The valedictorian’s speech

August 9, 2010

I am, once again, grateful to Steve Miranda for posting this commencement speech by Erica Goldson, who graduated from Coxsackie-Athens High School in New York State as the valedictorian:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

Philosophy in schools again

August 8, 2010

There was an excellent item on Ockham’s Razor this morning. Queensland teacher Peter Ellerton discusses the importance of properly teaching skills of reasoning as a part of a well rounded education. He notes that many teaching institutions claim to imbue their students with ‘critical thinking’ skills. On examination, however, they are merely paying lip service to the ideal, ticking the boxes and using the latest buzzwords. There is often a poor understanding of what critical thinking actually involves. As Ellerton notes, these skills have been understood since ancient times, but they need to be explicitly taught. Here’s an extract:

As it happens, after a career of teaching Mathematics and Science, I now teach a subject in Queensland schools called Philosophy and Reason. I was quite struck by how the three strands of the course, Deductive Logic, Critical Thinking and Philosophy, manage to get across just about every thinking skill I have come to believe is essential for good citizenship. Not only that, but state-wide testing shows these students performing at the very highest level across all scientific, numeracy and literacy arenas. As they come from both humanities and science backgrounds and are often unaware in choosing it of the exact nature of the subject, there may be some justification in labelling the subject matter itself as the cause of this worthy effect.

Primer for ed reformers

July 23, 2010

I’m very grateful to Steve Miranda for bringing this brilliant Washington Post article to my attention. Guest blogger, Marion Brady, is described as a ‘veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author’. Here he really gets back to basics, applying some common sense in the face of bureaucratic expert-speak. Several of the points remind me of John Taylor Gatto. It’s well worth reading the article in its entirety, but here are the core points:

* Learning, real learning – trying to make more sense of what’s happening – is as natural and satisfying as breathing. If your big reform idea requires laws, mandates, penalties, bribes, or other kinds of external pressure to make it work, it won’t work. You can lead the horse to water, and you can force it to look like it’s drinking, but you can’t make it drink.

* The ability to think – to infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, make sound value judgments, generate brand new knowledge, and so on – is the main thing humankind has going for it. If thought isn’t tested, it won’t get taught, so if your reform effort depends on standardized tests, you’re in big trouble. That’s because nobody knows how to write standardized, machine-scoreable test questions that say how well a kid can think. Nobody.

* Saying to kids, “You’ll need to know this next year,” is a waste of words. If they can’t see the usefulness, right now, in their own lives, of whatever you’re trying to teach, they won’t learn it. Information may go into short-term memory long enough to pass a test, but that’s it.

They won’t allow what they think is useless information to permanently clutter up their minds. Think I’m wrong? What percentage of the American history you studied in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, do you still remember well enough to, say, cite precedent when you argue the case for or against a particular Wall Street reform?

* If the success of your reform effort depends on really smart, knowledgeable teachers or administrators, go back to the drawing board. The percentage of those in the schools is about the same as in other professions, which means there will always be a major shortage. Respecting educators enough to get out of their way and let them do their work without being micromanaged by amateurs would increase the percentage of good ones, but not enough to assure the success of your reform proposal.

* Are you convinced national standards for school subjects is a good reform idea? Forget it. First, they lock in our 19th Century curriculum. Second, the human brain doesn’t make sense of experience by clicking between school subjects. Third, in the real world, everything connects to everything, and the connections are at least as important as the facts being connected. Fourth, standards should say what kinds of kids we want, not which facts we think they should have in their heads. Fifth, trying to standardize the young (especially now that the Chinese are determined to de-standardize them to encourage creativity) is a recipe for disaster. Kid creativity has declined steadily since No Child Left Behind was put in place.

* If concern for the achievement gap drives your enthusiasm for reform, know that differences in scores on standardized tests aren’t going to go away as long as the test items are written by adults who’ve grown up in the dominant culture. Too many of the items will be stacked against minorities, a fact that will remain hidden because of test secrecy and dominant-culture hubris. Complicating the problem is the fact that the gap triggers self-fulfilling prophecies which perpetuate it.

Those six insights are a start on a primer.

Here are eight more that experienced teachers think you need to know:

* Kids are a lot smarter than today’s education makes them seem.

* They learn more in small groups working together on a challenge than they do competing one-on-one.

* Without emotional involvement there’s no learning (and boredom doesn’t qualify as an emotion).

* Humans really do learn more from firsthand experience than from books and teacher talk.

* The brain uses a “master” information organizing system, and understanding it is important.

* For kids, passivity is unnatural, so sitting still hour after hour is anti-educational.

* The revolutionary implications of the new accessibility of information aren’t being taken into adequate account.

* Both teachers and learners are more powerfully motivated by the satisfactions of doing useful, high-quality work than by winning competitions.

Grouping students by skill, not grade level

July 22, 2010

This article from USA Today (5 July 2010) describes an approach to schooling that is not new, but it represents a positive development when applied systematically in state schools across whole districts (in the American system). Here are some extracts:

‘The current system of public education in this country is not working’ said Superintendent John Covington. ‘It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.’

