Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

March 19, 2010

There’s No ‘I’ in Team

When I was working for a different company, I had to go to an all-day training seminar. A co-worker, also a buddy of mine, sat next to me. At the end of the seminar, we were given a fun little throwaway exercise to complete: a word-search puzzle filled with the “buzz words” we’d been learning about all day. Whoever finished first won a prize.

Now, I am good at word search puzzles, so I was excited. So a little while into the exercise, I was surprised to learn that while I may have been good, my buddy was really good. He had already found twice as many words as I had. Because we were friends, right then and there I started thinking of us as a team. I realized that if I started looking for the words he hadn’t found yet, we’d finish the puzzle in half the time. When I found a word, I’d nudge him with my elbow and point at my paper. He’d nod, and circle the word on his own sheet. I have to admit, in a sea of people with their heads down and their “eyes on their own work,” it felt a bit like cheating. But the leaders hadn’t specifically instructed us to work alone, so I knew we hadn’t done anything wrong. A minute or two later, my friend put down his pencil and raised his hand to signal “done.” Someone came down the aisle, checked his answers, and announced, “We have a winner!” She handed him the prize:a $5 gift card to Blockbuster. So we had ourselves a movie night, complete with microwaved popcorn. Victory was sweet.

But There is a “Me”

But it got me thinking: why is it that when we were handed that puzzle and asked to solve it–in no particular way–we all had the same instinct to hush up and work alone. Dr. Peter Gray may have partially answered my question with his recent post, “Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education.” Sin Number Three is “Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance.” Dr. Gray explains:

“We are an intensely social species, designed for cooperation. Children naturally want to help their friends, and even in school they find ways to do so. But our competition-based system of ranking and grading students works against the cooperative drive. Too much help given by one student to another is cheating. Helping others may even hurt the helper, by raising the grading curve and lowering the helper’s position on it. Some of those students who most strongly buy into school understand this well; they become ruthless achievers.”

It’s a real shame that traditional School methods haven’t been able to adapt with the times super well. When we first imported these methods from Prussia at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, they were perfect for training the next generation of lever-pullers and widget stampers: You definitely should NOT talk to your neighbor in those cirucmstances. You might lose a limb, which would cause the widget line to back up, which might damage some of the machinery, which would totally dent the company’s bottom line. However, modern employers seem to value teamwork skills.

Collaboration or Compilation?

In response, most curricula these days include some group project assignments. But I posit that this is a pale substitute for actually working with other people. In every group project I have ever worked on (with one notable exception), the class is divided into two reactions: the students with low GPAs go, “Great, someone else will be able to do most of the work.” The students with high GPAs go, “Great, I’m going to have to do the work of four people by myself. AGAIN.”

So where are the influences of Schooling? Let’s unpack.

-Again with the ranking. After a few years in school, people know what category they are in: “smart” or “dumb.” And then they behave accordingly. People tend to relax into their assigned roles, unable to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from and help others.

-There is very little real ‘teamwork’ to be found. Generally, these groups meet twice: once to figure out who is doing what, and again before class so they can staple all their sheets of paper together. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it seems that most group projects are merely a compilation of individual work, not real collaborations (which seems counter-productive, somehow). After so many years of being told not to chat with neighbors, we don’t quite know what to do when we are told to work with them.

Consequences for Today’s Employee

These attitudes carry over into the modern workplace (which is why my fellow trainees were so eerily silent). The competition continues as well, but we fight over limited numbers of promotions instead of grades. We become so preoccupied with making ourselves look good that we can’t take the risk of making a co-worker look better. Hardly anyone seems to be able to “do” the teamwork thing properly, so those who do find themselves increasingly in demand. (See Keith Ferrazzi, who is slowly building an empire based on his skill of combining relationships and business.)

If we would stop training our children to believe life is a competition and happiness is a finite resource, we could open our minds to a better way. What Chris Guillebeau means when he talks about “expanding the pie.” What Steve Pavlina means when he talks about “creating value.” What Rumi meant when he wrote:

“The small man builds cages for everyone he knows. While the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low, keeps dropping keys all night long for the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.”


January 5, 2010

You heard it here first: I am Deeply Unqualified to talk about this stuff

I thought very long and hard before starting this blog. I knew that I was passionate about education: I have been a fan of the unschooling movement since high school, and I love the books of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alfie Kohn, and Paulo Freire, among others. It’s a subject that I never get tired of talking about (as many of my friends can attest). Quite simply, it lights me up.

And since my friends have learned to avoid the topic of education around me, I wanted to find another outlet for my enthusiasm, where I could develop my ideas and start conversations with like-minded people.

But who was I to open my big mouth on the topic of education? Sure, I’ve done some tutoring, but I haven’t studied to be a teacher. I wasn’t homeschooled myself, and I don’t even have any children to homeschool now. But some of the most famous and successful personal finance bloggers (JD Roth, Adam Baker, and Trent Hamm, to name a few) don’t have degrees in finance. In fact, many of them started out as the exact opposite of financial experts: each writer I linked to was in a mountain of debt when he began blogging about the topic. They began it because they wanted something in their lives to change, and they felt that blogging was a good way to not only immerse themselves in learning about the topic, but to create a community where others could turn for advice and support.  These men have helped so many people with their blogs, and they inspire little ole’ unqualified me to do the same.

