I really enjoyed reading this post. The blogger describes the difference between the traditional transmission model of learning and the transactional model espoused by literary scholar Louise Rosenblatt. I think you’ll appreciate the blogger’s thoughts on why relationships are important in education. Enjoy!
My ex husband can tell you I used to be the kind of person who would self destruct over minor criticisms. This seems laughable to me now as I can see how annoying, growth-impeding and even self-destructive that behavior can be. Now that I’m older and wiser (and teaching middle school students) I have learned that criticism, whether ill-intentioned or not, is actually pretty useful. A couple of weeks ago I accused my fiance of tuning me out whenever I was ranting. He suggested it might be a good thing. If I forced him to listen to every rant, it would only annoy him. I laughed pretty hard at this comment because I realized that A) not everything I say or write is golden and B) sometimes it’s best to simply rant to yourself.
It seems that the more you are willing to hear criticism as contribution, the more you will learn and grow. It has a side benefit of giving you an enchanting personality. When I notice a student getting defensive I will often ask him what he is hearing me say. What students hear and what I say (or intend to say) can be different. I know that comes as a shock to middle school teachers and parents but kids from about age nine and up are in the process of developing self-awareness. In their younger years kids don’t think much about anybody else. It’s not a problem because it’s developmentally appropriate for them to be disinterested in the opinions of others.
Self awareness and concern about what other people think about them, especially for young teens, is a dual-edged sword. While it helps motivate kids to shower and use deodorant, it also contributes to issues such as low self-esteem and anorexia. Middle school is the time to be sensitive to an awakening self-awareness while helping your students understand the value of high expectations. Reaching for their personal best is fulfilling not because it impresses their friends, parents and teachers, but because it’s exciting, and part of the adventure of living. We can help our students see the difference between achievement for others and achievement for the joy of it. If taking criticism becomes difficult or even painful for your students, it’s a pretty good bet there is too much focus on what other people think. Help your students understand the difference and you’ll give them a gift for life.
Until 1980 when he died, Bill Evans was one of the most important and influential jazz musicians of the modal style. I used to pretend to be into jazz in college but only recently (and I’ve been out of college a long time) have I really been able to appreciate the improvisational styles of the 1960’s and early 70’s. There were a couple of styles from that period that competed for attention and they are referred to as free jazz and modal style. Evans’ influence is still felt among young composers in the modal style. Evans seemed really interested in teaching young musicians as well as allowing them to discover their styles independently. He also had some things to say about self-teaching after he graduated from college with a teaching degree in 1950. In a 1966 interview with his brother Harry Evans from the television program, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”, he described his growth as a musician, “I don’t consider myself as talented as many people, but in some ways that was an advantage… I didn’t have a great facility immediately and in a way it forced me to build something.”
Compare Evans’ statement to the fantastic story of the sudden savant, Derek Amato who suffered a brain injury after diving into a swimming pool to catch a football. Derek recently visited the Mayo Clinic to film a Discovery special concerning his sudden ability to play the piano. According to Derek, before his accident he had “never even touched a piano.” In contrast to Bill Evans, Amato says of his own experience, “I still can’t read music or tell you where the notes are. All I know is the black keys are flat. I don’t even know what I’m going to play each time I sit down… but since my accident, the notes just pour out of me.” Amato can’t seem to stay away from pianos. From the moment he touched one after his accident he could not stop. He plays for hours at a time because now his desire is so great. Although he doesn’t read music, he composes intricate pieces on the fly and plays by ear. It’s as though what he is experiencing is an end run around the conscious brain to the unconscious mind where style and substance meet.
Bill Evans referred to this as a universal mind. Evans discussed the need for intense musical study in order to free the mind to go where it can create freely. “I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.”
Evans’ theory is similar to what Stephen Nachmanovitch has to say in his book on creativity titled Saving the Cat in one way: They both believe artists are especially adept at tapping a part of the mind where creativity lies. Nachmanovitch makes the case that the spark of creativity comes first and can be followed by intense study of the medium, “The important thing is to start someplace, anyplace. Then we can play with, refine, elaborate the original statement until it pleases us. Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.” Although both believe in allowing the language of creativity to lead the way, Evans suggests the intense study of technique must precede the creative event while Nachmanovitch believes the creative event must inspire the desire to study artistic technique. I tend to lean toward Nachmanovitch’s theory but at some point the two, technique and creative expression, begin to tumble downhill one over the other, picking up speed until together the two take flight as one creative event. Technique informs expression which inspires the artist to hone his technique.
