Thursday, June 12, 2008

IRD Second Week: Immediacy and the Ghost of Failure

Yesterday, my teaching day in Santa Fe, marked the end of my second week teaching reading.
This week, I have been thinking about my older students, particularly those who have difficulties with reading.

In my dealings with students, I have noticed a marked contrast between the enthusiastic, look-what-I-can-do attitudes of the younger students (even the shy ones) and an attitude of discomfort and resistance in the middle and high school students.

Part of that difference is, I am sure, the sense of terminal coolness that American teens feel obligated to project. That accounts for the quieter room, and the uneasy glances these students direct to the opposite sex, and to me, the "old lady" invading what would otherwise be TeenSpace. But what I am observing in some of my slower readers is deeper than that. It is a sense of failure that dogs their efforts and fuels their resistance to working towards improvement.

As I was talking with my supervisor the other day, I realized that they have been taught to see themselves as failures in school. Now, before the AFT and NEA come after me, I want to clarify! I am not saying that teachers have actually called these kids failures to their faces, though I would not be suprised if some have. What I am saying is that the way we teach in the public k-12 schools today teaching many students to see themselves as failures.

I believe this sense of inadequacy has roots in two ideas; one of which we teach inadvertently and one that underlies our entire culture of learning in the United States.
I will address the last part first.

American public schooling is modeled on Prussian schooling (I refuse to call it education!) that was developed in the 19th century. The purpose of the Prussian model was to inculcate a student's sense of place in the social heirarchy by training in a rather deterministic way. The vast majority of school-children in Prussia were to be trained to work and obey their betters, who received a real education in separate schools. In the United States, we followed this model in the name of education, ostensibly to teach the unwashed, immigrant masses to be a good and obedient workforce. However, this model never had quite the same results as in Prussia, because Americans also carried the Jeffersonian ideal of an educated, civic-minded populace responsible for reigning in government and enjoying rights protected by the Constitution.

Nevertheless, in American education, as in the American populace in general, the idea that educational success is due more to native ability than to hard work has become entrenched.
(This is, oddly enough, not the case in modern, western Germany, where hard work and discipline receive more credit for educational success). What this means where the rubber meets the road is that students who are not immediately successful in school begin to see themselves as unable to succeed, and give up, resisting attempts by teachers and parents to help them through other instructional methods.

In the culture of American education, we inadvertently reinforce this notion of some "congenital" propensity to failure among otherwise normally intelligent children by nurturing and rewarding immediate success above long-term growth in knowledge. We do this by how grades are calculated and by how we view struggle in learning. We tend to equate lack of struggle and immediate good test results with success, at the expense of rewarding success that come with struggle and hard work. In so doing, we teach students that education means the ability to put the one right answer in blank rather than the ability to ask good questions and solve problems.

NOTE to Classical Education Yeckies: I am not disparaging the learning of facts. They are an important and indispensible part of the background required for reasoning. I am suggesting that the mere ability to spout facts does not an educated person make. Children must be taught background (facts, known information, developed concepts) and reasoning (the ability to manipulate previously aquired knowledge in order to understand patterns of thought within a discipline).

In so doing, we have taught the students that there is an immediate right answer that can be bubbled in on a test form, and that it is more valuable to be able to immediately put the right answer in the blank than it is to work doggedly on a problem, making and correcting numerous mistakes, in order to arrive at a successful solution.

By these criteria, Thomas Edison was a failure.
Remember him? The inventor of the lightbulb who said that it's discovery was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?

We need to think about how we view struggle and hard work when we are teaching our children. Yes, there is much in the early stages of learning to read that is fun and, for many kids, painless. But there does come a point where the child must practice decoding even though it is slow, in order to gain facility with reading that will become automatic.

For our older kids, those who are already convinced that they are failures, it is much harder but definitely worthwhile for use to talk to them about their struggles and express confidence in their ability to be finally successful. But since it did not come easily to them at the beginning, we now must expend more efforts overcoming their resistance.

Just remember, though, that this is resistance we have taught them.

I often hear smug adults critizing young people about their propensity towards immediate results and immediate rewards.

