We attended the annual “meet the parents” session at our local high school last night. Given my criticism of the existing school system (as regular readers will know), I decided to concentrate on listening for understanding and kept my mouth shut.
I found the teachers to be interested in education and motivated to teach. They all seemed to be competent in their areas of expertise. However, on leaving the school, I tried to figure out why my gut feeling was negative. After a night of reflection, I think that my concern is the evident dichotomy between espoused theory and practice, coupled with an unsubstantiated belief in education maxims that have been scientifically proven wrong.
Let’s start with what I heard. Here are the key messages, taken from my 4 pages of notes, reinforced by the principal and teachers:
- The school’s purpose is to challenge children, therefore there will be homework every night.
- We are delighted to say that we test regularly (even though high performing students are exempted from the final exams, and these are the students who will be going to university and will continue to write exams).
- The focus is to teach to the test.
- Students are here to learn, and will be scored on behaviour in class.
- Each teacher sees over 100 students per day, so don’t expect personal attention.
- Punctuality is critical.
- Each teacher covered the assesment breakdown in great detail.
- Incorrect behaviour, described in detail, will be punished.
- We have 640 students in the school and need to maintain control at all times.
- There is very little money for new textbooks ($10,000/year – enough for one subject for one grade level), therefore we do book counts regularly.
- There is very little money for photocopying or paper
The strangest message of the evening was that hats cannot be worn in school as a sign of respect for this “learning environment” and as well as a sign of respect for those who died in previous wars. As a retired Army officer, I don’t understand this one at all.
Here are some of my concerns:
- There are no data that show that homework improves learning and I invite anyone to show me studies that indicate this.
- There is a school-wide belief that test performance correlates directly with learning.
- There is a belief that learning only takes place in a classroom and is directed by a teacher. All other forms of learning are secondary.
- If learning is so important, why is the major effort put into control and assessment?
- There was no mention of any of the last decade’s research in brain-based learning, though the unscientific and disproven Bloom’s Taxonomy was mentioned.
- There was an unquestioning acceptance of the reliance on a single technology – the textbook – when other technologies are available and cheaper.
- There is an unquestioning belief that the existing regional school model, requiring strict control measures due to its size and structure, is the only viable option for education.
As we parents moved from class to class at the sound of the bell, I felt I might salivate on hearing the next one. It’s been a long time since I was in a bell-controlled environment and I found it very uncomfortable. I’ve previously mentioned John Taylor Gatto’s acceptance speech as teacher of the year, and the fact that teachers reinforce indifference to learning through the “lesson of the bells”.
I would like to quote again from Gatto because I am scared most by the subliminal messages that are being driven into our children’s minds on a daily basis:
The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce. If I’m told that evolution is fact instead of a theory I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been to tell them to think.
This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily. Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer. The choices are his, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
After four years of high school, will our children become intellectually dependent? Should we be scared?
We have just elected a new Provincial government that ran on a 3-E platform (energy, education, economic development). Will any of this change?