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I was provoked to offer my thoughts on this topic by reading Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty, a blog post by Diana Seneschal that I highly recommend.

I add to this my friendship with Vicki Abeles who produced the important film Race to Nowhere, about how we overschedule and overburden many of our school students, sometimes with tragic consequences.

I will also note that my own teacher training in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins emphasized the need for reflective practice by teachers.

As a National Board Certified Teacher I was required as part of my application for that status to offer a great deal of reflection on the work I did and the artifacts I presented in support of my candidacy.  The fourth of the five core propositions upon which the National Board process is based is Teachers Think Systematically about Their Practice and Learn from Experience.

And of course, as regular readers of what I post are aware, I am by nature one who wants to reflect on what I do, what I read, what I encounter.

With this as preface, I invite you to continue reading my thoughts on the need for reflection and downtime in education, not only for those of us who are the professional educators, but also for the students entrusted to our care.

Perhaps I look back at my own childhood and education through lenses that may be clouded with time, but one thing that has always concerned me during my almost two decades as a professional educator is how over-scheduled and over-structured the students I taught seemed to be.  We had the experience of inventing our own games and establishing our own rules for much of our play - and that play, even through at least junior high school, was often with little direct adult supervision and almost no imposition of "what" and "how" by adults.  This experience clearly colors my reaction to what I observe not merely in the schools in which I teach, but of young people in the community where I live, and of various nieces, nephews, and grand-nieces scattered across the country.

To this I also, although I did not include it in my title, want to add the importance of imagination.  Here I might note that in a truly scary movie of my younger days, Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," we never saw the knife strike home in the infamous shower scene.  

Our approach to education, even before I became a teacher, has had a thrust of "more" and "sooner" and "longer" -

...  ever more material to be covered

...  with academic subjects being pushed further and further down the grade levels

...  with arguments for longer school days and longer school years

We have followed this path for several decades, with strong impetus being given ny "A Nation at Risk" in 1983 and continuing through several iterations of what my friend Pasi Sahlberg of Finland now appropriately describes as the Global Education Reform Movement, or GERM.

Lost in all of this is the real nature of learning, which is not merely memorization of huge amounts of facts predigested and predefined by others.  Real learning requires the learner to in some fashion make meanings for herself, to develop understanding of what facts mean and why, even if her understanding differs from the conventional wisdom.  After all, if we solely relied on extant conventional wisdom, not only would there be few scientific an technological advances, the structure of society would not change, inclusion of those originally on the margins would continue, and the richness that has made our nation what it is, a richness of diversity and imagination, would never have happened.

I can make this argument with broad brush strokes - on economic grounds, on grounds of the increase in true liberty for individuals and previously despised or denigrated groups.  Certainly those points have cogency, particularly when so much of our argumentation about education is about the economic impacts for individuals and for our society.

And yet perhaps it is the humanist in me, the person who values literature and the arts as a means of challenging our conceptions, of expanding our horizons, of provoking us to moral and spiritual as well as intellectual growth ... it is that person who is writing this reflection.

I start with a basic question -  do you really know something merely because you have memorize it?  Do you not have to ponder its meaning, its context?  

Or to put it another way -  if our education is to be more than indoctrination of received wisdom not open to questioning, do not we have to give our learners the experience of questioning, or if you will, of wondering - on its most simple level, question such as "why?" and "what does this mean for me?"

As a professional educator who was paid for the responsibility of helping my students learn, it was insufficient that I knew my content area thoroughly if I could not find ways of connecting it to them.   That connection surely had to be more than merely helping them cram to get by the forthcoming test, be it one I had constructed to help both them and me grasp what they truly understood and where they still needed help, or some external test for graduation, or for college admissions, or for competitions for scholarships and awards.

I taught Social Studies, primarily History and Government, but occasionally Comparative Religion or Social Issues.  While each of these subdomains have factual material that needs to be learned, all require interpretation, and it is important for students to understand that interpretations can and will conflict - that is why we are not a one-party political system, we endorse - at least on paper - religious diversity, and not all nations organize their societies or their economies in the same way.  

To help my students connect with the material, which I am expected to already know, do I not also have to know them, so that I can ascertain other than by end of unit tests when they are grasping something and when they are struggling?

Struggling -  should we not also provide our students with the opportunity to try, "fail," and then reflect on what didn't work and why?  Is not that a basic part of understanding science?  Is it not also equally important in understanding why some policies and laws produce results contrary to their intent?

If we overburden our teachers to the point where they cannot stop and reflect - about their students, about what worked and what didn't, and why - how then can we expect them to modify what they are doing so that it does work FOR THE STUDENTS?  Please, do not tell me we will ascertain all this from scores on sub-indicators on various standardized tests.  Even if the questions are properly constructed, that a student does not produce the answer required does not tell me WHY she did not -  was the question misleading?  Did how we study it mislead the student?  Is it something for which the student has a cultural difference that is not taken into account in how the question is shaped and the choices offered?

