Coursera: What future for Education? Week 5.0

Why do governments fund education?
Reflect on:
What are your initial reactions to this week’s question? Why do you think governments consider education to be such a high priority?

So my first reaction was to try to think back on what I learned about the origins of government-funded education in America. I couldn’t remember much, and so I sought out a history of public education. It turns out that the main impetus for funding education, through the 19th century, was to teach young people how to read and interpret the bible, specifically the protestant bible. Education was mainly entrusted to the parents, with small schools and school districts being opened and run by parents, either with them teaching, or being in charge of hiring teachers and directing curriculum. However, in the late 19th century, with the rise of industry, and parents being increasingly out of the home for long hours, it was decided that parents were not necessarily fit to raise their children into literate and competent adults, and school became compulsory. The compulsory school movement was also fueled by concerns about child labor. The idea of schools raising children to be members of society, and not just pious citizens, became the main thrust of education (although funding for religious education wasn’t deemed unconstitutional until the mid-20th century). By the mid 1900s, education became part of the Cold War, with the goal of educating children to be scientists who could compete with Soviet scientists.

As we can see from this brief history (which obviously does not go all the way to the present), the idea of funding education in America is seen as a way to fix a variety of social and political ills. Whether it was ungodly behavior in the 17th and 18th centuries, child labor in the 19th century, or drug use and gang violence in the 1980s and 90s, our government has had specific goals to address by funding education. Currently, policy makers seem most concerned with (a) equality of educational opportunities, (b) competing in a global field of education innovations, and (c) teaching skills for students to succeed in an increasingly information- and technology- based society, and preparing students for corporate life.

Unfortunately, the first two goals are acutely hindered by many of the initiatives that have taken place in the past 20 years, with increased testing, and school shut-downs when performance is deemed unacceptable. Though we live in ever-increasingly diverse communities, the way in which government regulates education is based on an assumption that all students should fit into a specific mold (generally white and middle class). Additionally, school funding here fails to provide the tools students need to meet these goals in all communities — schools in more affluent areas are able to receive more through community participation, but unfortunately those in less affluent areas do not have the funds to contribute to schools, however much they might value their children’s education.


Coursera: What future for Education? Week 4

How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult? In what way do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?

My early school experiences were very distinct from my later, comparing primary to secondary school, secondary school to college, and community college to private university. My early learning experiences taught me that learning comes easily, learning is fun, and that school is a lovely wonderful place. However, come middle/high school, I learned that sometimes the teachers don’t know what they are talking about, and that other students don’t necessarily care about learning (even when you are thrust into groups with them), and that some teachers don’t actually care about you learning so much as they care about following a set curriculum and making sure you “pass” their class. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that low standards and disrespectful teachers breed apathetic and disrespectful students. When I started community college, I finally felt as if the students were respected and expected to learn. While those who wanted to coast through were allowed to coast through, those who craved a challenge were given the challenge. The instructors were there because they wanted to teach, for the most part, and I found that I loved school again. When I transferred to a four-year university, I found even more respect and even higher expectations for work, as well as more understanding for the realities of students’ lives.

Still, through my early experiences, I found that it was difficult to really focus and work. I was so used to doing the minimal amount of homework but still succeeding through my aptitude for reading and contributing to class discussions. I was always an active learner, but always through reading and talking, and rarely wanted to sit down and do the work. When I began my own student teaching, I had to break a lot of long-standing bad habits in order to participate in reflective journaling, observation, and curriculum design. However, I don’t think it was until a few years after I graduated that I began to realize the importance of doing hard, thoughtful work, and to realize that if I didn’t do it, it would never get done, and the only person who would lose out was myself.

So, based on this, I think that the way my own schooling could have been improved was for my teachers (with a few exceptions, who already excelled at this..) to have really looked at their classrooms and based their curriculum on the needs of the students, rather than on what their materials told them. While they did categorize us, and saw me and a handful of other students as having “high ability,” they interpreted this as a sign that they didn’t need to do anything to help us. We would pass their class as long as we did our work and they didn’t need to worry. As for those who they saw as having “low ability,” they would force them to do extra work — without doing extra work themselves to help them understand the material — and punish them for not doing well. As was discussed in the second week, these categories would ignore students’ actual needs, and create false dichotomies of “fast” and “slow.” This left all the students feeling disrespected, and damaged all the students’ drives to do, learn, and create.

Under this larger umbrella of taking a holistic, reflexive approach to the lives of students in our classrooms, I see a huge problem with institutional racism and classism when categorizing students, whether formally or informally. As was discussed in the blog post, “Social class, educational advantage, and Supernanny,” students do better in school when they come from the class/cultural background in which the school is based. There are many factors which contribute to this, but a huge one is culture clash. Students who do not come from a white, middle-class background have learned habits, behaviors, and languages outside of school which differ from those expected and taught in school. While sometimes students have learned behaviors that are, in fact, detrimental to learning — such as physical violence to get what one wants — many others, such as talking “out of turn,” standing up and moving around in class, and speaking in a different dialect, are simply differences in culture, which are only detrimental in that they differ from the school’s expectations. Rather than recognizing cultural diversity in the classroom and working to integrate those cultures into a holistic, human classroom experience, teachers often stigmatize the behaviors that do not mesh, and end up labeling or categorizing those children as having “low ability,” “behavior problems,” or even going so far as to label them, “mildly mentally retarded.”

