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.