For me to be able to reflect both about my students and about my own teaching, I cannot be so burdened by the other responsibilities of my teaching that I have neither time nor energy for that reflection.  Absent that reflection, do I not thereby deprive my students of the best teaching I could give them, teaching that connects with them where they are and simultaneously invites and challenges them to go beyond, to a place which is not yet comfortable, where they might - gasp! - give "wrong" answers but it is safe because that is part of how we learn?

And for them, if we do not give them time to reflect on what they did, why they got something "right" or "Wrong" but merely sort them by the percentage right they got, what are we teaching them?  Is it to never take risks, to never be willing to think outside of the norms, and thus to limit themselves intellectually and also on a more personal level?

To be able to reflect meaningfully, one cannot be consumed by stress, by worries over time, to be drained by energy.

Perhaps as an adult we take a walk - not to exercise, or to get to someplace, but merely to break out of our mental lockstep.  Or we pour a glass of some favorite beverage and turn on a piece of music we treasure, or we putter around the kitchen whipping up something that we cannot merely zap in the microwave and gulp down while we pay our bills and enter our grades into the computer.  Or maybe, just maybe, when a cat crawls up on us we let go, relax, and let ourselves just be.

It is only when we are "down" from the regular pattern that we are able to do deep reflection, the most meaningful kind.

Yes, those of us who take reflection seriously learn to have a split mind, attempting to focus on the students and the tasks at hand but simultaneously observing what we are doing so we can make changes on the fly - so that we on't waste 30 minutes of a 45 minute period on lesson that ten minutes in is simply not accomplishing its intended purpose.  Maybe that purpose was wrong, maybe the lesson is poorly constructed, or maybe there is something else on the minds of the students that is far more important to address, even if it is not part of the formal curriculum.

And for the students? How many courses are they taking?  How much homework do we impose on them each night?  What about all the activities they feel, especially in high school, in which they must participate to be 'well-rounded" for honor societies and to look good on their college applications?  EVen if they ace tests and produce good papers and projects, are they really experiencing the kind of deep learning and understanding to which they should be entitle?

Do we give our students a chance to be kids?

Do we forget that kids can be silly, make mistakes, that we established a juvenile justice system because we know their judgments are not fully developed?

Do we give them time and opportunity simply to wonder?

I know, not all will take advantage, but should we not provide them the opportunity?

How else can we expect our students to take ownership of their own learning if we do not give them the time and the opportunity to think about what they are doing, to reflect on what it means, to encourage them to share not only with one another but perhaps with trusted adults?

How can we expect them to become critical thinkers if we do not encourage in how we structure our school days and how we instruct them not to merely look for the "right" answer as quickly as possible, not merely to answer the question we predigest for them, but to learn to pose their own questions and then figure out how to get the answers for themselves, or with one another?

I structured this exploration in terms of formal education, for teachers and students.

That education should be a preparation for life.

I would argue that it is the lack of meaningful reflection that is destroying America.

We do not allow for meaningful reflection in our politics.  I know enough Members of the House and Senators to know how overburdened they are, and how little down time many of them get.

Our economy seems overly structured to "more" rather than asking "why?" and can we evaluate things that we perhaps cannot monetize but which are important to mental and spiritual well-being?

I have no conclusions to offer.

I have observations, things I have noted, and about which I cannot help but reflect.

In offering them I know many will disagree.  But consider - to express your disagreement to me do you not have to reflect on what I wrote, consider what you think about it and why, and then formulate your response keeping in mind what you know about me?   Is that not easier to do when one has a practice of reflection on a regular basis?  And is not easier to accomplish that reflection when one is not constantly driven, attempting to do more in less time?

What many in our society do not realize is that in hunter-gatherer societies they had far more "free time" away from providing for what they considered the necessities of life than do most modern Americans.

I am not suggesting that we abandon all technology, or that there are not advances in our modern society.

Nor am I insisting that everyone reflect, take real down time.

I am suggesting, even arguing, that every person should be entitled to the opportunity tp have down time, to reflect.

Absent that, who will question the insanity of much of what is going on in our society?

Including the insanity of what we are doing to public education, to the teachers who should be the means of empowering our students to learn and grow, and to the students for whom the measure of their education surely must be something of greater importance than the scores obtained on the incessant tests that are replacing real learning.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (17+ / 0-)

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 04:36:36 PM PST

  •  Sequester solution has kicked in. Pre-School, Head (4+ / 0-)

    Start, and other educational programs to prepare the most vulnerable children for learning are being shut down at Boehner's folly.  Those kids and their parents will have plenty of time to "reflect."