It is of the utmost importance that, as educators, we work to recognize cultural diversity in our classrooms, and work to understand the culture of the children in our classrooms, instead of punishing them for not fitting into the existing classroom structure.

Coursera: What future for Education? Week 3.1

Beginning Reflection:
Do you remember having a good teacher? Or a particularly bad one? Reflect on your memory, what was it about this teacher that makes them stand out for you?
How does this image of a good teacher relate to other images you have of a “good” teacher?

My 10th grade English teacher was one of my favorite teachers (and my brother, who took her class four years before I did, agrees). She always encouraged us to delve deeper into texts and into our writing process, and gave us assignments designed to do so. Our essays were given to her AP students, who gave us copious notes, and we were then to edit/revise our papers. And we would do this multiple times, in order to practice and refine our writing skills, and learn how to edit.
If a student needed extra help on a subject, she would work with them. If a student was ahead, she would guide them in more challenging assignments or topics which others were not ready for. In other words, she kept us in the ZPD. She also focused on giving us critical thinking tools more than anything. She was also fun, and strove to create a strong, supportive classroom community.

A popular conception of “good” teachers are those who inspire great thought or deeds. It’s less frequent that we recognize those who work hard for and with every student.

This brings to mind the Reggio-Emilia concept of the environment as a “third teacher” (the student & teacher being the first two). This is an easy concept to visualize and work with in ECE, but what might it look like in elementary/primary, secondary, or higher education?

Coursera: what future for education? week 2.5

Throughout my education, there have been many ways in which my intelligence has been assessed, both formally and informally. The formal ways include standardized tests, IQ tests, and simple grading rubrics. The informal ways include teachers observing my classroom participation and homework assignments. Since I always did fairly well in these assessments, I was afforded quite a few educational opportunities and advantages. Throughout elementary school, middle school, and parts of high school, I participated in GATE — gifted and talented education. In my school district, this was simply an hour each week in which kids who had been deemed “gifted and talented” (I believe you had to get good grades for 3 years in a row) went to another classroom and did extracurricular activities. Depending on the year and the teacher, these might be science experiments, more in-depth historical and cultural assignments, or “above grade level” reading assignments. In middle school, it was an afterschool program. Into high school (usually age 14-18), it was twice-yearly trips. While in my school district I felt that GATE was generally beneficial — offering myself and other bored children more of a challenge than we normally got in school — some of the more challenging material was also more interesting and engaging than what most students get. I wonder how much of it was emergent curriculum? And I also now wish that those opportunities had been open to all the kids in school, rather than reserved for the “elite” students.

I also was able to enroll in “honors” courses throughout high school and at community college. Again, these were courses which offered not only a little more academic rigor, but also a little more freedom for the students to choose what they would learn, study, write about, etc. It seems that the thinking went, “students who do well in our structure are allowed to learn outside it. Students who do not do well in our structure must stay within it until they learn to do well within it.” While at the time I felt some serious snobbery surrounding my inclusion in the “smart” group, as an educator I see how backwards that policy is. In ECE, when one method of scaffolding does not work, we move on to a different method, until we find a way that makes sense to and engages that child. I hope to see more of that in the upper grades.

Often when I was entering a new classroom, the assumption would be made that because I had been judged smart, that I was a good student. I have never been a good student. I was never taught how to be a good student. I just talked a lot and was good at talking, and I was good at taking tests, and when I did work, I wrote well and received good grades. But I was TERRIBLE at studying, and I rarely did my homework. So I have never been adept at applying myself rigorously to a task. It was not a skill I ever needed in school, until college, where I still only barely needed it, because I’ve always been good at writing, and doing so quickly, as well as editing as I go. I also believe that because the teachers saw that I “got” their subject, they didn’t mind much that I didn’t do the work, because they saw that I understood without doing what would have been busy work to me — however, they didn’t encourage me to pursue any deeper learning. There were, of course exceptions, and I had a wonderful English teacher when I was 15 who encouraged all of her students to go deeper in their work, as well as some excellent science teachers. However, she was an exception.

It is only now, after my formal schooling is over, that I have had cause to practice “good” learning. Because life is not structured, and assignments are not always given, I have had to create my own learning. It has taken me a few years, but I think I have gotten to the point where I can begin a project and see it through to the end, while practicing the skills which are required to work on it. I’ve learned to focus on process and not product, which has — ironically, perhaps — allowed me the freedom to relax and actually get things done, instead of thinking, “Well, this isn’t going to be perfect, so why even bother.” I’ve also learned to focus my energies on the things I genuinely am interested in learning and doing, instead of trying to learn every single thing that I come across that vaguely tickles my fancy. So I’ve begun learning much more deeply.

