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September 30, 2014

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

So Hopelessly Dumb

So Hopelessly Dumb Feature

The traditional learning process implemented in many schools is largely a lie. Partially out of necessity, and partially out of fear of change, the American education system continues to adhere to the egg-crate mentality of teaching.

Students continue to be grouped arbitrarily by age rather than ability, even though learner readiness can be easily assessed. Plus, subjects are still mostly taught in isolation, rather than in tandem. Worst of all, knowledge continues to be taught as a series of discreet skill sets with clear beginnings and ends.

In essence, schools today are run as if learning is nothing more than one big checklist. However, learning is a messy process. Everyone has experienced the frustration inherent in learning something new. Yet, the irony of schools purporting the ease of learning cannot be denied. Consider this quote from Pamela McCorduck’s Machines Who Think:

We all know that we have all these horrible moments of confusion when we begin a new project, that nothing looks clear and everything looks awful, that we work our way out using all sorts of little rules of thumb, by going down blind alleys and coming back again, and so on, but since everyone else seems to be thinking logically, or at least they claim they do, then we figure we must be the only ones in the world with such murky thought processes.

We disclaim them, and make believe we think in logical, orderly ways, all the time knowing very well that we don’t. And the worse offenders here are teachers, who present crisp, clean batches of knowledge to their students, and look as if they themselves learned that knowledge in a crisp, clean way. It didn’t happen that way, but teachers don’t admit it, and the students groan inwardly, feeling so hopelessly dumb.

Surely, it makes sense to get students to engage in thinking by demystifying the process! But no. I often laugh at the thought of  how many crisp, clean batches of knowledge I presented to high school English students. All those seamless lesson plans came at the expense of hours of preparation on my behalf.

So Hopelessly DumbAt times, I’ve tried to model the messiness of the learning process with students. With them, I’ve brainstormed writing ideas, shared my own unpolished writing, and even shared that I’ve thrown the MLA Guidebook across the room in frustration as tears streamed down my face. It catches students off guard to hear a teacher admit such things:

  • “I don’t know…”
  • “I’m not sure…”
  • “Maybe we can figure it out together…”
  • “There’s more than one way of looking at this…”

I honed a teaching philosophy informed by teaching pedagogies (methods for instruction) that value the social construction of knowledge. To often be at odds with the traditional model of schooling that still runs rampant made it very hard for me to want to remain in the classroom, so I quit. I could no longer pretend to just tie everything up in a nice and tidy knowledge bow. It’s no wonder why so many students don’t even want to know what’s inside the package.

The system of public education is so hopelessly broken, so hopelessly dumb in the current choke-hold that standardized testing holds over everyone’s head. The implementation of more project-based learning would certainly help students become better thinkers and learners, but such projects aren’t easily assessed.

True and lasting learning rarely ever comes easy, and since it can be a trying process, we so often make the choice to stop learning. Schools need to do a better job of teaching students how to be thinkers rather than test-takers. Schools also need to pay heed to the subjective nature of the learning process. One size does not fit all. That’s the beauty of the human mind in its capacity to think, and learn, and create.

Image Credit: School Bus by Joy Shrader

Image Credit: Old Chimpanzee by Petr Kratochvil

Jeri (9 Posts)

Jeri Walker-Bickett was born and raised in Wallace, Idaho, a rough and tumble mining town with a checkered past. The storytelling urge struck at a young age, but an undergraduate degree in writing led to a graduate degree in English education. Between living the scholarship-laden life of an academic bum, she did seasonal work in national parks. Jeri met her future husband in Yellowstone and they later married in Las Vegas. This phase in their lives sparked an obsession with food and travel. Fate has intervened to allow her to take time off from the classroom. Her forthcoming novel, Lost Girl Road, is a ghost story that takes place in the woods of northwest Montana. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband and their pets.