There Has To Be a Better Way

I am totally over school.

The serious grading has begun, and the serious speed bumps are popping up in the road.  Yesterday’s speed bump was an essay from Michael, whom I wrote about last week.  Michael’s essay was so convoluted that it was impossible for me to grade it.  (It reminded me, troublingly, of essays I received a couple of years ago from Khawar, whose  saga some of you may remember, and who almost drove me to the brink.)  I wrote Michael to say PLEASE COME SEE ME.  And then I put my head down on the table and groaned for a while.

It’s not Michael’s fault.  Michael is absolutely aware that he has problems – he wrote notes all over his paper to the tune of “I did my best but I don’t think I did good,” and messaged me immediately after the essay (I was home with a cold while a sub invigilated) to say that he was “scared about his essay.”  He has every reason to be scared.  He’s been pushed through the system to this point despite the fact that he has none of the tools he needs to deal with college-level writing.

It is also not the fault of any individual teacher, course, or school.  Students with serious academic issues pass my courses all the time, not because they’ve mastered everything they need to master, but because they’ve worked hard and the numbers have added up.  I think it’s unlikely this will happen in Michael’s case, but I’ve been surprised by this before.

School is the problem.

I’m having my first thoughts of the semester about quitting my teaching job and becoming a strident, shrieking education reformer: abolishing classrooms (particularly 40+ student/teacher ratios) and grades, completely overhauling curricula (particularly “English” studies, which I’m now fully convinced is an antiquated and unhelpful domain, at least at the level of general education), chopping big colleges up into small, focused learning “communities,” and, most importantly, focusing all of formal education on helping students learn how to learn.

Students need to be learning how their brains work.  They need to be focused, not on grades and R-scores, but on becoming flexible, confident, skilled learners who can tackle challenges with brio and curiosity.  They need to be prepared for a world that we can’t even envision right now, for jobs that don’t exist yet, for problems that are not even a glimmer in humanity’s collective eye.  Our school system – the one we’ve almost all been through, the one that pays my salary, the one that will take a freaking revolution to dismantle – prepares them for none of these things.

I know I’m not the first to say this.  I’ve watched Ken Robinson’s TED talks and RSA Animations, I’ve read reams of material on interdisciplinarity, on unschooling, on various other alternatives to the rusty, crumbling structure that is our current view of education.

The question is, why is so little happening?  Why does someone like Michael, who can’t understand a simple personal narrative essay from a national newspaper, feel that going to “college” is his best/only option?  He can’t do college, not as college is right now, and the best college can do for him is to try to jam him into the college mould and maybe, if he’s lucky, shuffle him through.

I would love to hear from any of you out there who are working or studying in alternative educational environments with some success.  Whether you’re homeschooling your own children, or teaching at a “gradeless college,” or designing an interdisciplinary curriculum at a technical high school, or doing an internship in a hands-on work/study program, I would love to know on an intimate, anecdotal level what other models are working for teachers and students alike.

I don’t know that I can pack my bags and leave school as we know it behind.  I certainly can’t do it tomorrow.  But I’d like to know that there are other possibilities, because this one has overstayed its welcome.

Image by Nicolas Raymond


20 responses

  1. Poignant! I am beginning a project with libraries to introduce Building to Teach, a program designed to improve math skills through boatbuilding. Literacy and history are my goals, and I am totally with you on dismantling the educational system. JML

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I agree. In the states, educational mandates determine when a child “moves on”–not necessarily the child’s ability or skill level.

    I had a freshman student who came to me from sixth grade. He was passed on because at 15, he was too old to stay at the junior high level; however, he has learning disabilities as well as a language deficit that has never really been addressed. I have campaigned to get him an ESL teacher as well as a Spanish textbook to help him until his academic English improves, but few people seem to agree with any of my assessments.

    Yet the child continues to fail to perform poorly for teachers who simply are not equipped to handle the problems he brings to the classroom. In one semester, with a class of 20 other students, how can I be expected to bring him from a sixth grade level to a 9th grade level when he reads at a 4th grade level and has other problems with which to grapple?

