“With organic systems, if conditions are right, life is inevitable.”
Equal parts comedian and educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” has a serious—though, too, seriously optimistic—message: We’re all humans. We’re all organic. We, in the United States, are not setting up our students to learn. There’s a solution to make our system better.
As humans, we’re born to be curious by nature; and such innate curiosity is what makes humans so advanced, as curiosity is, in Robinson’s words, “the engine of achievement.” Likewise, however, it’s also been an “achievement” of the U.S. to “stifle that ability” to be curious at all. Many of our (mine, included) posts these past couple of weeks have touched on students’ (and our) desire to check the boxes in school. It’s what we’re taught to do, in fact, regardless of the reality that the desire to mechanically move from task to task is not what we’re inherently drawn to do; it’s what we’re compelled to do; it’s a method of self-protection.
This rings true already in these first few weeks of me teaching the new incoming class of freshmen. Have my students come to me—in-person or over email—to discuss the assigned readings, to collaborate on exploring one of their writing assignments, to consider alternatives to their approaches? Nah. But how many questions have I received along the lines of Will we have a final exam or How many pages does this paper need to be or Will you ever quiz us or Could I receive extra credit this semester if I _____ or Will we be downgraded if the MLA isn’t perfect?
As an educator, passionate about the content I’m teaching, when asked these questions—especially when asked in the middle of a lesson—I’m thrown off, I squint my eyes, I study the context, I self-question, I…I’m like…what?
Okay, okay. I can’t fault my students. I, too, am a recovering perfectionist and can strongly empathize with students’ fear over missing a detail. I’ve had teachers who’ve downgraded me for not adjusting my page-number font to Times New Roman and who’ve threatened to not accept a paper if it were a minute late. Those are misinformed, troubling and dangerous methods of “teaching.” Who are those practices helping?
In his talk, Robinson credits the No Child Left Behind Act for being part of the problem in teachers’ and students’ conforming approach to education. How, after all, are teachers and students going to teach and learn creatively when existing within a system of conformity that calls for standardized testing, for narrowing the focus on STEM disciplines rather than teach them in conjunction with a broad curriculum that includes and fosters talents in arts, humanities and physical education as well? How can we foster curiosity when teachers are not supported to teach creatively? When our system is set up for the antithesis of individualized teaching and learning? When we’re not attributing a high status to the teaching profession? When we’re giving the power to call the shots to legislators without any education in the field of education?
Again, to feed curiosity, we must teach creatively, and in order to teach creatively, we must support our teachers. After all, as Robinson says, teachers are “the lifeblood of the success of schools.” But, as we know, teachers don’t receive the treatment they’re due.
What especially troubles me now as a GTA and student is to see this system play out at the college level. Growing up with my father as a middle-school teacher who received low pay, who had to use his own money to purchase supplies for his classroom, who brought breakfast to feed his kids (many of whom were below the poverty line and, likewise, not being properly supported), who protested in the state capitol when our governor (who does not have even a bachelor’s degree, himself, and who later felt empowered enough to attempt to run for president) decided to gut (and succeeded in gutting) teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, I was raised with the expectation that our public school teachers would continue to be stomped over like dirt (because, apparently, they can be), and assumed that vulnerable children would continue to be subject to the repercussions of the government’s mistreatment of teachers.
College educators, though…their conditions couldn’t be the same. We’re in places of higher education. Campuses saturated with knowledge and respect for those that promote it.
Nope. Look at the number of GTAs who are thrown into teaching without being given any support beforehand. Look at the GTAs, like me, with 2-2 teaching loads, entire responsibility of classes’ syllabi constructions, of creating daily calendars, of giving daily class instruction, of grading, of corresponding with and supporting students…and, oh, who also have to take a full load of classes and publish and write theses and dissertations.
I am part of the norm. And while, comparatively, I should be grateful for my stipend that lets me cautiously live, I should also point out that this treatment—for me, for any GTA, for any teacher at any level—does not encourage best teaching practices. Quite the opposite. It’s burnout.
I can’t help but connect Robinson’s talk to Ellen J Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning in which she discusses our culture of “mindlessness”—of entrapment in old categories. That’s what’s happening in education, no? In our treatment of educators? Of students? Our education system as of now is one that does not encourage alternatives, that does not open itself to continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and implicit awareness of more than one perspective. In a world marked by doubt and difference, why are we not teaching in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty? Or, the better way to ask this, as Langer teaches, is to ask: How can we teach in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty?
“Mindless learning,” Langer states, “ensures mediocrity.” Instead of keeping to this system, we must rebel against education myths that currently rule our system, that “undermine our true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem.”
I’m standing by my will to teach my students the art of rebellion.
A student of mine said to me last week that, even though the author we were reading used four exclamation marks for one sentence, she, of course, couldn’t do the same in her own writing for class. In response, I asked, “Why not?” to which she responded nonverbally, cocking her head in a BUT GRAMMAR RULES! look of confusion. “Keep playing with your piece,” I said. “I can be convinced that four exclamation marks can be appropriate sometimes.”
I’m sticking by my message. I won’t standardize my students, just like I won’t passively allow for keeping our system of education—at all levels of learning—at its current state.