Categorizing children — or any learners — as being “high ability” and “low ability” can be detrimental not only to those who are in the “low” category, but to those in the “high” category as well. It creates a false dichotomy which is difficult to mend. It is my hope that in the future, we cease to categorize learners, and simply teach them as they need to be taught.

Coursera — What future for education? Week 2

Reflect on: What you already know about intelligence. How do you know if someone is intelligent or not? Do you consider yourself intelligent? Why? What is your evidence for this?

There are so many problems with measuring intelligence. The typical IQ test, which is a widely accepted intelligence measure in both popular culture and many institutions (including MENSA), was actually developed as a predictor of how well children would perform in school. Thus, it does not actually measure how smart you are, but how able you will be do complete classwork and get correct answers. It does not factor in creativity, innovation, “grit,” or social-emotional intelligence. In addition, it is incredibly culturally biased and outdated — but since many schools are also culturally biased and outdated, it is an accurate predictor of school success. However, it is not an accurate predictor of performance or success outside of a traditional classroom setting.

Other tests attempt to be more broad, or measure other aspects of intelligence. For example, a popular one right now is the “paperclip test,” which attempts to measure “divergent thinking,” defined by Ken Robinson (and others, but that’s where I found it..) as the essential capacity to think creatively (i.e. to come up with many different new, innovative, and useful ideas). The paperclip test is very simple: List as many uses you can for a paperclip. Most people will come up with 10-15 uses. Those who are considered “genius” divergent thinkers come up with upwards of 200. The most interesting aspect of these tests is that in longitudinal studies, 98% of kindergartners were at “genius” levels, and as they aged, they were able to list fewer and fewer uses. One possible reason for this is that as we go through traditional schools, we are taught to “fit in” and give the “correct” answer — of which there is, of course, only one! However, the more people exercise their minds on this task, the better they do, showing that creativity and divergent thinking are skills which are not only innate, but can be re-taught long after they have been drilled out of a person.

It seems that often those who are seen as “intelligent” in schools (in my personal experience, completely uncorroborated by scientific research in this paragraph), are the ones who give the correct answers. Those who question are seen as “smart alecks” — i.e. “too smart for your own good,” not respecting the authority of the teacher or accepting their word as law just because they are in a position of power. To my mind, that is intelligence — that questioning, thinking desire to learn and grow. However, this another aspect of thinking that is frequently squelched in schools, and then otherwise intelligent people are driven off the path of learning and lose their “intelligence.” But again, because our brains are plastic, this skill of learning and intelligence can be retrained.

As to the second question, I do consider myself to be intelligent, mostly because everyone is always saying I’m smart. But also, I hold myself to the same standard of asking questions constantly. My opinions change as I learn new things, and when I am learning new things, I don’t take them at face value. I ask, “Why is it this way,” “is it this way,” and, “how did they come to this conclusion?” In other words, I have critical thinking tools, and I use them. And as Socrates suggests, I try to keep in mind that I don’t know anything (although that is terribly easy to forget…ah, hubris).

Coursera — what future for education? Week 1

So I’m taking an MOOC led by the London University Educational Institute (I think I have that right…?), and the main assignment each week is a reflective journal. Why not make it blog form?

In the first unit of this course, I’m already seeing some educational theories with which I’m unfamiliar. In particular, there was some discussion of humanism — a sort of holistic approach to learning. While the concept is not unfamiliar, the specifics of the humanist theory are new to me, and I’m quite looking forward to learning more about them. I’m also looking forward to creating a reflective journal. In my student teaching at Mills College, a large part of our practicum grade was a journal which we had to create each week. I’ve tried to keep up this practice in my private childcare, but with little success — I didn’t have anyone to share it with, and I didn’t feel beholden to anyone to make it, and so I never really created a practice of it. However, I’m hoping that with this course, I will get back into the habit. I also hope to use this opportunity to work on my observational skills, and to really relate my work back to theory — I feel a little ungrounded in theory these days, and I know that my work is suffering as a result.

Through listening to the interviews this week, reading the articles, and participating in the discussion boards, the main idea that sticks out for me about the future of education is to have spaces such as this, where those working in — and learning about — education can have open, guided discussions about the topics that matter to us. Some of us work in vacuums, and in traditional educational settings, staff members gather only to discuss practical matters, or when their students are having problems in school. I was taught in the Reggio-Emilia tradition, where observation, documentation, reflection, and discussion are a part of the curriculum-making process, and are used to facilitate the learning of all children. This is the model which I like to work in, while being informed of other important developmental and educational theories. The basis is transparency and communication, between teachers, students, and families.