Monday, April 28, 2014

The Importance of Investing in Public Education

The public school system in the United States has become synonymous with incompetence, frivolity, mediocrity, corruption and more.  There is no doubt that in some ways the system is broken and needs to be fixed.  We hear constant cries that we are failing our young people, pushing them out into the world lacking the skills needed to lead a productive, fulfilling life; yet, there is evidence to the contrary (see The Myth Behind Public School Failure  in the current issue of Yes! Magazine).  

This doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do, because we sure do. Perhaps the work we need to do is more about understanding how to truly meet the educational needs of our citizens while having the will to do so, and not so much about rankings.  The how’s and what’s of course are important, and those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I have shared some  thoughts on the how’s and what’s in previous posts. This post, however, is an appeal for all of us as a collective to invest in our public education system from early childhood to adulthood. 

Why invest in public education:

We need a strong public education system that offers choice and meaningful learning options that are accessible and equitable to all.  There exists a plethora of data which shows that a well-educated populace is paramount to the sustainability of a society.  A society that invests in   a well-educated citizenry is more likely to have opportunities for social mobility, a skilled labor force, a representative democracy and a drastic reduction in the crime rate.  

Investing in the education of individuals across the entire lifespan has been shown to raise the national income, increase the GDP and is strongly related with overall life satisfactionInvesting in public education is an investment in an equitable, fair system that  helps citizens find meaningful ways to be masters of their lives and make positive contributions to society, regardless of socioeconomic background, political ties, religious affiliations or family history.

Education & Economics:

Income level rises in proportion to the educational level one achieves.  While this true on an individual level, it’s also true on a national levelFor individuals, this is paramount in maintaining a livable, sustainable lifestyle. As one’s income level and ability to meet their basic needs goes up, more of their time is freed up to pursue life-enhancing interests and experiences. For a nation, it is critical in its need to stay globally competitive, provide vocations that pay a livable wage and in creating innovations in technology and production. In order to do this, citizens must have access to equitable, affordable education. It does little societal or individual good if only a select few can afford a high-quality education.  Taking a solely profit mindset, if citizens are not educated, at least to the level where they can understand how to operate the products being sold to them, they will not buy them. Manufacturers and designers then have to figure out how to make their products easier to operate, often at the expense of quality.  

Education & Health:

  The link between education and health has been well-established, as one’s education level has an impact on their overall health.  It would stand to reason then, that investing in public education is also an investment in the overall health of our citizens. Well-educated citizens tend to make better decisions regarding their personal health and have a higher regard for the health and well-being of others.  The idea being that a well-educated populace understands the importance of personal and collective health and has the capacity to make health a priority.  Healthier citizens also spend less money, time and energy on minor health issues, which allows health professionals to focus on more serious health issues. Not only does this help by redirecting resources, it reduces the financial burden that comes with addressing minor health issues.  

Education & Information:

When a populace is well-educated, they know how to access and sort through a wide variety of information. They understand how to apply newly-acquired information in many contexts.   In order to maintain a populace that can apply newly-acquired information, there needs to be a public education system that is designed for acquisition and application.  The public education system can provide the space for citizens to develop the skills to find an objective truth and reflect upon that truth in light of new information.  Changing or reevaluating what we thought we knew in light of new information is an important aspect of a well-educated society. The public education system can serve as the catalyst for a society that is in search of objective truths, uninfluenced and unbiased by political agendas or the desire to cling to old paradigms. 

Education & Patriotism: 

It’s difficult to understand the call’s for patriotism by those who fail to see that  the benefits of investing in a strong public education system is indeed patriotic; perhaps the most patriotic act a citizenry can undertake.  While there is conflicting evidence  as to whether education level influences political participation, we have to decide whether we want those who do participate to be discerning, knowledgeable and fair.  Often the media is filled with laments from adults that our young people are not well-educated and lack the skills necessary to contribute to society in a meaningful way.  

