Why What We Are Teaching Is Wrong and What We Should Do About It

Why What We Are Teaching Is Wrong and What We Should Do About It

I love the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. My favorite of the Canterbury Tales is the Pardoner’s Tale. If you do not remember, it is about a clergyman who regales the pilgrims with stories of all the ways he has conned people like dipping supposedly magic bones into a well and telling the common folk that the relic will cure what ails them.

The tale itself is about three greedy thieves who discover a treasure under a tree. One is selected to keep watch over the treasure until morning. The other two fall asleep. The night watchman slinks back to the village to buy poison with which to lace wine he purchases to be used in a celebratory toast. When the poison-buying night watchman returns, his comrades, who had awakened and seen him gone, had decided to take his life as punishment for abandoning his post.

They draw their swords, plunge them through the watchman’s heart, and he collapses to the ground in a heap. In celebration of their clever murderousness, the two remaining brigands toast their fortune and fall to the ground right on top of the watchman after ten seconds of intense stomach pain and two seconds of wondering what went wrong.

So, there’s nothing wrong with Chaucer, per se. But speaking as a teacher with more than 10 years of experience, coming from a family of teachers with over 50 years of combined classroom experience from all levels from kindergarten to college, it is not exactly the choicest curriculum for students in the 21st Century.

To me, a literature graduate student, Chaucer represents an antiquated sort of subject matter.

I am going to cut to the chase.

Public Education provides horrible customer service. Our clients, the students, their families pay taxes. Those taxes pay our salaries. The customers deserve way better than what we are giving them.

In many countries across the world, there are no jobs. Economies are floundering. Even here in the USA, the economy is a shadow of what it was in the 1980s – no matter what the news media says. There are more people in the population, less room in cities to live, more people packed into trains competing ferociously for jobs, everyone connected to a massive global communication network 24 hours per day. It is unprecedented.

And it has children scared to death.

How do I know? Because I talk to them. I listen to them. I take their opinions seriously. My students are my clients. They deserve 100% of my attention and all of the customer service I can muster. If something is wrong in their eyes with what they are learning, then something is wrong with the way I am teaching.

My students are my clients. They deserve 100% of my attention and all of the customer service I can muster.

Is it not this way in the business world? If the product is of poor standard, you speak to customer service, right? If you buy software and it doesn’t work, you get your money back or at least software that works, right? The answer is yes. That is right.

One of my favorite parts about teenagers is their sense of justice. They will not listen to a damn thing you say about verb conjugations, but if you hang a social justice issue out there, you will get essays, presentations, skits, conversations, blogs, and bold, beautiful art out of them. It is something to behold – the energy of youth channeled in a positive direction. When things would get dull in class, I would turn their attention to fixing the problems of their world with the intention of getting them to think about anything other than TV, music, their boyfriend, or trying to fit in for at least 5 to 10 minutes. One of our favorite subjects was what was wrong with what they were learning in school. How fun is that? You get to tell the teacher all the things he does that are AWFUL…. They’d shrug at me at say “Yeah, pretty cool, I guess….” And the within 5 minutes, the room would be erupted into a lively debate.

Without further ado, I am going to share the five main answers that my students came up with between 2001 and now to the question “What is wrong with the curriculum in your school?

  1. I don’t know why I am learning any of this.
  2. I don’t want to learn about X. I want to learn about Y.
  3. European History leaves out the history of millions of other people.
  4. The textbooks are from 1987.
  5. None of this feels relevant. I don’t get how to apply it to my life.

OK – that’s good for now. There were MANY more over the last 15 years, but is enough material for maybe 3 or 4 dissertations in PhD in Educational Leadership program contained in these statements. I don’t think the good people at Fractus Learning have time for us to get into things that deeply, so let’s just run down some talking points.

1. “I don’t know why I am learning any of this”

They would look at me with expectant eyes like I had some answer. I told them the truth. “The state makes me teach it to you”. That one always blew their minds. They thought that the content of class came from the teacher’s imagination. I would say, well, yes our general methodology is our own, but the exact material that needs to be covered is handed down by Uncle Sam.

