Tuesday, July 06, 2010


I wanted to take a few minutes to air a view that is unfashionable but of deep concern to me. Feel free to skip.
Tom Colicchio, in an interview on CNN about hunger, said this:
"There's a school of thought, this was about fifteen years ago, where kids are the clients coming into the school lunchroom, so let's make this look like a fast food line. That's what they tried to mimic and that's what the kids get. My feeling is yeah, the kids want that, but my seventeen year old will sit in front of the X-Box and not take a shower if I let him. We're adults. We're the ones who should teach the kids what's good to eat. "
This struck me because it is exactly how I feel about a lot of things concerning young people. Food, yes, but also student behavior and education.
In a way, I can compare what Colicchio said to my feelings on underage drinking. I hate, hate, hate it when parents say to their teens, "I don't want you to drink, but I know you'll do it anyway, so...be careful." Parents don't want to be caught out being permissive, but that's exactly what they're doing. They are conveying that they don't really care about the law and they don't actually care if their kids drink. I'd rather my message be clear and unequivocal for my kids: Don't do it. If they disobey me, it's a problem. These parents are making it so the kids can't actually disobey them no matter what they do.
But what really gets me is how the attitude conveyed above reaches our educational system. For instance, universities now are treating students like clients also, and trying to give them bells and whistles because it's what they want. Schools are adopting for themselves a permissive parenting style.
Sure, students are adults, and they deserve SOME of the privileges normally accorded to adults. But the law also views them as restricted adults, adults who do not in fact have ALL the rights and responsibilities of our culture. No drinking, no renting cars, etc. That means that they are still adults that are being nurtured by people with more experience of the world. It's our job to mentor these brand-new adults, and continue to give them discipline and limits as well as benefits and goals.
Colicchio puts his finger on what is beginning to bother me about education, not just at the college level but at all levels. We're trying to cram in all this new gadgetry and trying to make our lessons match the expectations of kids raised on World of Warcraft and reality TV. In essense, we're bringing our teaching to their attention spans, rather than the other way around. Whether it fits our personal teaching style or not, whether it suits the lesson material or not, I have been getting the message, albeit subtly, that kids, our clients, have to have their demands met.
Here's the thing: I don't believe all of this is best for the students. I see some of the changes being made, and I don't agree that all of them are wise. We're giving away our responsibility of determining, as educators, what is best. And when we give that away, we're not going to be able to get it back so easily; we'll lose our credibility to say, "No, that runs counter to what I know will help my students." We're also making the (documented) problems worse by refusing to address them and reverse them.
If students are coming into a university situation with a poor attention span and inability to focus on academic material, it seems wrong to me to sex up my teaching and make it more like this supposed learning style, as opposed to helping this student broaden his spectrum of learning and find the ability to learn in more than one way, in addition to correcting his attention span. I do believe that students learn in different ways, and that we should teach in a variety of methods to bring everybody in. But I also believe that some of the "styles" we are seeing now are actually disabilities, and we should be working to bring students up to par as learners, not just as information holders.
Universities right now are bending over backward to create new initiatives and special programs to bring in the student dollars. I understand the need to make money. I also admire many of these programs--learning communities, for instance. But I also perceive that these initiatives are beginning to crowd out the actual business of learning. If everything is special, nothing is. For now, the majority of classes are still taking place in a simple classroom with pen and paper work, lecturing combined with interaction, and perhaps a computer or two. But that's not the monetary emphasis any longer. Students come in expecting something much different, and they aren't prepared for the prosaic reality--a reality, I might add, that gets results. On the other side of that coin, student expectations are leading to this simpler form of classwork becoming more and more disrespected and replaced by the aforementioned bells and whistles. In effect, we're letting students determine what they should learn and how, rather than taking command as educated adults and researchers and determining that ourselves.
I will be the first to acknowledge that students-as-clients isn't all bad. I also recognize the drift of the economy that has put many schools in market-based binds. It's the trend that alarms me more than anything--that curious something-in-the-air that suggests a direction I can't get behind. The United States continues to fall further behind in education, despite spending more and more per student. It seems logical to me to wonder if we are forgetting about the educatioon part of education. It also makes me wonder if we are keeping students from feeling gratitude that they are even able to get educated at all, but that, the study of entitlement, is a whole other entry.
And I may be wrong; perhaps things will turn out for the best. But right now, I feel like we are letting students tell us our jobs, and that is wrong wrong wrong. Just as the parents are the adults who should be determing what goes in school lunches, so are teachers the adults with the expertise to determine how students should be shaped and how they should learn. It isn't the students' fault. We've given them that power. I think it's time we stop being "permissive educators" and take it back.


Cloud of Secrets said...

I can't even begin to respond to all the points here -- it's a deep topic, and you've written a great and thorough opening. Just some little comments from me.

I'm nostalgic for the "old days" of school -- a firm, perhaps disliked, but respected teacher in front of a classroom, and books and a chalkboard and homework on the dining room table and difficult exams. Students who had the discipline to memorize *and* interpret did well, and other students flunked.

However, I'm not sure that this system was the best for learning skills at useful trades. Is the person who finally comes up with a brilliant idea for capping the oil gusher a kid who was educated in the old-style classroom, or a kid who was allowed to explore his own budding interests in physics and eingineering in a glowing, happy, follow-your-path classroom with lots of educational computer games and toys and gadgets?

I wonder what Starfleet Academy classes are like. I'm sure it is disciplined, yet also respectful of different learning styles, and computer-oriented and full of gadgets, videos, and roleplaying. Perhaps we should pursue that mix for our own higher education model.

Abs said...

What this is really was more of a rant. A gentle rant, perhaps, but just stuff that builds up inside my head.
I am not at all against experimental education, or those schools where kids can explore. But right now schools seem to be intimating that that's good for everyone, and it's not. Kids that are already good at memorizing and interpreting do awesome in those environments, but that's not a majority of kids.
You brought up discipline, which I think is very important. You also commented on balance--I feel strongly that the current system lacks balance. We're putting too many eggs in one basket, and leaving other baskets with only one or two eggs in, rattling around and consequently getting smashed.
Do you remember Wesley's Starfleet Academy entrance exam? Lots of computer exercises, but also subtle tests in character and a final test of reaction to an emergency, life-and-death situation. We seem to be breeding students right now who have all kinds of gadget knowledge and very little character or staying power. I worry.