  •  There was a time TEACHERS got down time. (7+ / 0-)

    The anecdote I love to tell is that my grandfather, who was a high school teacher,  Was given Sabbaticals every seven years.

    On his salary, he could afford to use those to take his entire family, (Wife and 3 daughters) to Europe.  

    He returned, and cranked out another seven years with excellent results.

    Downtime is necessary for humans.  Even Machines cannot work every day without fail.  Things wear out and need to be replaced.  In a profession that works primarily with the mind, refreshment should be not only offered, it should be mandatory.

    I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

    by detroitmechworks on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 04:49:33 PM PST

  •  Education for Humans (4+ / 0-)

    I just finished reading Toynbee's Study of History and took note of his conclusion about the folly of standardized societies. Humans are not machines and today’s mechanized and standardized education treats them is if they were. It is the kind of error that Toynbee saw as a root cause for the failure of civilizations. I believe you are referencing the need for humanistic education which fosters creativity and cognitive advancement. Great points! Too bad you are not a billionaire then politicians might listen.

  •  We need more of you (3+ / 0-)

    Would that all educators take your words to heart.

    I was speaking with another educator and good friend and much of the conversation involved the differences between rural and urban approaches to education. He grew up in urban Chicago, I was reared in a tiny mountain town.

    Paraphrasing the bulk of that talk, he said I missed out on exposure to numerous cultural resources such as museums and libraries and I said he missed out on dangling his feet in the creek and having crawdads nibble on his toes.

    In conclusion, we agreed there is great value in both and that they may be almost the same, for the reasons you state in the diary:

    Do we give them time and opportunity simply to wonder?

    I know, not all will take advantage, but should we not provide them the opportunity?

    How else can we expect our students to take ownership of their own learning if we do not give them the time and the opportunity to think about what they are doing, to reflect on what it means, to encourage them to share not only with one another but perhaps with trusted adults?

    We need more of you.
    •  our approach to education discourages (4+ / 0-)

      many who might otherwise teach

      today in Starbucks I got in a conversation with a young lady who grew up in Australia and has been teaching for a number of years, but this year transferred from an inner city school to one in Fairfax County with parents who shall we say are overly interventional

      we got on to a broader conversation about teaching.  She said that growing up in Australia, although it is changing now, their education did not depend upon test but upon writing and creative projects.  She expressed frustration that on the one hand people say they want their children to be taught critical thinking but on the other get paranoid about grades and test scores - even for the 6th graders she teaches.

      She is thinking of leaving teaching, which would be a loss.

      "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

      by teacherken on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 05:40:38 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've lived next door to a university (3+ / 0-)

    for the past two years. Not a top-tier school, but not a bottom-tier one by any means. I spend a couple of hours most days reading in Starbucks, surrounded by students.

    They seem like very nice young people and pretty diligent about school. They always have lots of books with them, and a lot of the time they're working away at something.

    But I've observed two sad things about them. One, I almost never see anyone reading a book that isn't a textbook. Very occasionally a novel, but there don't seem to be any English or philosophy or art majors. Even in subjects like history, psychology or sociology, all they seem to read is textbooks.

    Two, I've never, ever heard anything that sounds like an intellectual discussion of any kind. They do talk about school related stuff - teachers, classes, schedules - but never about what they're learning - only if they're studying together, in which case they're drilling each each other on facts.

    Maybe I'm deluding myself about my own school days, which were a very long time ago, but this is not the way I remember my hours in the student union. Maybe they're just way busier and more focused than I was, but it seems very sad to me. Talking about ideas and books is what I remember most fondly about being a student. They seem to be missing the best part.

    We decided to move the center farther to the right by starting the whole debate from a far-right position to begin with. - Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

    by denise b on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 05:59:33 PM PST

  •  The claim for increasing the school year (3+ / 0-)

    or going year round is that the research supposedly shows that the benefits of down time only hold true for middle class children and that poor children show losses over the summer.

    I have not looked at the research myself (the little reflective time I have is given over to more important things).  Have you?

    I had not questioned this claim before, but I am becoming more cynical by the minute about the people who are calling the tune these days.

    Light is seen through a small hole.

    by houyhnhnm on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 06:05:47 PM PST

    •  one needs to be careful (3+ / 0-)

      the difference is not year-round school - it is non-school enrichment activities available to middle class kids that are not available to poor kids.

      Thus the summer learning loss can be addressed not by extending formal learning classes, but with informal learning environments; not kids sitting in seats and reading books but doing projects, visiting museums, etc.

      All of which would be less necessary if we had not destroyed so much of what used to be available for free, starting with good public libraries.  Generations of poor kids in NYC, for example, had access to the resources of public libraries.

      If we address how we deprive so many of access to cultural capital outside of school, the problem would not be so severe.