Solution We Came Up With: Lobby Congress to change the rules on curriculum in schools. Education professionals need more flexibility from the government to be able to teach the information they know is relevant to children living now, in 2016, not in 1975 (or whenever the laws of the land were last amended). The US Government needs to acknowledge that teachers are professionals. Our profession needs to be given back to us so that we can care for the needs of our own communities. Education has been overseen from a distance by people who have no idea what it means to spend 183 days per year in rooms with teenagers who range from genius-level to youth who are at-risk for drug abuse or may be severely mentally ill. The people need to unite and send a message to their government that the teachers are trusted, that the standardized testing is not needed, and the near infinite number of layers of bureaucratic oversight has to be erased, otherwise we are damning a generation of kids to a lifetime of scrambling to get the right skills to get jobs in an ever-changing, ever-more complex job market.

2. “I don’t want to learn about X. I want to learn about Y.”

This is perhaps my favorite because it points to the way the kids born in the 1990s grew up. We adults call them entitled and spoiled and criticize them for having heads in cell phones all day, but guess what, grown-ups? WE created that world for them. WE did not take the time to figure out how all the technology was going to fit together, and WE did not take time to teach OUR children the right way to do things. The fault is our own. Don’t be a coward. Don’t blame a bunch of 14 year olds for your failings. We need to modernize things. We need to break down the walls of bureaucracy and give teachers the freedom to identify what their kids need to learn. When I asked my students what skills they thought were relevant to have in the 21st Century, I was so impressed with their answers. I heard things like:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Personal Finances
  • A trade (plumbing, carpentry, etc.)
  • Graphic Arts
  • Coding
  • Pre-Med
  • Agriculture

This generation of kids is NOT a generation of kids that want to grow up to be corporate drones. At 14 years of age, they are awake and alert and aware and they see the world that has been created before them. They see the problems they face. They know that sadly, so many millions of adults have forsaken the right path in favor of their own ego-pursuits. They know that they are not being taught what they need to know in order to not only survive, but to thrive economically.

I taught in the inner city for a year. What I am about to say is VERY Un-PC, but I really don’t care. If you took all the kids who sell drugs and put them into an intensive, 2-year entrepreneurship program and showed them the true ropes of legitimate business, so many of those kids who sling dope would do SO WELL. They are already successful salesmen AND dealing with the pressure of having to keep their business hidden from police. Imagine what they could do it what they unified by just and legal knowledge of legit business practices. I ran this idea by my seniors. They loved it. One of the guys who was kind of notorious for his “extra-curricular” activities said that if the school system created a course like this for him and his pals, they would stop doing what they were doing right away. Hmmm…. As un-PC as that is, it sounds like an answer to me.

Solution we came up with: Actually teach what kids need to know. It is so simple of an idea that it is revolutionary. In order to see the “why”, we need to take some blinders off. Family economies are shrinking. Mom and Dad are earning less and less. The dollar buys a quarter’s-worth. Inflation is absurd. The average working person needs a way to replace lost income. One solution my kids always came up with was self-employment. I was always so proud to hear them say that. Our community here at Fractus Learning is a global one, so if you will permit me a moment of patriotism, hearing those little guys and gals proclaim that they wanted to go into business for themselves made me hear the Star Spangled Banner. The USA is all about small business owners. Small business owners made America great in the 1940s and 50s post-World War Two.

My grandfather, son of an Italian immigrant from Sorrento, came home from the war and started a concrete block company called Acton Block in Acton, Massachusetts, USA. He worked until his hands ached every day. I remember he couldn’t get his wedding band off, even with soap. That’s how swollen his fingers got from labor. His name was Sigismondo. Everyone called him George. He built two houses – one in a well-to-do suburb and the other near the beach on Cape Cod, bought a huge boat, several cars and took care of his wife and 4 daughters. Ahhh… those were the days. A working man could truly live like a king if he put his nose to the grindstone and pushed himself to his limits.