In Amato’s case of sudden savantism, his expression has inspired him to begin to study song structure, music theory and technique. But his condition allows him to create endless amazing compositions without knowing anything at all about music. He creates freely without the hindrance of a lack of skill. For the rest of us though, there seem to be two pathways for creative expression: to have a germ of an idea and pursue it passionately, learning the medium as you go or to imagine a desired outcome and learn the medium necessary to achieve the vision. Ultimately, it will occur as a holistic experience. In fact it might be difficult to determine where one approach ends and another begins. In fact, the immersion in the creative pursuit makes the division unnecessary. It really doesn’t matter how you do your art when you’re in your element. The same artist may approach different projects in different ways. It’s the joy of creation that ultimately informs the effort. The freedom an artist experiences makes her want to continue to pursue the art. Although their styles and approaches to music are different, Bill Evans and Derek Amato have in common their creative freedom and desire. And as a teacher I have learned my most useful tool is a student’s desire. With desire, nearly anything is teachable.
Lately, I’ve been studying up on the origins of the American public school system. There is agreement, it seems, that the first modern schools began in the middle of the 16th century in Germany. Soon after, John Calvin set up mandatory schools in Geneva. It should be noted that even the Spartans had compulsory education for students in military settings long before the German model.
The difference between earlier Spartan versions of education for the masses and the evolving Calvinistic model is that after nearly three centuries of compulsory public education, German idealism began to creep in to the Calvinistic model. While I can’t explain German Idealism, I can tell you it was developed by a cadre of well-known philosophers including the lesser known Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte was a German philosopher born a little more than a decade before the start of the American Revolution. He was part of a group of philosophers that included Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who were committed to German Idealism. Of the ideal education Fichte is quoted as saying, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.” This thought seems sinister by modern standards. The new and improved model for compulsory education was a response to an age of steam powered printing presses, telegraphic communication, consolidation of postal services, scandalous dancing (the waltz introduced the touching of arms in 1816), the invention of chemical processing for photography, and in France, freedom of the press was introduced in 1819. This was a world on the verge of converging. Nationalism actually became relevant and nations needed their citizens to think alike. For those of us who remember the emergence of the Internet, this may seem familiar.
According to Wikipedia (my new favorite resource), Prussia was an influential European player from the mid 16th century to the end of WWII. Prussia included parts of modern-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands and Switzerland. It was really, really big (by European standards). In an attempt to assert its national superiority, Prussia led the charge against Napoleon in the early 19th century. Though their army had really dapper uniforms, the Prussians learned a lesson about regimentation from the French. Despite Prussia’s size, Napoleon’s forces defeated the Prussian army in 1806 in the battle of Jena. It was after this embarrassing defeat that compulsory public education exploded in Prussia. By 1819 the model was in place and would soon be responsible for educating 92% of Prussian children. Another 8% were educated privately.
In 1843, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann visited Prussian schools and became the most influential spokesperson for compulsory public education in the U.S. In 1844 in his Seventh Annual Report as Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, Mann proclaimed, “Among the nations of Europe, Prussia has long enjoyed the most distinguished reputation for the excellence of its schools.” When he returned to the U.S. he campaigned with fervor for a similar education model in his home state. There are many who believe that Massachusetts based their model on Calvinism. Though Horace Mann was raised a strict Calvinist, he rejected it in favor of Unitarianism. A lot of different ideas powered his concept. He believed, “A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated.” He called education “the great equalizer” as well as “our only political safety”. In addition to his political motivations, he was also very concerned with teaching compassion, morality and reading.
While the Prussian model may have seemed progressive in the mid 19th century, it is little changed in the 21st century. C.J. Westerberg of The Daily Riff (a popular education blog) says of modern schools, “If you put a doctor of a hundred years ago in an operating room she would get lost, yet if you placed a teacher of a hundred years ago into one of today’s classrooms she wouldn’t skip a beat.” This is not to say we throw the baby out with the bath water. A wildly different education model doesn’t necessarily mean a better education model. After all, students today are no less in need of lessons in good citizenship. But the definition of a good citizen has experienced a transformation in the age of instant access. We’re still citizens of nations but we are fast becoming citizens of the world.
My kids know more about everything than I did at their age except, maybe, how to roller skate. We are fooling ourselves if we think our kids go to school to learn facts. They have facts about anything they care to know at their fingertips. We need to quit complaining about their calculators, laptops and ear buds and start addressing the way they learn. They haven’t stopped wanting human interaction. We just won’t acknowledge how they do it. Rather than whine and bemoan the loss of traditional ways of interacting, it’s time we really look at how kids learn today and prepare to take another quantum leap. We have a plethora of studies and empirical evidence that kids learn faster outside traditional classrooms. Horace Mann and his generation taught a type of groupthink they believed was necessary for a docile citizenry. While we watch as revolution surges in the Middle East, it seems a docile citizenry is not docile so much as it is demoralized. For those who want to make Mann the villain of our current system, I have a newsflash. He’s been dead for over 150 years. And I learned all that while sitting in bed and surfing the Inter-webs.