I want to respond by saying: "What do you expect? We taught them to measure success this way."

And more, this reflection becomes reason number 257 for why I am glad that I have homeschooled my kid.


Judy Aron said...

This is such a terrific post. I hope you publish this somewhere where people who are "not in the blogosphere" read it as well.

Amie said...

N will be glad to know the snake seemed to be fine!

steph said...

! I love the word "yeckies". Oh, and I apologize for not letting you know earlier that I arrived in Albuquerque. It's going well but time has sped by faster than I expected (I still have two months left over, though.) Where on your site is your email???!!! I was going to update you more that way than take up space here :).

It affects people well into adulthood, that struggle. You have to wonder, too, how many of these kids do have an innate talent but don't process mentally the way the schools teach (forgive me if what I say is bunk--this isn't my area of expertise) and so feel like they have hit a brick wall.

My brother was like that and 15 years later he's still sensitive about his middle school and high school experience (like many of us, but what I mean is I think he'd strongly identify with your students.) It affects him so much still that he has convinced himself that giftedness is a myth--that those that experts would call "profoundly gifted" are the only ones who are truly gifted. The irony is that he tested gifted in grade school but he never has been able to tap into it--he was labeled "stupid" by his peers and put into a special education class for remedial reading and he has allowed that to hold him back to quite a degree. He has dyslexia and up until ear tubes around age 6, had severe hearing problems that stopped his speaking and reading progress cold (he has since recovered ALL speaking skills...*tongue firmly in cheek*).

He's almost 33 and he still hates to read, struggles with self-esteem issues, and holds on to those memories as some kind of protection against both failure AND success. He has done decently for himself and works hard at whatever he does, but those experiences are definitely still stumbling blocks that he allows to block his path whenever something really challenges him and throws him outside his comfort zone. He excels where he feels safe and he sticks to that; he doesn't wander much outside of that because he doesn't like to struggle with the demon "What if I Don't Measure Up?".

Anyway, I'm not experiencing your classroom but my imagination wandered as I read your descriptions. There are so many ways to kill a child's love of learning. I hear kids on the playground say all manner of rough things to each other, and have encountered some pretty dejected, sometimes hostile children (they always seem to be around age 5. Gigi's pretty big for 3 and ends up being a non-threatening playmate as she doesn't compete with them or taunt them. She's much more interested in telling them she's 3, introducing them to her sister and loaning them her sandbox toys.)

Anyway, I guess what I'm getting at is that the pressure to compete with your peers and be "the best" at everything seems to start very, very early--at birth, I think! Part of it is natural, part is cultural--probably both, I'm sure, but much of it is sad. After reading this post I have a greater appreciation for friends of ours (homeschoolers) who are resisting family pressure to make sure their 3 kids are taught to read at an "acceptable" age. The oldest one is 9 or 10 and just learned, but is reading challenging chapter books already with great enjoyment. The mom (our friend) had given in to the pressure earlier on and the results were highly detrimental and set them back quite a bit. When they let it happen on its own, it ended up taking longer than the so-called norm (is there such a thing?), but there was less struggle involved and now they have at least one reader/learner for life.

I hope I didn't meander or lose track of my point too much; the days have all blurred together and I think that's about the state of my brain, too! If I thought it motherhood was a struggle before, it's utterly nuts being a "single" working mom. I know it's done all the time, and many do it well, but I have developed great respect for those who have done it where I had only blithe ignorance before. Yikes! :D They're great kids, though, and I'm learning much!!

Take care,

Lynn said...

I blogged a link to this story not too long ago. I thought it was both funny (the story is from a parody site) and sobering. Really, our educational system, by design, sentences large numbers of students for disappointment in themselves.

Btw, when my son (23) was in public high school, he confided in me that it didn't matter how hard he tried, he'd always be a "C" student. (He, too, was a late/slow reader.) He told me that if he tried and did poorly, it meant that he was stupid; if he didn't try and did poorly, at least people would think he was cool. That's where a peer-oriented socialization can take you, I suppose...

We homeschool now ;)

~L~ said...

I love you.

I love you.

Not an intelligent comment, but HOW I love this post!