A strong public education system can go a long way in providing young people with the means and desire to contribute to society in a meaningful way.  As a patriot of your country, wouldn’t you want our citizens to be well-educated and highly skilled?  If so, we then have to offer an equitable public education that provides the space for all citizens to be the masters of their own lives.  

 Education & Social Responsibility:   

We have a responsibility to each other as individuals and as global citizens. Our responsibility, at the very least, is to safeguard human rights and dignity.  Education is more than just acquiring skills or preparing for the next step, it’s about understanding our place in the world and our ability to contribute to a democratic, just and sustainable world.  One’s education level has an impact on the ability and inclination to be socially engaged and responsible. In short, well-educated people tend to understand the need to work for the benefit of society at large and participate more readily in socially-responsible activities; whereas, less-educated people tend to do so less.  

With this higher purpose in mind, public education then becomes a vehicle for the elevation of humanity, social justice and social responsibility.  Thus, it is imperative that we have a strong, equitable, sustainable public education system in place.

Education & Sustainability:  

The sustainability of our planet, and ultimately, our continued existence, is dependent upon how well we apply our understanding of ecological concepts.  We are running headlong into the limits of the industrial revolution, and ignoring this reality or turning it into a political or ideological battle is folly.  As David Orr states, we do not need more research to show us that we need to do something about the sustainability of our planet and species. We need innovative and practical solutions coupled with political will.  A public education system that provides a strong foundation for innovation, truth-seeking and problem-solving is what will serve as the foundation for the sustainability initiatives we need for the 21st century.  

Public Education for the Future: 

A strong public education system is the foundation of society. Without such a system in place, it is almost impossible to have equitable educational opportunities and choices.  With that said, educational choice is important, and there still needs to be educational opportunities that are part of the private or independent sector.  Educational choices must be equitable so that a citizen who chooses public education will have the same quality and depth of instruction and have the same opportunities for employment and further education as those who choose non-public options.  Societies with a strong, just public education system are happier, more productive and socially conscience.  

Part of government responsibility is to provide a quality public education system so that its citizens are educated well and can be the masters of their own lives. Citizens also have a responsibility to advocate, support and sacrifice for such a system.  The future of public education hinges on the ability of our citizens, regardless of occupation, race, age, political or religious affiliation, to recognize its place in ensuring a free, democratic, just and sustainable world.  We must also realize that public education needs to prepare citizens to think for themselves, which often creates a difference of opinion, but that is part of public education, that citizens understand the value of being able to have and express divergent opinions.  

Ensuring that a strong, accessible, equitable public education system is in place may seem like a lot of work and comes with a high price tag. We need to look no further than the statements made by Clive Bundy and Donald Sterling to see the higher cost of ignorance.  A robust, dynamic public education system will give us the best chance of eradicating ignorance and ensure a vibrant, healthy global society. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Meaningful Learning

      Perhaps no other field is subject to so many proposed changes, gimmick programs, shotgun strategies and steadfast adherence to damaging practices all in the name of progression than education. There are various interests competing for attention, time and a financial inroad into the field of education. From the freelancers and consultants, to the private corporations with their replication models, there is no dearth of ‘expert’ ideas on how to best promote ‘meaningful learning,’ whatever the motivation may be.  

     Recently, a colleague of mine posed some questions in a Facebook forum focused on what students loved and didn’t love about school and tossed in a question geared to ascertain thoughts about flipped learningI was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to sit with a group of high school students and pose these and other questions to them about learning.  While I won’t post what they said here verbatim, it was significant to me that these students wanted meaningful learning experiences and could articulate what they felt meaningful learning entails.  