I am recommending an entry I read today on Huffington Post. I am totally on board with the Timothy D. Slekar. As both a parent and a teacher I understand the frustration of teachers who have the life and learning sucked out of their classes. It’s no fun to teach uninspiring material. Many teachers were drawn to the profession not for their love of the status quo but for the excitement of the Aha Moment! If we have that taken away, both teachers and students will burn out and on a large enough scale this can lead to more sinister outcomes. Thanks for your post. DEEP BREATH and… BLOG! Read the Article at HuffingtonPost
All culture is based on stories both true and fictional. No group’s history is without its perspective. But perspective can be skewed for a variety of reasons. Skewed or not, the telling should be honest. As artists, we are taught that our stories don’t have to be factual to be honest. By honest I mean the moment of creative expression is genuine even if the artist is fictionalizing an event. Children are the best examples of this honest expression. They often tell meandering stories with no obvious point. But they tell their stories with so much passion using the tools available, there is no doubt they are being completely honest in their expression.
Artists have a responsibility to tell stories with childlike honesty. Artists can use this to powerfully influence whole societies. Their stories can have greater influence than anyone else’s including generals, politicians and scientists. That is not to say that those fields do not have their fair share of story tellers. Politicians are especially adept at telling powerful stories that move populations. People in all fields from medicine to garbage collecting have the potential to contribute to cultural stories. But of the artist, it is expected.
Storytelling is the primary role of the artist. Interpreting events and expressing ideas in relation to her environment, exploring other environments, fictional and factual; these are the responsibilities of the artist. But what is the value of story telling? Story telling provides perspective. It organizes our jumbled culture into a cohesive whole. There is an old Norwegian saying (I know because I Googled it), “It is the duty of the present to convey the voices of the past to the ears of the future.” The ears of the future depend on us to be as honest as we are able to be.
Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and named Best Book of the Year by Time magazine that same year. This might be enough of an achievement for any writer But Eggers is a writer on a mission. His books include the 2005 Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (co-authored with Daniel Moulthrop and Nínive Clements Calegari).
In 2008 Eggers won a TED prize giving him the opportunity to make any wish with the TED community and $100,000 to back it up. He based his wishon the experience of creating a neighborhood tutoring program in San Francisco, the city he now calls home. His TED prize wish is for more people to follow him into getting involved in local schools. Utne Reader named him one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World” and his interest in education has led him to become one of the most well-regarded voices in education volunteerism.
One of the many reasons he is able to make a difference with students is his respect for educators. Of inviting volunteers to work in the public schools, he says, “Always let the teachers lead the way. They will tell you how to be useful.” His commitment to learning has not been overshadowed by an arrogant disregard for the work teachers currently do. On the contrary, he recognizes the challenge teachers face in teaching with greater distractions, more demands, and in many cases, an obligation to teach more than their subject material. Many teachers are in the position of being educator and parent to kids whose families must work long hours or for kids who must spend long hours at school.
Volunteer mentors have an opportunity to do something teachers may not have the time to do; acknowledge small steps and healthy choices which may go unnoticed in the hectic school world. Many kids with dreams often fade into the background. If they are neither troublemakers nor shining stars, they may not have the tools to draw the attention they need to make progress. Of these students who may lose heart, Eggers says, “Some of these kids just don’t plain know how good they are, how smart and how much they have to say. You can tell them. You can shine that light on them one human interaction at a time.” For anyone who has ever seen a kid’s eyes light up when an adult says to them, “good job”, it is a memorable reward. Go, find a school in your neighborhood, and make a difference for the future; volunteer.
After an amazing and wonderful day with my oldest kid, I am aware of a profound sense of gratitude. I am grateful for the experience of being alive in a time when I can express an opinion and have so many like-minded thinkers communicate their responses to my thoughts. I am pleased WordPress gave me this unexpected and amazing opportunity to be included in Freshly Pressed. I am encouraged to think there are so many of us out here who care about kids and how they grow. I love the way our ideas spill over one another in the blogosphere and in the classroom until we are filled with the inspiration of shared creation. When we collaborate with enthusiasm, we can no longer make room for mundane, petty and guilty thoughts. Our joy in the moment of shared creation takes up all the space. I am thankful to everyone who has been reading my posts. I’ll check in tomorrow.
