Teachers and administrators do it because school funding and their own jobs and compensation depend on how well their kids perform on this test. If their school does poorly enough for long enough, the state will even take over the school and run it. Nobody wants that!
Every fear of those parents from 1975 was eventually realized, although it took more than 30 years to reach the bottom of this slope so slippery.
I don’t like what the ISTEP has done to education in Indiana, and wish it would disappear. And I gather that the story is the same nationwide, thanks to No Child Left Behind. It has had the effect of industrializing our schools, by which I mean using statistical analysis as the primary or even sole means of driving improvement. It’s human nature to optimize around what’s being measured, to the exclusion of all other factors that would bring fuller success. My experience has been that this leads to great mediocrity.
The elementary school I attended
I hear more about homeschooling now than ever. 20 years ago, only kooks and religious fundamentalists taught their children at home, or at least that was the perception. It seemed like they were primarily trying to shield their kids from the big bad world. But now I know everyday families who homeschool.
Many of those homeschoolers use structured lessons, but a growing number of them are turning their backs on that and instead lean on the family’s everyday life experiences and their children’s natural curiosity to drive learning. It’s called unschooling, an axiom of which appears to be that kids hate school because lessons are forced onto them and because they are forced to sit quietly in place for long periods. Unschoolers claim that children naturally love learning and through active play and exploration will learn everything they need to know.
That makes some sense to me. I was a good student and a compliant child, the perfect fit for public school. But even I suffered considerable boredom (and sore bottoms from the hard, wooden chairs) during long lectures on dull subjects such as history. I hated history when I was in school. Plumb this blog’s archives and you’ll see that I now love history, and that love blossomed when I explored the past on my own terms.
I see this in my sons, too. My youngest, aged 14, has has become interested in animation and video production. He wrote, shot with his camcorder, and edited a movie last year, starring plush toys of characters from the Angry Birds video game. And he has made short stop-motion animations by taking successive still photos of posed Lego toys, which he strung together in Windows Movie Maker. He makes short hand-drawn animations in Flipnote Studio on his Nintendo DS and shares them with other kids in a common online space there. For his last birthday, he asked for a Wacom drawing tablet and Flash CS6 so he could make sophisticated animations. He’s struggling to learn those tools, but he’s still trying. All of his trying has been self-motivated and at his own pace.
Schools, of course, have to structure learning and discipline. When you gather hundreds or thousands of children into a building, with one adult to every 20 or 30 children, it’s the only way to avoid total chaos.
My youngest son is reasonably bright but struggles with focus, organization, and attention. So he’s not quite as perfect of a fit for public school as I was. Now, his school has separate up and down staircases. I’ve visited the building; the staircases are wide enough to accommodate children going both directions. And the up staircases are usually not near the down staircases, so children have to go out of their way to use the proper staircase. My boy, who is fiercely independent with little tolerance for nonsense, decided to hell with it and began using whichever staircase was nearest by. Repeated infractions led to letters home and, finally, days of detention. I sat him down and explained: “There are 2,000 students in your building. Frankly, there are enough of you that you could overwhelm the adults. So they have rules that keep order. I agree with you that this one appears to be arbitrary and stupid. However, it is the rule. It is a hoop you need to jump through, and I expect you to jump through it. I expect you will always dislike it. I don’t blame you, actually. You keep right on disliking it, but you keep right on obeying it.”
I’ve had variations on this discussion with him over and over. He resisted learning his math facts in elementary school, declaring the exercise a waste of time. Given that I never learned my addition facts yet graduated from engineering school, I had a hard time arguing with him. And he struggled for several years with doing his homework. When I discovered the problem, he was handing in less than half of it. He said that it felt like needless busywork for him to do work in subjects he had already mastered.
Unschoolers claim that this stuff saps our kids’ innate love of learning and leads either to belligerence (which often gets medicated) or broken spirits (which often gets mistaken for successful compliance).
All of this really resonates with me. I want my sons to be free to explore on their own without being put into tiny spirit-limiting pigeonholes. Yet I hedge.
Original entrance arch at my sons’ elementary school
I got into advanced placement classes in high school. In the 10th and 11th grades, my math teacher was Eugene Hudson, and he changed my life. He encouraged me when I started writing computer programs, which led to my rewarding career in software development. I am eternally grateful to him.
Mr. Hudson also sparked a love of mathematics in me. He did it in a very unconventional way. In my day, Indiana sophomores all studied geometry. It was the geometry of Euclid, the geometry of the plane, and it took all year. Except Mr. Hudson moved quickly through the material, teaching it all to us before Christmas. We were, after all, among the brightest students in the school; he challenged us to keep up. But he knew that all of us were highly focused on maintaining our grade-point averages, so he removed a critical barrier that helped us relax and enjoy the learning journey: he set the grading scale at 70-100 being an A, 60-70 being a B, and on down from there. His class was no easy A; even on that scale, it took effort to earn a good grade from Mr. Hudson.
After we finished the state-mandated curriculum, Mr. Hudson produced stacks of old texts he had saved during his long teaching career. Using them, he began to teach us about non-Euclidian geometries, spherical and hyperbolic. He finished with a week or two to spare, so making it up as he went he extended those principles to teach us the geometry of a teardrop.
I found it all to be utterly fascinating. I had always been pretty good at mathematics and could usually calculate the right answers. But after this, I was in love with mathematics for its own sake, for the pure joy of exploring it. Eugene Hudson transmitted his love for mathematics to us, and it stuck with me. It was the climbing-the-mountain version of learning: we did it just because it was there; wasn’t it glorious? It was! And when I left high school for college, I continued my journey by majoring in mathematics.
My high schol, taken the year I graduated
The problem with letting kids find their own paths is that their limited perceptions offer little sense of the paths available to them. They know only the paths upon which they stumble – and those presented to them.
The things children find on their own must not be discounted or denigrated. My youngest son is interested in video production because he has found a community of kids making videos and uploading them online. It’s fun for him and he wants to be a part. Making and sharing videos may always be just a hobby that brings my boy some satisfaction. Or maybe this could lead to a career in TV or film production. Who knows. Whatever.
But to limit him to just the paths he stumbles upon would be a shame. So much else could yet captivate him were those subjects only introduced to him.
I almost certainly would never have fallen head over heels for mathematics were it not for Eugene Hudson and his buccaneer-teacher ways. His methods freed me to enjoy the ride and soak up all that great human minds had discovered about mathematics.
This, then, is the teacher’s great function: to introduce bodies of knowledge that hopefully will ignite a spark in some child. You can’t predict what those sparks will be. Only a handful in my geometry class were as enraptured as I was. For my other classmates, it might have been organic chemistry, or beat poetry, or local politics that lit their fire, had there been teachers able and willing to step off the state curriculum to teach these things.
Even if there are such teachers today, the current public education system gives them no room to wiggle. Eugene Hudson, who retired many years ago but is still with us, couldn’t do now what he did for me in the early 1980s. The clamps are down tight and curricula are set in stone. Children are shunted down the narrow path of a tightly controlled state minimum.
Schools constrained by tests like ISTEP provide little spark for young learners. It takes education in the wrong direction. No wonder homeschooling and even unschooling are gaining traction.