     When it came to the idea of flipped learning, the following is what they had to say.  This is neither an indictment nor an endorsement of flipped learning; it is merely a report of students' thoughts and questions.  I'll post most of it here verbatim. “Flipped learning can be just as bad as any other way of doing it, if it's just about teaching stuff that doesn't matter or isn't interesting.” “Flipped learning can be a good tool if used in the right way.” “It would be like doing homework or would take about the same amount of time.” “If you did all the lessons that way, it would take forever.  You might have hours of lessons to listen to at night.”  “I don't really have a great computer or internet connection.  Wouldn't I need that to do the lesson?” “I like doing lessons with the teacher because we can discuss it and ask questions right there.” “Might be able to do this sometimes, but I don't think you can do this a lot.” “Interesting, but not everyone would like it or would want to do it.” “Do teachers really want to do this?” “Couldn't we just make the what happens during the day fun, meaningful and what we're interested in?” 

     Perhaps what this tells us is that students are conscious of what is happening to them in the name of education and are not just passive receptacles. What struck me about what they had to say is that they asked critical questions, were honest about their thoughts, asked that what they are expected to do be meaningful, and they didn’t buy into something simply because it was ‘new’ or a ‘different’ approach. Because something is new or different, it doesn’t necessarily translate into having meaning. 

     The conversation kept coming full circle to the notion that learning can and should be meaningful.  
Meaningful learning, according to the students, is learning that is relevant and connected to something bigger; they want to know that what they are being asked to do has a point and is going to help them realize their dreams or at least give them the ability to chase them. The students suggested that meaningful learning happens when you feel something while you’re doing it.  “You can almost feel that you’re learning.” 

     It isn’t so much about not having tolerance for mundane tasks, it’s about having a low threshold for doing things that others tell you have meaning when they really don’t.  Students understand that they have to trust that sometimes the meaning in what they’re doing isn’t immediately apparent.  They accept that.  What they don’t accept is when everything they do is a wait-and-see exercise.  ‘Just wait; when you get older, you’ll see how taking all these tests were meaningful.’ 

     Really, why should they be okay with spending their days doing things that have very little meaning? Why should anyone be okay with that?  We hear over and over that young people are lazy, they don’t want to work hard or sacrifice and they want everything now.  This is blamed on everything from the Internet to ‘passive parenting.’ There a few problems with this mindset.  For one, it isn’t true of most young people, and even if it were, it still wouldn’t make spending their days enveloped in meaningless tasks justifiable.  

     It may be that having the freedom to explore interests and go deeper into that area of interest is what creates the opportunities for meaningful learning. Many have written about and have explored the fact that when students are working on topics that interest them and have meaning, they will learn the three R’s and many other important life skills.  In fact, this type of learning is deeper, longer lasting and makes it more likely that there is a personal investment in the learning.  

   Taking a brief detour to the standardized test way of measuring learning, when students engage in meaningful learning while at school, they tend to perform better on standardized tests, since meaningful learning tends to connect many different sets of skills and ways of being and doing.  Meaningful learning can be a true partnership between adults and young people, where knowledge is shared and built upon.  

     Unfortunately, this is not how most young people spend their time at school.  Most young people have the ‘sage-on-the-stage-type' learning to contend with.  This is where they have little say in what they learn or do and spend their time listening to an adult tell them this and that. Used in conjunction with other ways of getting ideas across, this can be effective; used as the sole way of ‘learning,’ it’s -- at best -- ineffective.  

     Listening to those who have their own self-aggrandizing, ego-driven, financial agendas that have nothing to do with meaningful learning is, in part, how we ended up here. When it comes to meaningful learning, we have to listen to our young people more often, trust them to make good decisions and make sure there is the freedom to explore interests and ideas so they can 'feel the learning' and ‘make what happens during the day fun, meaningful and based on student interests.’ 