I am a huge fan of failure. I believe there’s no better instructional tool than a solid F. The reason I do not support grades as a teaching tool is because we have trained our students to view an F as something to be avoided. As a result of this pseudo achievement culture, we have created generations of scaredy-cats. Fear of failure makes students dishonest. They cheat on tests, allow their parents to do their homework and make themselves sick with stress.
Don’t misunderstand. I am all about achievement. I want my students to push past their limits. The only way I see to really break through is to be willing to fail, and fail extravagantly. Here are my top four classroom strategies to support student failure and discovery:
Guide your students by telling them the result you expect but not how they should get there: As a drama teacher I spend some time having my students learn to read a script. Giving a line reading is when a director speaks the line for the actor with the preferred inflection. People do this all the time. It’s faster than having the actor work through the process of understanding. But it has no more value for professional actors than it does in educational settings. Giving a line reading keeps actors from owning the lines. There is no discovery, no depth of understanding, no honest expression that happens when you are simply mimicking your director. It works against the objective of telling a captivating story. If you give your students a short rubric of expectations including the things you need to see as an instructor and then let them create out of their own experience, the result can be breathtaking.
I know, I know; what about the student who can’t do a project if they have to come up with too much of it on their own? I have said many times that teaching middle school is a cross between herding cats and pushing chains. They either bounce around like a high points pinball or lie there like a lump of lead. That’s why I have three more strategies.
Ask a lot of open-ended questions without a “right” answer in mind. Listen to their answers and be prepared to learn from them. This is one of my favorite strategies. It turns students into teachers and vice versa. When I ask a question in class, my students know by this point in the school year that I am game for anything that comes out of their mouths. Even the inappropriate stuff can provide opportunities for learning appropriate social behavior. The trick is never make them wrong. “What if they are wrong?” You say. There is no wrong way to learn. If your math student gives the wrong answer, it is an opening to look at how he got there and is there another way? I know several math teachers who are brilliant guides in the world of numbers. Rather than hearing “nope” when an answer doesn’t solve the problem, students hear phrases such as, “let’s look at that”, or “let’s think about how you got there and see if you can modify your approach.” The word “wrong” never shows up in the classroom. It’s only the learning process that gets the focus, not the failure. If we take away the stigma attached to failure, we will have an educational revolution on our hands.
The second part of this strategy has to do with keeping the teacher engaged. On days when I don’t have a 5-Hour Energy drink handy I have to work extra hard at listening. But as soon as I let go of listening for a “right” answer, my students tend to rock my world. If what they say becomes valuable to me not as their teacher but as another human being, I will walk away from the exchange a richer person. Kids say amazing stuff to me every day. I have a group of 4th grade students who enter my class without preconception. They know that what they imagine is only the beginning and I am willing to listen to their ideas even if it means inviting them to elaborate. “But there’s no time for this fiddle-faddle” you say. There are ways to make this sharing of ideas more efficient, and it is vital to their learning. Break them into small groups and allow them to share ideas with each other, put a time limit at the beginning of class on all shares, give them a prompt and have them write in a journal for a few minutes at the beginning of class. Most importantly listen to your students rather than the conversation in your head that tends to provide the running commentary.
Push them to their point of failure and beyond but lightly and with a sense of fun. When first confronted with the idea of pushing to fail, students will often react with a confused expression. This was my experience as an adult when I was working with a trainer. She had me attempting to lift weights that were just outside my ability to complete a set. I remember that she would say, “push to the point of failure.” Why not “push to success?” Because lifting weights that are too light for you to fail means you will experience little or no muscle growth. The same is true of our brains. If we already know we can succeed, what’s the point? Isn’t it more exciting to try something that has an air of possible failure? For kids who treat school as if getting good grades is the objective (not so far-fetched), the only danger is burn out or boredom. If you put classroom focus on the grade, learning will move at an unendurably slow pace.
It’s possible to become too serious about pushing your students to their point of failure. Failing for fun means you attach no significance to the failure, only to the learning. When the focus is on the learning, the grade loses its power. Some might say this is a bad thing. The grade is a motivator. But when the grades fade into the background, the motivation changes. The motivator becomes curiosity, or discovery or the challenge of mastery; all of which trump the motivation of a letter grade. Make the challenges interesting, add a failure component, and success becomes sweeter and more lasting.
Give plenty of opportunities for them to choose to trash a creation. Students should become accustomed to the idea that anything they create is able to be re-created even better. There’s always more where that came from! In the last decade there was a Doritos commercial that stated, “Crunch all you want. We’ll make more.” If we could approach ideas with this same mentality, the willingness to let go of the preciousness of a thought or a project or a paper would be liberating. It would increase a student’s desire to write a 2nd or 3rd or 4th draft, look over the answers more completely and start over again without any tears. We have to learn how to improve with gusto if we want to learn and grow.