Here’s how the reform works:

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Count 11-year-old Alex Rodriguez as a convert to the new approach. He used to get bored after plowing through his assignments. He had to bring books from home or the library if he wanted a challenge because the ones at his old school were one or two grade levels too easy.

‘I liked school,’ he said. ‘But it was hard sitting there and doing nothing.’

His parents transferred the high achiever and his three younger siblings to the Denver area district after learning it was trying something new. His father, Richard Rodriguez, has been thrilled with the turnaround.

‘I wish school was like this when I was growing up,’ he said.

‘The most die-hard advocates for our system are our teachers because, especially the ones who were back with us before the change, they saw where things were then,’ he said. ‘They see where things are now and they don’t want to go back.’

We need to rescue the bright kids in schools

July 21, 2010

This was the title of an article by Steven Martin, published on 1 July in The West Australian. Here is the full text:

While some excel in class, others languish and become invisible in the culture of schools, writes Steven Martin

Chances are they were difficult babies, fidgety toddlers and now they are strange teenagers. You, as their parent, know they are bright, but trying to convince others is like trying to get them to see the silk in the sow’s ear; they need to get past the porcine problems first. Really bright kids often disguise themselves as sow’s ears.

Anyway the argument goes, like ducks, bright kids walk the walk and talk the talk … don’t they? Usually this means they perform well at school and are compliant. Well, research shows that many don’t perform well and are not compliant. That is unless they’re encouraged in the right way. Would you encourage a child who doesn’t seem to have what it takes? The problem is not hard to see.

Our Education Department, like similar departments around Australia, seeks the brightest teenagers through testing. Then, when they’ve found them, they put them into special programs. Everyone feels good about this: the minister, the department, the schools with the special programs, the parents and, of course, the successful test takers.

Oddly, hardly anyone stops to question whether the tests really find people who are bright or just people who are good at taking tests. Governments commit millions of dollars on the strength of the tests so you’d think someone would ask, after all, it’s our taxes and our bright kids. And what happens to the teenagers who are not selected for special help — does this mean they’re not intelligent?

Some vocal parents kick and scream against the test results since gaining admission to a special program is prestigious and they know their children are bright. Bureaucracy soon wears them out because it can’t cater for all.

Most just accept their children’s fate, now believing that the brightness they thought they saw was just a trick of the light. What would parents know in the face of statistics? Those who know anything about finding bright kids agree that parents know a lot.

Often their children, being great learners, learnt the nature of their relationship with education before they got to Year 4 and haven’t been interested since. They look for light outside the classroom window and sometimes mitigate their boredom by amusing themselves at the teacher’s expense, often developing poor reputations along the way. Why would they try to do well on tests or anything else the school asks of them? Why would the school go to any great lengths to cater for troublemakers?

The truth is, really bright kids become great at hiding, often under a shell of strangeness for fear the others might get to know and tease them. They understand all about tall poppies and, in the uniform world of school, they would rather be considered bizarre than brainy; goofy than gifted.

While some excel in classrooms, others languish and become invisible in the culture of schools, contenting themselves to hang out on the fringes with their weird mates. Unfortunately, their rich potential goes undiscovered when the whole community could benefit from it.

No less a body than a select committee of the Australian Senate has said for years that little is being done in schools to mine the potential of our bright children. Alarmingly the committee has also said that many of these young people are ‘at risk’ as a result.

As a long-serving teacher, for me it’s not hard to see the reasons. Teachers are often tirelessly seeking to get the best for their students in the face of ever growing demands from the community.

How often have you heard the phrase, ‘they should teach them in school…’ relating to topics as varying as manners, driving, money management and so on? Most busy teachers, however dedicated, simply do not have the time to read theory and policy documents, particularly in relation to a group that mythology tells us is advantaged anyway. Research is full of good ideas which never reach the chalkface where they could be applied effectively.

A belief that is not uncommon is that bright kids will ‘rise to the top’ like cream, but the truth is that many teenagers are not even aware of their own brightness. Instead of rising, they’re more likely to sink under the weight of sameness and the boredom that ensues.

Instead of being taught pre-existing solutions to new problems, our bright kids need to be taught how to find new and better solutions for themselves since it’s the case that, those who have a solution are unlikely to look for others. Most teaching in schools across the curriculum requires students to remember information rather than critically evaluate it, however, if bright young people are to emerge from the classroom gloom, they need to be challenged by being given the skills to do this.

Experts in education writing for the United Nations have been arguing for years that teaching children to think and reason is as important in our modern age as teaching them to write was in the past. Those who have learnt to do this successfully are equipped for creating new ideas. There is no educationally sound reason these skills could not be taught to all in a way that would ‘value add’ to the curriculum. This may be the only way of rescuing all our bright kids from the problems that could trouble them at school and in their lives beyond. Think what we would gain as a community.

Steven Martin has been a teacher for more than 30 years, specialising in gifted children