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Education Needs

            I can’t keep quiet anymore. Normally I remain fair, balanced and objective on most issues. I like to think that I come from a place of understanding, or at least from a place of striving to understand; knowing that I do not know all the nuances, circumstances, facts or information.  I just can’t keep quiet anymore, because I believe there is a lot at stake.  We seem to have come to a place in our society where some (too many, in my opinion) of our ‘educators’ have difficulty holding on to two or more ideas at the same time.
            While this would be troubling in any profession, it is more troubling when you’re dealing with a profession that has such a major influence on the development of individuals and really, when we think about it, our collective society.  As I have said many times, everyone is entitled to their opinions and beliefs. This is not about whether we are or aren’t entitled to our beliefs.  This is about not being able to explore and hold on to competing ideas that both have merit.  An easy example of this are those who disagree with anything a Republican, Democrat, (add in any label) does or says simply by virtue of the fact that they happen to be affiliated with that party, organization, etc.  
I am sure we can all think of organizations or groups that promote hate, violence and/or intolerance and would condemn anyone belonging to them. This is fair and probably a good thing, but what about the idea that many of them stand behind the idea of freedom of speech and expression?  Can we hold on to the separate ideas of not agreeing with what’s being said but supporting the idea of freedom of speech even when it gets messy?  I would like to think we could but am less encouraged by what I see and hear from some educators, especially those with obtuse political views or religious beliefs.
This is evident in various social media platforms with a plethora of education groups and forums.  Sadly, some ‘educators,’ or those who claim to care about education, post ludicrous, biased, discriminatory, fictitious accounts or opinions in these groups and forums.  While it is true that we all have the right to post whatever we want (freedom of speech), it’s the fact that these folks want to post what they do, and that they so vehemently believe in what they post, to the exclusion of reason and justice, that is the real issue.
            What’s more concerning still is the fact that many will change their opinion or endorsement of an idea depending on which party or organization is putting it out there.  So it’s not the idea; it’s who’s saying it... It doesn’t seem to matter whether they agree in principle or not. 
            Some may argue that as long as beliefs, etc., do not trickle down into the classroom or into instruction or guidance that it is a nonissue.  I would tend to agree with that if it were the case.  The problem is that we are talking about a mindset, and ‘education’ is not only about what is said or acted upon but what isn’t.  It’s also about creating safe places for debate and exploration of ideas that usually are complex and nuanced, and providing an example of fair, honest, just consideration of ideas based on facts, or at least the best facts available at the time.
            For example, this presents a problem when you have educators who lament that immigration is the biggest problem our country faces while eating the fruit which was most likely picked by an ‘illegal immigrant’ or migrant worker, the whole time ignoring immigration data.  Some might say that this is an opinion and wouldn’t be an issue, and that may indeed be true.  However, this mindset is dangerous, especially when it manifests in providing different experiences and access to experiences to children who are considered illegal immigrants by some. 
In a previous post, I wrote about the abandon of reason and how ignoring basis scientific principles, such as the displacement of water, somehow becomes a matter for debate when it suits a certain ideology.  There is nothing wrong with healthy debate, but do we really want educators to spend time disputing proven scientific principles that have stood the test of time and are apparent to any layperson over the age of five? Do we really want educators to spend time debating the merits of such ideas as human rights, decency, tolerance, justice, equity and democracy?
What we need in education are people who come into the profession with an understanding of basic scientific principles and a fundamental belief in at least human rights, justice and equity.  Maybe what we need are ways to identify whether teacher candidates possess these attributes or not.  No certification will ever you tell you that and probably shouldn’t, since at the moment they are designed to assess mostly content knowledge.
At the very least -- and I do mean very least -- we need educators who guide everyone with the same passion, vigor, dedication and forthcoming.  There should be no difference in how they go about their craft, whether a Republican, Democrat, ‘Illegal Immigrant’, Catholic, Jewish person, or whatever silly label our society clings to is a part of the group they are asked to guide.
            What we need now are educators who take their profession seriously enough to realize they can be an important piece of a societal shift that includes freedom, justice, democracy, equity and a fair chance for everyone to live in a way that makes sense for them.  We need educators who realize that this shift will only come about when we consider ideas based on merit, evidence, justice, trial and equity. 
What we need are educators who point the way forward and do not turn back into the myriad frays based on labels and the antiquated notion of one way for everyone.  We need educators who recognize how our society and media shapes hatred and intolerance based on fear.  And finally, we need to educators who will explore these notions within themselves so that they might see past the blinders inherent within any society. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Forum for Educational Change in New Hampshire

A gathering of youth and adults came together on Saturday June 1, 2013 in Hampton, New Hampshire to create educational change. The gathering was supported by AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) and the Hampton Community Coalition.   Youth and adults most of whom had never met, and representing a variety of educational genres from public school to homeschooling theorized, formulated and created concrete action steps designed to implement their ideas for educational change in the state of New Hampshire.  