I have been sewing since 7th grade when Mrs. Hulsey gave me a C in Home Ec because my stitches were so sloppy. I know I really hate it when I sew and I realize I have sewn the wrong sides of a garment together. I have to take out the stitches, read the instructions and try again. Inevitably, I learn what to notice and I hardly ever make this mistake anymore. But it took a few badly sewn items to learn this lesson. Interestingly, not only am I better at avoiding this mistake, the care I take while avoiding the error keeps my stitches from looking sloppy. Even though your students may balk at first, don’t be afraid to challenge them to do it again. And, as always, keep it light.
Humor and a friendly attitude will keep a frustrated learner from going ballistic. As teachers we have the responsibility to challenge our students to take the work seriously without taking themselves too seriously. Guide, listen, push and encourage them to try again… with a smile.
What education in general has been saying to our students is: “You’re here to learn about your culture but not impact it.” But the progressive educator is saying to his students, “Go out and make a statement, make a difference, interpret, inspire and elucidate!” The mentor is all about inspiring his students to make an impact. Albert Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
One of the assumptions of the past is that the more knowledge we collect, the more educated we are. This is a form of education but, unless students draw conclusions and really think about and link these bits and bobs of information found on tests, there is no real learning. Despite the fear mongering concerning our students’ test performance, there is, and always has been, a basic human hunger for learning. This is most evident in the meteoric rise in popularity of TEDtalks.
If you haven’t seen a TEDtalk yet, I invite you to take a look at one of the more than 700 15-20 minute talks on every subject imaginable. It is very likely that you will find more than one TEDtalk to feed your brain. I treat these nuggets of delicious learning like mind candy. You shouldn’t view too many in a row, they are so rich with information, your system might get overstimulated. But one a day or a couple a week; this is good for your soul. I recently viewed a TEDtalk by TED Media Director, June Cohen. In her presentation she notes, “In the last 4 years TED has put 700 talks online for free and these talks have been viewed 300 million times.” This really speaks to the hunger we have for good ideas.
If life was only a fact-collecting expedition we would lose interest before we hit puberty. We are hungry, but not for facts. We are hungry for ideas. Because TEDtalks are a forum for the spread of ideas, in 2006 TEDtalks went online free of charge. The single stated goal was “to spread ideas.” On the website there is a list clarifying this goal:
* An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.
* An idea weighs nothing.
* It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.
* And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.
* It can reshape that mind’s view of the world.
* It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind’s owner.
* It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others.
The goal of the foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas… Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.”
This interest in ideas gets at the core of being human, alive and on the planet. What is the purpose of education? Currently, it is an institution based on a cultural-economic model whose time has come and gone, yet we cling to this format as though we are waiting for Godot. Unlike libraries, schools often point to a small collection of core knowledge and tell the student to “memorize that”. While I believe in mentoring and providing educational focus, I also think schools are not the last word in learning.
Learning happens wherever there is an open mind. Take, for instance, libraries, those repositories of learning where a person can choose independently what to learn. Anyone from anywhere can walk into a public library and take a book off any shelf and read it. Before the Internet, this was our main public access to ideas. Providing public access to ideas sometimes creates anxiety for people in power. Recent troubles for Google in China illustrate this still exists. Fear of public access to ideas did not start with Google, however.
David Greene of National Public Radio tells the story of an age before libraries were common: “There was a time in Britain, say 160 years ago, when some in Parliament didn’t believe in public libraries at all. The worry was, if the working class read books, it would get dangerous ideas and rise up against the government.” This dire prediction, of course, never came to pass. People want access to learning for reasons that supersede politics, domestic life and work. People want access to ideas in order to grow.
Albert Einstein had quite a lot to say about education and learning. His opinions may be based on the fact that his grades in school were so poor that a teacher told him he would never amount to much and he dropped out of school at age 15. He later said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” There are so many examples of great thinkers being told by their teachers they would fail. The very people at the heart of the education institution have misidentified some of the greatest minds in history. Isaac Newton faired poorly in grade school and also failed at running the family farm. Ludwig van Beethoven’s music teacher once said, “As a composer, he is hopeless.” As a child Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything. Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade. It seems obvious to us in hind site these teachers were mistaken. They noticed a child thinking differently and labeled the child as “wrong thinking”. We are so often quick to judge the flexible mind. It is, somehow, easier to call a child ‘slow’ when they might be thinking so fast we are unable to keep up with them. Let’s encourage these crazy ideas and look for ways to make our teaching relevant. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”