      "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

      by teacherken on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 07:07:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  As a kid I spent about half of every summer as (4+ / 0-)

    high up in various trees as I could climb. I also hiked all over the surrounding hills, went down to the creek and fished and skinny dipped, etc.
    I truly pity the kids of today who are being abused by "the system".
    I feel for the teachers as well.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    by David54 on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 07:22:14 PM PST

  •  Downtime is good. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Mostel26

    I live about a mile from work, so I walk to work almost every day. Takes about 15-20 minutes. What's the name of that Socratic thing? Walking and thinking. Peripatetic. Also, I smoke cigarettes, so I have to go outside for my 15 minute breaks. That's downtime, too.

    When you have time to think (about anything) with no TV or iPod or people talking, you can think about anything. Maybe you think about something mundane like your bank account. Or maybe you think about history or math or religion.

    "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

    by Dbug on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 11:00:02 PM PST

  •  here in NJ, Christie's latest is to make teachers (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    case managers for special ed students in addition to their other duties. i know this is done in most states, and its bullshit because it is not really case management. having been a social worker and a case manager in NJ schools for over a decade, i can attest to the fact that even the social workers, who do not teach ( but often do counseling as well ) cannot keep up with the case management aspects of the job. SUpposedly they will give teachers the extra time to case manage. Parents are livid as the new regs are being fast tracked, with hearings barely being posted and being held in the afternoon when parents are not available. Corzine tried to do this as well but allowed for a longer public comment period before abandoning the idea. Christie goes a bit further in allowing for anyone in the school, the librararian, the VP, etc to case manage. Only social workers are actually trained to case manage, and the new regs would effectively mean they would be gone from the schools. psychologists and social workers would be contracted out. republicans, disrespecting and dismissing professional training for school employees for a generation. Not much time for reflection by teachers here, who will use what's left of prep time for scheduling IEP's and reevaluations and writing IEP's. Oh, it takes me a few hours to write an IEP, and then it is proofread for legal errors, then sent back to me for numerous corrections. Parents are upset; teachers are upset. So what will the state do? They most likely will adopt the regs, as they could save money by ridding school districts of expensive psyhologists and social workers. In fact, the task force specifically states this will give local districts " greater flexibility" in making personnel decisions....and meanwhile the kids, out neediest ( the highest autism rate in the nation ) get the short end of the stick.

  •  In the summertime, we often meet teachers (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    on the hiking trails.  More often than not, they are hiking alone.  They tell us they need the peace of quiet and natural beauty to recharge themselves for the next year.

    But students also need time for non-structured play and activities.  For exercise and a connection to the outdoors. To develop social skills.  And for creative pursuits that have no purpose other than enjoyment, expression and relaxation.

  •  memorizing and contemplation (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lost and Found

    Thank you for this rich and thoughtful piece. I am honored that you were inspired by my piece on puttering. We agree on most points here, I think, but I'd like to comment on your points about memorization and connections.

    In my experience, memorization is much more than drilling in facts. It need not be deadening at all. Whether I am memorizing a poem, an alphabet, historical events, or a mathematical formula, I find that I understand it better as I bring it into my mind. Memorization is not only contemplative, but also interpretive; when I figure out how to remember a word or fact or string of symbols, I come to see its place in a larger picture.

    Something similar can be said about connections. One can "connect" to poems in a language one doesn't understand. The very rhythms and sounds draw one in. They don't have to map in a literal way onto one's life.

    I don't think you were talking about literal mapping when you brought up connections, but many (including some students) take the term to mean just that. They think the studies are supposed to be instantly, palpably relevant to their daily lives. Part of my work as a teacher is to help students see connections that aren't so obvious or immediately gratifying.

    Here's an example. Over the past week I have been teaching my ninth-grade students (who are studying rhetoric) about the technique of defamiliarization. We read part of an essay by Viktor Shklovsky, which examines this technique in Tolstoy's work--particularly in the story "Kholstomer," told from the point of view of a horse.

    What on earth does this have to do with an urban kid's life: a Russian critic writing about a technique in a Russian author's story about a horse? Yet something about this excited many of the students. When it came time for them to create their own examples of defamiliarization, they wrote with zest.

    It does not always work like that. Sometimes I teach a topic that seems (to me) obviously interesting and appealing, yet it falls flat. Sometimes I think it has fallen flat, but it hasn't. Sometimes I think it'll take a little coaxing to get the kids interested, but it doesn't.

    It is and isn't mysterious. One can connect to just about any meaningful subject matter, from an algebra proof to a historical document--but one must have the patience to do so. The patience may or may not be there--and there may or may not be room for it. This comes back to what you were saying about the need for reflection. If we are under continual pressure to make snap decisions and show quick results, without time for slower, more ruminative thought, then the subtler connections will be pushed aside.

    Thank you again for your piece.

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