The morning was spent getting to know each other, viewing videos including a chapter from A Year at Mission Hill, collaborating and setting a framework for the day. One of the goals for the day was for youth and adults to collaborate in small groups focused on a particular area of educational change. The tone was set by the youth in attendance who suggested the focus areas of each group. 
One group focused on creating community outreach and community learning opportunities in which young people would learn from craftsmen and artisans in the surrounding community.  This would create space for students to pursue interest areas, and gave rise to the idea that this could be an alternative path to graduation where students would have many options for pursuing the knowledge most important to them and have that recognized.

Another group concentrated their efforts on setting up an optional school program in a local public school which would expose students to career opportunities.  The program would happen in eight - week blocks getting more specific and focused as students progressed through the program. For instance in the firs eight - week block students would be able to explore a variety of career opportunities such as Engineering, Health & Medical, Government, Law and the Arts.  In the second eight - week block students would be able to choose an area of focus and learn about resources for pursuing the chosen career path, visit venues where the vocation is being practiced and gain hands-on experience.  In the third eight - week block and thereafter students would pursue internships and apprenticeships in their chosen area.  In this model students would be able to explore different career paths before deciding on a focus area. 

Still another group directed their energies towards creating multiple and varied learning options within all public schools.  Working at the policy level this group took the concept of the day and scaled it up to create a statewide conference and conversation with broad themes.  The goal would be to bring together diverse ideas and perspectives representing a variety of different roles in the education field.  As youth and adults worked through the idea of creating a statewide conference, the intention of creating space for self - organizing conversations and group work around topics and interest areas was proposed.

Throughout the day there was an even exchange of ideas between youth, and adults and as the focus areas were laid down by the youth participants the focus, and action steps were meaningful and rich.  Part of the beauty of this day was that as one youth participant stated “the adults were really interested in our ideas and what we had to say”.  What came out of each group was mostly youth created with guidance and input from the adult participants. 

Equally impressive was the fact that it was rather easy for the participants to get beyond sides, and political and philosophical dogma as they moved ideas forward to create concrete action steps in order to implement educational change.  Before departing for the day we made commitments to keep moving forward on the action plans creating a support group where that could happen, and making plans to meet in person over the next few months to discover and support the progress of each group.
Reflecting on this gathering made me realize how fortunate I am to be a part of this group youth and adults that collaborated for meaningful educational change.  While youth and adults coming together to create change isn’t a new concept, and is becoming more widespread it is not happening often enough quite yet. 

This gathering was truly collaborative in that there were many individuals and organizations who contributed to making it happen. Thank to every one of you who made this happen and will continue to see this through.  A special shout out to the organizations and the individuals who make up those organizations listed below for providing inspiration, resources, and talking points for a successful gathering. 

AERO - Alternative Education Resource Organization 

IDEA - Institute for Democratic Education in America 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Not all Charter Schools are The Same

            Are charter schools part of equitable educational choice? Do they and should they have a role in the educational landscape? There is a need for an honest, balanced discussion of charter schools. Charter Schools are tuition-free public schools, started by a variety of stakeholders for a variety of reasons.  Charter schools have come under fire for reasons ranging from selective admission processes and diversion of funds from public schools to the privatization of some charter schools. The concerns are valid, though sometimes they are derived from incomplete evidence and generalization.  

Public schools find themselves in a similar position, being lumped together and judged in the same way.  This continues to be an issue in the education reform movement, as some still seek to find one path for everyone and resist the need for varied educational options.  I am a tenacious advocate of equitable, quality public school education and work to make this option as strong as possible; however, I do not subscribe to the notion that this is the best option for everyone. 