    It’s a problem that makes me want to take up drinking professionally. Especially because if that kid fails, I’m going to feel like a failure as a result. And I don’t see any way he will ever graduate…

  3. Well said, but I hope you stick it out a bit. (Not that I’m in the classroom anymore- I know I don’t have enough mastery of technology to get a job)- but it does seem every year another company or think tank invents another system and it’s nothing new, just giving the same old practices new names. I’m not sure more technology is really the answer. Bring back reading books.

    • AMEN!!!

      A few years ago, when the concept of “book clubs” had become the new rage in middle and high-school literature classrooms, I picked up an old copy of Pyle’s _Men of Iron_ from a used book store. When I opened it up, I discovered that in the back were instructions on running a classroom “book club”–instructions that sounded very similar to what we were getting ready to do in our classroom! The copy I’d bought was a classroom copy published in the 1950’s.

      Solomon was not kidding when he said that there is nothing new under the sun.

      • And in response to both the RSA animation and to cyclinggrandma’s comment–I don’t think that the answer is to find ways to use technology and techniques to enable students to be more fully involved. I think that the answer is “bring back reading books” (among other things). It actually ties quite nicely back to your post on boredom.

  4. The main reason I am surviving in teaching is that I teach at a small, rural college and I have small classes so I can pay attention to each students’ individual needs and have almost no discipline problems. I do find, however, that the general level of reading and writing skills is in decline. This is coupled with a rise in students with learning disabilities, both diagnosed and non-diagnosed. I had the privilege of attending both an alternative high school and an alternative CEGEP and wish more students had access to this approach.

  5. The problem is not the educational model at your level; the problem is that the previous level passes students along even though they are not at mastery. It is more than possible for students coming out of 6th grade to write coherent essays. If they come to CEGEP without that skill, blame the curriculum and the grading and promotion policies at the lower levels. Also, if the student is not fluent in English, s/he should not be taking academic classes until s/he is. And finally, not every student can or should be admitted to post-secondary education that requires academic skills (I do believe that every one should have a shot at post-secondary, but for some that will be technical courses with little academic content). I have so many relatives who have floundered in academic classes yet excelled in technical classes.

    • And let me add: although your idea of a grade-less, classroom-less, interdisciplinary educational system that teaches students how to learn is appealing, I think it also suffers from vagueness and from your desire to avoid telling students they aren’t measuring up. I think a better solution is to steer them towards classes where they can and will measure up.

  6. I thought this was a great post. Thank you for your honesty. When I tutor, I often have the student take a preferred learning style inventory, and I often dance around, sing, draw pictures, and encourage students to play with kush balls or fidget if they need to. This hopefully engages the most common learning stye, and helps people retain the information as it is presented through multiple different modes. It also makes teaching and tutoring more fun for me. I know there is less freedom in a traditional classroom, but I also employed these techniques when I was teaching at a college level and found it fairly successful. It has been even better with one-to-one, but of course it is much easier to get a read on a student with a smaller group and more personal time with them. Best of luck.

  7. Oh maaaaan. This is such a good post. I’m currently writing a book about exactly this subject.
    When I’m invited to speak to an audience of teenagers and young adults, I ask them what they think their talents are. I make them think about why they exist and what their life’s purpose is. I believe that education should train people in enhancing their talents and ultimately lead them to fulfill their live’s missions.
    Unfortunately, the current education system basically trains people to sell themselves to the financial market by writing resumés and applying for menial jobs that supply them with average salaries. I don’t think that’s what human beings should aspire to after years of hard work and diligence in the traditional education system. It defeats the purpose of having personal aspirations that exist outside of the box we call “reason”. Sometimes, all a creative person needs is time and money in order to do something amazing, and not necessarily a degree in creativity.

    • I think that sometimes eidtacuon makes perfect sense. Where would we be without it? Several of my friends decided not to continue with college after we graduated highschool and I have watched them try numerous jobs that aren’t getting them anywhere. They are unhappy and don’t make very much money. I think that some leaders understand that eidtacuon puts people in a disciplined atmosphere and that educated people not only help themsleves but the decisions they make can benefit the people around them as well. Even though school has cost me quite the penny I feel that I am going places in life. I feel like now, even as a student teacher, this has opened the door for me to many other good things.

