Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When Public Schools Become Too Public

In third grade, I lashed fallen twigs together with a broken shoelace to create an impromptu model spyplane. Abandoning the knot of kids playing tag or pickup softball, I flew daring missions around the playground perimeter. The chunky sand became vast terrain concealing hidden bases, while patches of grass became jungle thickets packed with possible NVA. Plane in hand, I jumped, ran, tumbled, and generally did what boys do.

But my reconnaissance career reached an abrupt end when Mrs. Miller hollered at me to get back with the other kids. We weren’t permitted to venture away from the group, for fear that we might be out of earshot if we needed to call for help. I was not permitted to leave the playground, nor could I play by myself. This was my first exposure to how schools force students into a mold that, by its constant noise, achieves the exact opposite of learning.

This seems paradoxical. As Susan Cain points out in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, quiet people are drawn to academia because it lets them focus on a life of the mind; extroverts often find scholarship stultifying. Yet the rules that academia creates for its students reward the noisiest, the most demonstrative and emotive, and those who flourish in a crowded environment of constant stimulation.

My fourth grade teacher believed in group learning, arranging desks in pods so close that I couldn’t lift my arm to write without elbowing the guy next to me. My middle school required all students to spend lunch on the athletic field, but forbid us to approach the secluded shade trees because (they said) kidnappers or addicts might hide there. My first high school let students sit down in so few places that we were essentially corralled in the main square like pigs in a pen.

The situation improved at the university. Because post-secondary education favors individual scholarship over classroom primacy, I had much more autonomy to learn in a dedicated and self-directed way. But even then, the emphasis placed on group discussion, in which silence is tantamount to absence, impeded my learning. Cain musters persuasive evidence that this style of learning can easily overwhelm the amygdalae of the students most disposed to learning.

These actions always had clear justifications—which, sadly, lapped into my own teaching career. My teachers had my education, my safety, or some other aspect of my well-being in mind. Whether group learning really has any pedagogical benefit (I doubt it) or I was in any material danger in a public place (certainly not) matters little. Rather, the lack of privacy inherent in public education impedes the way humans actually learn.

This is not a new development. Educational historians recount that, since the US mandated universal schooling in the 1830s, schools have always been overcrowded, regimented, and free from privacy. Silence is segregated, reticence is punished. Not for nothing has the word “dumb,” which literally signifies muteness, become a synonym for stupidity.

Paul Lockhart, in A Mathematician's Lament, describes the gulf between schooling and real learning. We learn math, Lockhart says, through a grueling process of thinking, false starts, frustration, tears, wadded up paper, and hours of personal investment that ultimately pays off in the “sudden” flash of insight. Compare this to the tedious “skillz drillz” most of us endured in grade school, and ask yourself which will result in students really internalizing the subject.

Nor is this unique to math. Though Lockhart has explicated this reality better than any other writer I know, his point applies to all disciplines. Memorizing names, dates, and maps will not show students that history is contingent. Translating literature like a series of crossword puzzle clues keeps us from understanding how books speak to the meat of our lives. I could continue.

All these insights occur in privacy. Requiring all students to be extroverted busybodies—and forbidding even the most extroverted students from spending time in quiet rumination—prevents students from ever taking ownership of the subjects they study. Many students think they can’t comprehend topics like math, science or the language arts, when in fact they simply have never been permitted to comprehend them.

This does not devalue the classroom experience. Time spent among teachers and peers provides a conducive learning environment, and guards against laziness. But if students have no opportunity to mull over their learning privately, education will remain a topic on the outside. Even students know they don’t want that.

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