Recent articles in the New York Times (Opinion Piece: NYC Charter Schools) and The Huffington Post (Charter School Quality) raise questions about equity, quality and sustainability of Charter Schools and also point to gains for students. While these are two respected publications and publications I enjoy reading, I find the reporting incomplete, biased and disappointing.  I find the continued focus on test scores as the sole method of measure troubling, as if testing and test scores have not come under scrutiny with serious questions about their legitimacy and relevancy.The New York Times opinion piece suggests that corporatized management of charter schools has been the reason for charter school success and advocates replication and using test scores as validation, while failing to mention that the focus of these management companies is on getting students into college Our Approach.

 Part of the concern regarding charter school growth has been the movement towards privatization. We have to ask how replication has somehow become synonymous with good, equitable and necessary. McDonalds has a replication model, and depending on your point of view, it’s either been very successful or highly destructive.

Replication without considering the unique needs of the context or individual sounds very familiar:  ‘Teach everyone the same way, using the same replicated techniques so we can assess them in the same way, because we know what’s best for is for all of them to be ready in the same way for the same future’.  It’s a good idea for us to be vigilant about this type of privatization and replication, which is contradictory to the original premise of charter schools.  Any form of public education should not be viewed by various entities as opportunities to profit off of our youth.

Not all charter schools are privately owned or operated.  While states differ in their regulation, most of the nation’s charter schools have to at least take a standardized test to satisfy accountability measures. Some charter schools have more rigorous accountability measures than the surrounding public schools, and this is often a tradeoff for more flexibility (NH Charter School Improvement).  

What is lacking in these studies is the consideration of alternative forms of assessment, such as portfolios (interestingly, many employers are asking for applicants to provide them with a portfolio, electronic or otherwise).  Some charter schools have alternative forms of assessment in addition to required standardized testing. Charter schools I have been affiliated with had Portfolio Assessments along with taking two standardized tests, as compared to the surrounding public schools, which only took one standardized test.  I agree that this is not a great measure of public schools either.

Many charter schools have a theme or a focus they operate under.  For instance, one might have an arts and music focus, another may have an environmental science focus or social justice focus and so on. I do know from experience that students and parents don't always choose the charter option because of the theme; many chose it because they were not having success in other schools.  It is my belief that we need to be asking why charter schools are being founded in the first place?  Who is founding them? What’s the overall mission?  And ultimately, what’s its purpose?  I don’t think this can be done in a way that paints them all with the same broad brush.  Since many charter schools are founded by parents, students and community members, we have to at least consider the ones that do not operate under the replication ideology individually.

Admissions processes for charter schools are varied. I have worked in charter schools as a teacher and administrator in four different states. None of the charters in which I worked were privately run or owned. There were no admission criteria, and from what I recall, most charter schools throughout these states did not have admission criteria.  It was a lottery system. However, they did give preference to siblings. For example, if a student was already part of the charter school, the sibling of that student was given preference for an open spot.

I can remember only one time where we could not admit a student and that was because the services required were far and above what we could provide. This was in large part due to the disparity in funding, as states vary in their funding of charter schools (Charter School Funding). In some states, charter schools receive the same amount of money per student as the surrounding public school district, in other states, the funding is less.  

In New Hampshire, charter schools receive 40% funding for students. So if a public school gets $12,000 per student, charters get $5,500 per student, and they are expected to provide the same services. Charter schools in New Hampshire get start-up money for three years, so in general, new charters are in decent shape for at least two years. It's usually after that that they struggle. Some of them are on the brink of closing and have had to cut staff and services.  While more money does not necessarily equate to better quality, it’s hard to ask one person to do the job of five, especially when specialized skills and services are needed.  

The concern has been raised that charter schools take away money from public schools. The thinking goes that even if 20 students leave the public school and go to the charter school, the costs for maintaining the building, grounds, etc., remain the same for the public school.  What if the same amount of students left to go to a private school or moved from the area? Here is the perspective on this issue from the California Charter School Association (Myths About Charter Schools).

