Monday, May 5, 2014

An Educated Person

"Don't you think there are things that every educated person should know?"

I hear this fairly often, generally in response to my stated disinterest in having Common Core standards in particular and  national education standards ever in general. It's an eye-opening question for me , because even just a few years ago, I'm pretty sure I would have answered yes. But the current toxic educational status quo and its foundation of Making People Prove They Know Things has forced me to really examine my thoughts in this area.

The issue breaks down into three parts for me.

I. The List

In the English teacher biz, we wrestle with The Canon all the time, and that master list is always a work in progress. If you're old enough, you can remember the struggle surrounding the recognition that we might want to expand beyond the traditional list of Dead White Guys, but there have been many mini-arguments over the years, none of which have been conclusively settled.

But that's content. What about skills? Well, we agree on reading-writing-speaking-listening in principle, but in English-land there's ongoing debate about the usefulness of knowing grammar, and the process of writing (which was only "discovered" in the last forty years or so) is still metamorphosing. And in most places, the speaking-listening piece is a haphazard Rube Goldberg stapled to the airborne seat of our pedagogical pants.

And that's just my field. Multiply that by every other discipline. Factor in all the parents and taxpayers who believe that What Kids Should Learn is roughly the same as What We Studied Back In My Day.

But I do believe there are things students should learn, don't I? I mean, how else do I make decisions about what I should teach (because in my district, I make many of those decisions myself)?

Turns out, when I think about it, what I really have is a list of Things I think It Would Benefit a Person To Know.

I think any person would be better off knowing some Shakespeare. I think every person would benefit from being able to express him/her-self as clearly as possible in writing and speaking. I think there's a giant cargo-ship-load of literature that has important and useful things to say to various people at various points in their journey through life.

But this is a fuzzy, individual thing. Think of it as food, the intellectual equivalent of food. Are there foods that everybody would benefit from eating? Wellll.... I would really enjoy a steak, but my wife the vegan would not. And given my physical condition, it might not be the best choice for me. On the other hand, if I haven't had any protein in a while, it might be great. And a salad might be nice, unless I already had a salad today, because eating a lot of salad has some unpleasant consequences for me. Oh, and I do enjoy a lobster, which is fairly healthy, unless I'm have to eat while I'm traveling-- lobster makes very bad road food in the car.  You see our problem. We can agree that everybody should eat. I'm not sure we can pick a menu and declare that every single human being would benefit from eating exactly that food at exactly the same time.

Ditto for The List. I mean, I think everybody should learn stuff. Personally, I'm a generalist, so I think everybody would benefit from learning everything from Hamlet to quantum physics. But then, I know some people who have made the world a better place by being hard core specialists who know nothing about anything outside their field.

So if you ask me, can I name a list of skills and knowledge areas that every single solitary American must learn, I start to have trouble. Every mechanic, welder, astronaut, teacher, concert flautist, librarian, physicist, neurosurgeon, truck driver, airplane pilot, grocery clerk, elephant trainer, beer brewer, housewife, househusband, politician, dog catcher, cobbler, retail manager, tailor, dentist-- what exactly does every single one of those people have to know?

II. And Why?

Let's pretend there is a list. What is it for?

Do we want people to be more productive workers? Do we want them to be more responsible parents? Do we want them to be kinder, more decent human beings? Do we want them to be better citizens?

Then why aren't we trying to teach them those things?

One of the most bizarre disconnects in the current toxic ed status quo is the imaginary connections between disconnected things. We have to get students to score better on standardized tests, because that's how we'll become the economically dominant Earth nation. Ignoring for a moment the value of either of those goals, what the heck do they have to do with each other?

Reformsters are constantly telling us that we must drive to Cleveland because that's the only way we'll make it to St. Louis. If you want to drive to St. Louis, first, let's discuss whether we really want to go to St. Louis or not and next, if we agree, let's map a path to St. Louis, not Cleveland.

III. Enforcement

So even if I have my tiny list of things I think absolutely every person must learn, the small irreduceable list of content and skills that every educate person should know, I have another hurdle to climb.

Do I think the full force of law and government should stand behind forcing people to learn those things?

Should the federal and state governments say, "We think you should learn these things, and we will put the full weight of law behind that requirement. You will not be allowed to proceed with your life unless you satisfy us that you have learned the stuff on this list."

What is X such that I would stand in front of a diploma line and say, "Since you have not proven to me that you know X, I will not let you have a diploma."

"Don't you think there are things that every educated person should know?" seems like such a fair and simple question, but by the time I've come up with a short list of skills and knowledge for every single solitary human being, and then filtered it through the question of what deserves to have the full force of federal law behind it, my list is very short and extremely general.

Maybe you think that makes me one of those loose teachers who lets his students slop by with whatever half-assed work they feel like doing. You will have to take my word for it-- my students would find that assessment of my teaching pretty hilarious.

But The List approach is, in fact, List-centered, and I'm well-anchored to an approach to teaching that is student-centered. It is, I have become convinced, the only way to teach. We cannot be rules-centered or standards-centered or test-centered or teacher-centered or list-centered, even though we need to include and consider all of those elements. How to weigh and balance and evaluate all these elements? The answer has been, and continues to be, right in front of us. We balance all the elements of education by centering on the student. As long as we keep our focus on the students' needs, strengths, weaknesses, stage of development, hopes, dreams, obstacles, aspirations-- as long as we stay focused on all that, we'll be good.

What does every educated person need? Every educated person needs-- and deserves-- an education that is built around the student. Everything else must be open to discussion.


  1. Amen! So well said. Thank you. I love your analogies, too.

  2. I this is one of the best descriptions of how I navigate what I teach and when and how and why.

  3. Hey Peter - I was feeling particularly defeated today until I read this. Thank you for carrying on the good fight!

    Mike Kaufman, old NJ Music Teacher

  4. So how do you create a student-centered environment in a classroom with 20+ kids? I see a lot of responses that say "you can't expect teachers to cater to every student because there are too many" I would love to see current teachers share how they think they can do this since I am a homeschool mom who happens to have a passion for the education of future generations..It is easy to do at home, but how do you do it at school?

  5. Montessori education offers a great answer. Our students are presented with a systematic curriculum--and they have much freedom to choose at what pace and with what specific materials to master that curriculum.

    Teachers give lessons to small groups, based on ability (not age). Students get introduced to a concept in math (or an idea in botany, or a period in history), and then have the opportunity to cover a minimum--or delve deep into what fascinates them. Because students work independently or in small groups on follow-up work after the lesson, teachers can in fact individualize their teaching to each child.

    At the same time, the careful selection of materials in the classroom, and the sequence of lessons selected and presented by the teacher ensures that each student learns a minimum of content and masters key skills.

  6. I'm a homeschool mom, too! I'd love to know how you do this in a classroom and how you do your job under all the current dumb reforms. I want to teach in school--because I want to help change kids lives---but I fear that would never actually happen. How do you do it everyday?

  7. I think you may have articulated the essence of the learning opportunity modelled at Sudbury Valley School and schools like it worldwide. Thanks.