  8. You are singing my tune!! As i was reading, I was thinking Ken Robinson’s TED Talk &, then, there it is in black and white. Today public schools are about political agendas and money. I was so disillusioned by the public school system until I became part of it.
    Why don’t you leave? For the same reason I and so many other teachers like us don’t leave. Because we believe in education. We believe in people. And even if we can help a minority of people, it’s better than helping non at all. We can make a difference. Hang in there!

  9. I tried to post a short essay about this very same dilemma on your last blog but I don’t think it went through.

    It is very frustrating trying to help students who do not have the basic skills needed to succeed in school, let alone in life!

    I’ve got a 9th grader with LD issues and reading at the 2nd grade level. This, in an alternative HS setting to begin with. Who has the energy to create a stand-alone curriculum for this youngster, who obviously has been passed along year after year and still can’t read.

    I, too, am tired and wonder how long I can continue to teach, even though I switched careers to become a teacher (and paid to become one as well).

    Too young to retire, need to work, want to teach. Depressed. Sigh…

      • The other day, walking up to the sochol, I witnessed a parent yelling and pointing her finger in the face of one of our students. Do I think it was this parent’s child? Nope, I sure don’t. It is sad when we see members of our society treating others with such disrespect. Everyone deserves some form of respect no matter their age. As educators we nurture as we can while those students are under our care and we try to teach self-respect, respect of others, and sense of control. But our teachings only go so far. We are not their parents nor do we claim to be, but we have this vested interest in these children and it is extremely painful to see what we strive so hard to maintain destroyed in an instance.

  10. I think it’s because school is just baby-sitting. Later it becomes one of the “hoops” to jump through. Alfie Kohn is trying. There is some momentum happening, you just have to reach out (as you are doing right now) and you’ll find someone/thing.
    There is just no infrastructure for it. Many people pay taxes to support then current system, and to get something better you have to pay more.
    I am a music teacher, it is easier for me to situate myself outside. Music doesn’t even work in the current school system because it is a skill, it’s not quantifiable. I have to idea how one would do it in a more standardized setting.


    It’s so confusing when nothing is changing and so many people feel that it NEEDS to change… but hopefully we’ll come together as drops to a stream of water, and then turn the tide. Hopefully it’ll happen soon so that students aren’t needlessly messed up by their education system.

    I wish I had something to offer you in ways of new ideas or knowledge, but all I can offer at the moment is solidarity.

  12. First off, I have to say this piece poignantly describes what not only what I have heard from other educators, but what I have witnessed first-hand. I by no means consider myself a master of the English language. Nor do I even write all too well, however, I see with each passing generation an decline in the educational system making an impact on many of those they, as you put it, push through the system. As sad as it may sound, I told someone I had to stop dating them because I could not stand their use of slang, poor sentence structure, and their simple lack of what in my age group is common knowledge. There was an 8 year difference between us for the curious

    A bit of history: I am a graphic designer with the aspirations of eventually teaching in the higher education system: preferably at an art school of sorts. While going to art school, I witnessed teachers go about both traditional and alternative methods of teaching their courses. Some instructors would tear designs to pieces and each aspect was quantified, counted, measured, and it was this tight arithmetic that determined the success of your work. And each student was held to this standard equally. Needless to say, many students did not do well in this instructors course and she was feared campus-wide as being too rule based and too exacting.

    On the other hand, the teachers that tended to have a high volume of success in their class held a standard for their projects, however, they met with every student weekly to review their sketches, talk to them about the thought process, how it fit the creative brief, and to get inside their creative process and aesthetic. Yes, this meeting with students took away from a fair amount of lecture time, but these instructors knew where their students were coming from, were accepting of styles and aesthetics that were not in line with their own, and judged based on the standard of the assignment (#20 of rough sketches, if the piece was created using the right tools, if the tools were used properly and/or effective, if the presentation of the finished work met the standards, etc.) as well as if the final piece achieved the goal of communicating it’s intended message.