Charter schools offer a viable, equitable option for many students and families. I have watched the complete transformation of students and families who, for whatever reason(s), the public school option wasn't working. I witnessed students who were disenchanted and disheartened no only with school but with learning, and some who were shut down and downtrodden, become confident and curious agents of change.  

Charter schools can offer a smaller, more intimate environment. The ones I have been affiliated with were smaller than the surrounding public schools, some of which had thousands of students on campus, as compared to the charter school that had between 150 to 300 students.  The smaller environment, I believe, allowed for adults and youth to know each other well. To borrow a phrase from Mission Hill School in Boston (Mission Hill Facebook Page), “You have to know them well to teach them well.”   

Charter schools also tend to have more flexibility in how they approach meeting standards and educating children.  In essence, they can implement what works for individual students.  Charter schools tend to have more parental and community involvement, which are added support structures for students and school staff.

In no way am I stating that charter schools are a panacea for every ailment, nor is this an indictment of all public schools.  Some charters schools are not very different than the public schools in the district in which they operate, and this trend may increase due to financial pressures. Some charter schools have had to admit more students than originally planned for to remain financially sustainable.  For instance, if they originally planned to cap enrollment at 200, they have now admitted 300 students, often with no additional staff members.  This is something that needs to be closely monitored and learned from.  We needn’t repeat what hasn’t worked.

While there are legitimate concerns about the direction of some charter schools, they can provide a viable, innovative, realistic option for students and families.  There are many models of cooperation between local public school districts and charter schools. Some share resources, such as building space, special education services, curriculum resources, maintenance of facilities, and in some cases, collaborative professional development.  This is an example of the type of collaboration that can happen when all but providing real choice and workable options for students are put aside.

We need all forms of educational choice and must work to make all those options equitable, sustainable and viable if we are to commit to a world where everyone is free to pursue the full measure of their humanity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Abandon of Reason - The Role of The Educator & Education Reform

It seems we are living with a “new normal” in which reason has been abandoned in many aspects of our society.  When we engage in reason, it’s essentially a process of understanding phenomena based on verifiable facts (in fact, part of the process is verifying facts) then changing our beliefs, patterns and practices in light of new information.  When we abandon reason, we stick to old practices, patterns and beliefs even in the light of new information without considering what the new information may mean. The implications for educators and education as a whole need to be considered before any kind of transformation can truly take hold.  

            Today this abandon seems pervasive and has somehow become intimately woven into our political process. Take for instance the issue of climate change.  Let’s put aside whether you believe that climate change is connected with the warming of the earth. We can go a step further and put aside the term climate change and just explore the issue of the number of increasing damaging storms.  For whatever reason(s), on the East Coast of the United States we have had an increasing number of intense and unprecedented storms over the last five years, two of which happened within four months of each other, and one which caused major damage and disruption for coastal communities along the Eastern seaboard, including major metropolitan areas.

             There are those who still argue that storms of this nature cannot happen, even though they witnessed it, even some who experienced it firsthand. I overheard a conversation after another major storm, the basis that went like this:  Person 1, “I think something is going to have been done about protecting people along the coast.” Person 2, “ It’s not that bad.  The storms aren’t as bad as the media hypes it up.  I saw on the news there was not much flooding.  It’s these liberals who want everyone to think the world is going to end because of global warming.”  Person 1, “The hurricane in October was pretty bad; lots of people lost their homes, and there is flooding from this storm too.  I don’t remember so much flooding, and I have lived here a long time.” Person 2, “What they say will happen won’t happen. They always say it will, but then it doesn’t.”  Person 1, “ I thought that too until the last storm, and then there was even that one that went inland two years ago and caused a lot of damage.”  Person 2, “I still say it’s all hype and we don’t have to spend money on protecting the coast.  People can just move.  Nothing is going to happen anyway.” Person 1, “I’m not so sure, but I hope you’re right.”