Saying that a person’s opinions on School and education are invalid because they were only a student and never a teacher is like saying that an adult, who no longer practices the religion she was raised in, should not be taken seriously when she criticizes that religion because she was never a member of the clergy.

I was there. I did the student thing for 14 years. I was deeply influenced by the experience. I think it’s important to critically examine the role that Schooling has played in shaping our lives, instead of just believing what are told about it: we’ll never be able to cope with adult life unless we are forced to do unpleasant things; degrees and credentials are the only tickets to success; if we don’t get good grades, it’s because we aren’t trying hard enough.  You know what?  I call shenanigans!

As John Holt said:

“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”

By publishing this blog, I claim my right to “think about [my] own experiences” and “find and make the meaning of [my] own [life].” I’m no longer afraid to say or do things just because I haven’t been certified and judged worthy to say and do them. It seems to me that the root of the mortgage crisis was a population trained in allowing “others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives.” We hadn’t thought we could afford such an expensive house until the man behind the big desk told us to trust him: he’d run the numbers, and we were going to wind up wealthier than ever!  Oops.  I guess it doesn’t always pay to let somebody else do our thinking for us.

As John Taylor Gatto points out,

Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.”

Paulo Freire further argues,

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”

I should point out that John Holt was a teacher for 20 years before becoming an advocate of educational reform and inventing homeschooling. John Taylor Gatto taught in the public schools of New York City for 26 years and was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Paulo Freire was appointed Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in Pernambuco, Brazil. So the ideas expressed on this blog do not belong solely to one angsty, unenlightened college drop-out.

This blog is not where I expound on the infinite wisdom I gained in a few years of tutoring.  It is where I comment on the national conversation about education, share the revolutionary ideas of some very insightful writers whom I admire, and talk about my personal experiences as a student and a teacher.

This blog is not about criticizing teachers. It is about criticizing the institutionalization of education.

This blog does not debate what Schools should teach. It debates the heretofore unquestioned idea that we should allow a complete stranger to tell us what, how, and when we should learn.

I will close with one last quote from John Holt:

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow.”

I share his belief, and this blog is just my small contribution to helping the minority grow.

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September 28, 2009

How Standardized Tests Punish Nonconformity

In a previous post, I linked to an article by a former standardized testing grader, Todd Farley. He has an op-ed piece in the New York Times today entitled “Reading Incomprehension,” which is also very eye-opening. He talks about the difficulty of scoring open-ended items on a standardized rubric and he gives a few examples of especially confounding student responses.

I disagree, however, with his opening claim that “the problem [with standardized testing] is not so much the tests themselves–it’s the people scoring them.” Open-ended questions are inherently subjective and therefore difficult to grade according to a rubric.  Even if the scoring was done “only by professionals who have made a commitment to education,” a lot of the results would still be influenced by personal bias.  For example, take the review of the X-rated “Debbie Does Dallas” which Mr. Farley encountered.  While he described it as well-written and hilarious, normally qualities that would merit a 6 (“genius”) grade, it ended up being given a 0 because it discussed a pornographic movie.  This student obviously possessed a sense of humor, the ability to think independently and question authority, and enough writing skill to craft a “comprehensive analysis” that was “artfully written.”  Yep, sounds like that kid needed to be put in his or her place with a big, fat zero.  Would a “professional who was committed to education” have made a different call?  It would depend entirely on the individual professional.  While one who appreciated the student’s wit and individualism might have given it a higher grade, one who was offended by children and teenagers exploring their sexuality might have given it the same zero.

In another example, Mr. Farley tries to decipher whether a drawing of a child wearing a helmet while riding a bike over a flaming oil spill properly demonstrated “an understanding of bike safety.”  Since the student had just read a passage about bike safety, and most children don’t encounter walls of fire while tooling around the neighborhood, I would say, “Yes, of course.  The kid in the picture is wearing a helmet.  He’s just trying to inject some humor into the lifeless, eternally dull process of taking a standardized test.”  Mr. Farley, however, was stumped as to how many points he should assign.  The experience showed him that “the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.”  I think that the student’s score would depend, not on the scorer’s background or “commitment to education,” but on the scorer’s “commitment” to enforcing conformity and punishing those who color outside the lines.  The scorers are hired to judge, not to educate.  Because of the way standardized tests are set up, we can’t just ask the student about their intentions with the drawing.  That would require a sense of humor and respect for a child’s thought process.  I’m sure the test designers thought that having the students draw a picture in response to a reading passage would be a creative learning exercise.  I hope that child wasn’t penalized too harshly for being creative in the wrong way.

Ultimately, Mr. Farley and his colleagues had trouble with some of these responses because the rubric doesn’t work if the student refuses to conform, not necessarily because they were only “temporary employees.”  The problem is still with the test and what it demands of students, not with the people who score it.

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