On Schooling, Teaching, and Restraint

There’s been quite a flutter about since Alec Couros tweeted his feelings about his child’s new school environment and then Will Richardson set down his thoughts on the same matter. As of this writing, there are almost 400 results on Google when searching for the title of Richardson’s post. (We’ll leave aside the cute use of “2.0” in the post title. That just makes me grind my teeth.)

As I increase and improve my knowledge of second language acquisition, language pedagogy, and educational technology, I’m pretty sure I will have some of the same issues that Couros, Richardson, and the 100+ respondents to Richardson’s posts do. To boot, my SO was educated in both psychology (focusing on child development) and early childhood education (along with special education). Put us together and it’s a recipe for at best the hand-wringing or indignance seen in much of the discussion spinning off from Richardson’s post.

And yet, there are things generally missing from the discussion on Richardson’s page. First, though there’s decent balance between points of view, and, all in all, a remarkable tolerance for differing points of vie, there’s far too much supposition from commenters that each is the holder of the One True Wisdom about teaching. In the United States and Canada, there are 80–90 million people of school age and northwards of 7 million teachers.[1] The problem is insufficient change? The problem is too much change? The problem is that teachers have insufficient options? The solution is that “the whole educational system has to be blown up to make true change happen“? If we could define the problem (if we could agree that there is a problem or reduce issues to one problem) or the solution (if we could agree that the problem[s] has[have] a solution) so easily, we’d be in a different world. The USA has been diagnosing and solving education issues for quite some time now, and things still aren’t perfect. So let’s start off with acknowledging that we live in an imperfect world, and that an imperfect starting point leads to imperfect later stations.

Second, in the text and comments that I read, there’s no articulation of the desired alternate vision for the childrens’ futures. Not their educational life, but their life beyond education. If the teachers were to teach (or approach teaching, or try to teach) the way any single commenter wants, what then. We solve world hunger? We call our mothers on their birthdays? We all have good relationships with our mothers? A chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard? In all seriousness, while outcomes-based learning has a very real and very powerful dark side, we have to know what we want children to become or what options we want them to have before we can pontificate about whether those goals are being met. Additionally, it doesn’t seem tenable to me that we can declare that one bad school year, even early on, will doom a child. (How bad is bad? And again, doom him/her to what? Indigence? A life outside the law? Beauty school dropout?)

I’m going to resist drawing this into a nice tidy moral, but I know how I hope I will act when my son gets to school. I hope I will model and tell him how I think he ought to behave at and toward school, foster his curiosity and exploration and critical thinking, and build into him a love of learning that can happen anywhere, at any time, with anyone.

[1] Figure for schoolchildren incorporates the inconsistent numbers at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States combined with a rough estimate for Canada. Since I couldn’t find a direct figure for the number of school-age children in Canada, I ballparked it by applying the same ratio between it and the USA figures as the general population ratio. Teacher figures incorporates the old numbers at http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/pdf/cb05-ffse02-2_labor_table597.pdf (as of 2003) and the same algorithm as for the schoolchildren. Further, these approximations seem valid enough for my point.

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