            Certainly this conversation is rife with opinion, and to some degree controversy. There is also denial and the connecting of weather phenomena to a political party or belief system.  Of course, there are real reasons why Person 2 said what they did.  It could be that the coverage of storms they viewed differed in some way, or perhaps Person 2 didn’t tune in for long or pay close attention. So maybe Person 2 didn’t really know.

There is nothing wrong with not knowing.  There is nothing wrong with having an opinion. The challenge becomes when reason is abandoned and when opinions, and more importantly actions, stay the same when one does know or when one doesn’t know and insists they do. We all experience things differently and take away something different from each experience, which accounts in part for different perceptions. Maybe for Person 2 a bad storm would have to entail most of the East Coast being under water.  That being said, 10 feet of water is 10 feet of water, displacement of water is displacement of water. If a surge starts with 10 feet of water as the base, it will cause more flooding and be more likely to rise above a sea wall than if it started with 9 feet of water as the base.

            It’s difficult to say New England will never get 3 feet of snow when it has already happened and has been documented, and it’s difficult to say New York City cannot be flooded when much of lower Manhattan was flooded in October.  It’s even more difficult to suggest that no action needs to be taken to protect life and property in the future without abandoning reason.  This reminds me of the quote by Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

            This has nothing to do with the political party you favor, what you believe or how you live. If you fill your bathtub right up to the rim with water and then get in it, that water is going to rise over the rim and flow onto the floor whether you believe our current elected officials are doing a good job or not. When there isn’t acceptance or agreement of these fundamental issues, we abandon reason at our own peril. When this type of denial and dismissal of facts becomes the norm, reason is abandoned and things become stuck with little dialog over the best course of action.

             As educators, we are often faced with the challenge of navigating through the abandon of reason. This presents a real dilemma, since we strive to be guides and facilitators supporting people in their own discoveries. We dance on the edge of the knife, not wanting to impart our beliefs or ideals onto another human being and wanting to ensure the people we work with have as much information as possible.  It is difficult to take ourselves out of the equation, especially when what we do requires pouring so much of ourselves into it.  

            We are educators, and we are human beings with responsibilities. As human beings we have a responsibility to accept the fundamental underpinnings of our world (if we throw a lit match onto a patch of dry grass, it’s more likely to catch fire than if we threw the same lit match onto a patch of wet grass). As educators we have a responsibility to give the time, space and tools needed for the people we work with to discover these fundamental underpinnings or experience them in new ways.

We can ask for participants to design experiments or demonstrations that illustrate these principles (what would participants have come up with if we asked them to illustrate what happened during the storm surge in New York City’s East River?).   We also need to find the time for reflection on these principles. While we tread lightly on moving anyone towards a conclusion, we can ask, now that we know this, what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Are there applications? Are there any current issues where these principles might apply? Do we have responsibilities now that we know this?  And so on.

            Just as important and a bit trickier is the responsibility we have as educators to ask those with whom we work to fulfill their responsibility as human beings. We can ask that when encountered with the “issues” of the day, they uncover them by beginning with the fundamental underpinnings of our world, the understandings that most people agree on (if you jump into the ocean with clothes, on they are going to get wet). Some might ask what right we have to ask anyone to fulfill these responsibilities, and this may be a fair point. On the other hand, as human beings we often ask each other to fulfill certain responsibilities on a daily basis. For instance, when driving our cars, we ask people to fulfill their responsibility for safe operation by knowing what the gas pedal and brake pedal do and when to use them.

            As we work towards transformation, we tend to uncover the abandon of reason a bit more quickly.  For example, if we are working towards transforming education from a system of a rote, passive experience to one that is more experiential and discovery-based, we will likely undercover the abandon of reason as it relates to how one will actually become skilled in using a hammer.  We all have a responsibility to engage in reason and use our fundamental understandings of the world as we work to transform our society so that the rights of all its inhabitants are met.