    Point being: One teacher represented the past, and either pushed people through because numbers added up or failed them, while the others figured out how their students worked and with this improved understanding, better understood not only what the students were producing, but was better able to reach into the mind of the student and work with them on becoming more successful. To that end, I whether in an art school or traditional academic environment, there are parallels here and proof to back this up.

    As an aspiring professor and recent student, I concur with your post a great deal. It tugged at my heart leaving me feelings sad for Michael and a surging disappointment in the system. Moreover, it has left me somewhat with fear. “What am I getting myself into?” “If I continue with this goal and succeed at achieving it, how can I in fact be better, more effective, and make a more useful difference than most?” “How do I cope with a student like Michael, should one come along?”

    Continue your amazing writing.


  13. I’m a 44 year old medical device executive, and I’m happy and successful in my career, but I’ve been doing it a while. I did well in school through two masters degrees and a public primary education, but I’m not sure why. I’ve become very passionate about exactly the problem you describe in the public schools, to the point that I think it may be the single biggest opportunity for improvement in all of US society (inclusive of healthcare, homelessness, etc.) I don’t know the answer and I don’t have a scrap of formal training in teaching but it seems to me that a start is more people getting involved who care deeply about the problem. That’s why I’m considering quitting the career I’ve built now for several decades and getting involved in teaching. Possibly through charter schools. Although perhaps not a complete solution, it seems to me that charter schools at least allow for creativity and flexibility in dealing with issues specific to a community and individual children’s educational needs. Keep up your stamina and passion. The field needs you and one day soon I may join you.

  14. Wow. Wow. Wow. This post left me thinking so many things that I am not sure what to say at all!

    I am glad that Dave (innov8ional) mentioned the teacher that takes the time to learn the students and to figure out where they are coming from and what they are thinking. That is one thing that I have found in working with my own students–understanding how they think is important for helping them to learn.

    I am currently teaching in one of those “alternative methods” you mentioned–I teach homeschool students. I work primarily with one family and tailor my teaching to the needs of each child. And while I have found that it has been a good experience for all of us (teacher and students), it has not been easy. To do such a thing requires that the teacher figure out the student’s thinking process and then try to lead the student to an understanding from within his own thinking process. It takes a great deal of mental energy. Sometimes I think it takes more than classroom teaching does. Most likely it is comparable. And it is not as efficient as the classroom system is set up to be.

    Incidentally, a couple of my students had been diagnosed with ADD (not ADHD, but close enough), so I know the challenges that come with such a learning disability. The issue for these students is teaching them HOW to focus themselves on the things that they need to focus on–even in an environment which allows the teacher to tailor the assignments to the students’ interests, the students still may not have the ability to maintain the focus needed to carry out their chosen project. Or (as you pointed out in your post on Desire Paths), they may find themselves easily discouraged when they come up against something that is new and difficult–no matter how interested they were in the project to begin with. Just as you pointed out in your reviews on Paul Tough’s book and article, “grit” and other character traits are needed for student success. And it really doesn’t matter what educational model is used.

    One issue that I never hear discussed in these talks about changing the educational model is the role that family plays in education. The fact is that while yes, the educational system was setup in a different time and a different culture than ours today, it was also set up at a time when there were generally different values in place and when families were generally more intact. The truth is that teachers are increasingly being called upon to fill roles that have been left vacant by parents and family members. And the educational system was set up to work in conjunction with the family, not to replace it. In a healthy family, a child’s abilities and individual desires are given room to grow and to be recognized. The school learning then becomes something that gives the child the basic skills all children need (reading, writing, arithmetic, literary interpretation skills, science concepts and reasoning) as well as a broad base of exposure to things that everyone should know (those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it). It also gives the child opportunities to learn flexibility in adapting to new situations and requirements.

    I am not opposed to education reform. I think that the system does need to change, that we have begun to ascribe more value to grades than they truly deserve, and that many students have decided they aren’t good at learning when really they are. I am currently teaching more than one quite brilliant (I’m only a bit biased, of course) student who may have come to the conclusion that he couldn’t learn if he’d been in the school system and not being educated individually and privately. But I also think that those who are proposing education reform the most authoritatively have missed a few key facts.

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