Thursday, February 07, 2013

Agony and Ecstasy

Ideas in education abound, and I've learned a few over the last few years. There is one that especially resonates with me, however. The idea is generally referred to as "situated cognition." To people outside educational theory, however, this doesn't carry much meaning. The term I prefer is "enculturation," which makes much more sense with a little bit of explanation.

You see, the things we learn best are things in which we are immersed. Each of us exists as a part of a culture, and sometimes cultures. For example, I would say that my world view is most shaped by the fact that I'm a Mormon and an American. My order choice is deliberate. Smaller cultures within these exist--my background is as a Utah Mormon, and my upbringing is in the American west. In addition, the family in which I grew up has a distinct culture, and I still identify myself as an "Aggie" or a "Warrior" (school mascots), depending on the context. The cultures with which we identify, both help to shape us, but they also help to inform and color how we take in new information.

I see the major problem in modern schools being that they only equip us to attend more school. I became a teacher because I love the school environment; it is one of the cultures where I feel the most secure and competent. The disconnect, too often, is that school is totally divorced from the "real world." For students who don't connect to a school culture of knowledge for the sake of knowledge as a worthy pursuit, this is maddening. This is the kid in the front row who says, "But Miss, when will I ever use this??" The question is worthwhile, and too long unanswered by teachers and schools alike.

Obviously everything learned in school isn't later applicable to later life, and, just as obviously, it doesn't make this knowledge worthless. However, on balance, children at school should be acquiring both information and skills that can be transferred to other contexts. Motivation increases when people view the knowledge as important. When motivation increases, behavior problems decrease, and even more authentic learning can take place. Just as this positive feedback loop is the law of any well-run classroom, the opposite, negative feedback loop is the norm in poorly run classes.

For example, if scientists in the real world design and conduct experiments; collect and interpret data; publish and defend their findings; and view unexpected results as a starting place (instead of failure), then students in a science classroom should be doing the same thing. Children should be designing and carrying out experiments of varying complexity; they should publish on blogs and their own websites and in class wikis; they should prepare presentations and share their findings with the class, prepared to factually defend what they learned; when experiments go awry they should feel contemplative about their failures and determined to move forward. Otherwise children are stuck with the same kind of science education that I generally had--read the book, answer questions, listen to lecture. I learned a lot, and was highly engaged in that knowledge, but I never viewed myself as a scientist, and feel vastly more comfortable in front of the room teaching about science than in a laboratory doing science. How can we grow a generation of scientists if we only teach facts?

My blog post title is the same as the current book I've spent snatched moments engrossed in this week. Many of my friends read it in high school; I happened to have the other teacher. It is a historical novel based on Michelangelo.  I see why they loved it so much, and I can see why many people developing schools and ideas about education are going back to the old Renaissance masters to try and understand how such people came into being. What kind of education did they have?

In Michelangelo's case the answer is plain: once he began really showing an interest in art, he did little else. He spent all of his non-sleeping hours beginning as a young teenager in an art studio where he quickly began working on sketches and painting for commissions that went to his master. While living with the Medici family in Florence, they supported him and gave him an allowance, but his time was his own to draw, sculpt, paint and carve. Just after leaving the Medicis he prepared to carve his first three-dimensional figure by traveling throughout the countryside painting (and illegally dissecting because of his obsessive interest in the human body and its workings). He also spent time studying and discussing the classics with the great scholars of the day. He was only 17.

This book has me deeply wondering if education can inspire genius, or, at best, cultivate it. Michelangelo seems to have something inside of him driving him to create. Is he unique? Or is this seed in all of us? What if proper education, based on principles about how people really learn, could truly help each person reach his or her potential. What could society look like in 10 years? 20 years? I don't think I discount God's influence when I push for this kind of reform . . . the scriptures tell us that the glory of God is intelligence. Not many years ago Elder Uchtdorf gave a talk about creativity, and how as gods-in-embryo it was the natural inclination of the human spirit to lean toward creation. I want to know what kind of education can unearth this seed that must reside in each of us.

I know . . . I know. . . for every Michelangelo churned out of Florence during the late Renaissance there were millions of nameless others for whom life was a daily drudge. I know. I've made the argument myself among other MEd students who pull out the examples of the great masters. But it is significant that some of the world's greatest art and most valuable early thinking emerged out of this time. The world had a printing press, some modern (for the time) advances that allowed for longer lives, a political system friendly to the expansion of ideas, etc. etc. We could be at the cusp of this time ourselves. We have an explosion in technology and access to it that rivals the press; our medical advances give people longevity for discovery unparalleled in the Renaissance world. Our political system? I don't know. I'm appalled by the number of voices who disdain learning, intellectualism and reasoned thought regarding any number of issues. Recent reports say that we spend more than 50% of our budget on the military (including pensions) and less than 5% on ALL public education (including colleges), federally. All other civilized countries spend just about equally on military and education--both numbers being in the teens. How can this great educational re-awakening happen without a concentrated commitment to make it better? The only way forward is to fund education at levels never seen before. In a single generation, just 20 to 30 years, we would reap the benefits.

My thoughts are heavy all around this week. Our three local districts here have graduation rates that clocked in at 62, 64 and 66%. Our district is the lowest. Classes are so crowded that high school students, unable to find a spot in required classes, are dropping out in droves. This is an epidemic of ignorance. An epidemic of apathy. We overlook the very real needs of schools at the peril to our whole society.

1 comment:

Shiree said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I had no idea the spending numbers looked like that. Yikes.