For kids today all over the planet, it’s not going to be as smooth sailing as it was for my grandfather. Things are INFINITELY more complex. My grandfather did not have Internet, cell phones, Facebook, etc. He didn’t have to learn all the complex social and communication skills that it takes to manage an online presence or to brand yourself to people in Malaysia. He bought some land, a forklift, and some tools and started hammering away at blocks. That’s pretty much it. I went to his company when I was a kid and he let me drive the forklift. I remember a big field, some machines, and a lot of concrete.

In order for children to be able to achieve like my grandfather achieved, curriculum really has to start centering on economic success for children at a young age. They see a world of literally billions of adults struggling. They do not want to end up like that. The spiritual and psychological math is easy to do.

Again, it all comes back to the government. Are we going to have the courage to do the right thing? Or are we going to stand on our political agendas for yet another generation while millions and millions of kids suffer?

Teaching needs to be de-regulated. One community may need excellent farmers to keep the farms running and make them prosper. Another community may be bio-tech based like Boston. Yet another could be a video game design hub. We need to take our collective human knowledge, infuse kids with it, and direct them to solve our myriad of social and economic issues. We need to turn our children into champion problem solvers. We need to do this NOW. Look at the facts: Everyone over 60 has cashed out. Everyone under 25 is too unskilled to handle these problems. US, those of us between 30 and 55…. The ones born between 1986 and 1956, all over the world – I am talking to YOU: We have to get by these petty differences of race, religion, political affiliation. We have to see that the driving force behind our choices as government officials and educators must be the economic and social prosperity of our children. The Earth is a massive ecosystem and economy. There is more than enough to go around for everyone. We need to acknowledge that truth and adjust our ENTIRE way of educating, world-wide, around that idea.

3. “European History is not relevant to millions of people.”

True statement. European history leaves out Africans, Asians, South Americans, and many others. We need to change the History curriculums to reflect the honor and glory of EVERYONE’S cultures. Not just people who look like me. The winners write history is what they say. Well, those battles were won long ago in countries no one even remembers like Flanders. Flanders? Isn’t that a Simpson’s character? Who cares what happened in 1576 in Bordeaux, France. Right now, the planet is on FIRE with racial tensions and hatred. My country, the USA, has seen a horribly heart-breaking display of violence among the Black community and the police. Are the police killing people because of their race? In some instances, probably. In all instances? No, but it’s a massive problem. Some of those tensions could be alleviated by incorporating a more inclusive history curriculum that highlights every culture’s achievements.

4. “The textbooks are from 1987.”

This actually happened to me once. In 2010, I was teaching out of textbooks that were 23 years old – almost twice the age of the kids using them. This is simple. If there is money for football pads and helmets, get some new books for crying out loud. If we don’t invest in the nuts and bolts of education, which are books and educational technology like smart-boards and classroom-set laptops, not athletic equipment, we are shortchanging our children. What do you want? Smart kids or nice green grass on the football field? In the US, our literacy and mathematics global rankings have plummeted. It’s embarrassing. I think that it means we aren’t so much of a world leader anymore. A nation that doesn’t value education cannot say that it is a sophisticated participant in the global world of the 21st Century. Our community leaders need to make smarter decisions about where to allocate precious resources.

5. “None of this feels relevant. I don’t get how to apply it to my life.”

This comment is sad to hear a kid make. It means that they are trying their best to understand what you are teaching them and they want to listen to you, to be respectful, and to incorporate the knowledge you are sharing, but they just don’t see how it connects. Kids have a built-in survival mechanism that keeps them safe. If what you, as an adult, are telling them doesn’t feel to them like it will help them in the long run, they will shut down. I had over 2,500 students in my career. I saw this one WAY too many times.

I would always get down on a knee and look up into the child’s eyes and remind them that his/her understanding is not his/her’s fault. WE are the adults. WE created this monstrosity of a bureaucratic nightmare called “Public Education”. WE are the ones who need to ensure that curriculum is accessible to students. There is no need to lord information over kids’ heads like you are the greatest person who ever lived. There is no need to make things so hard on children that they bend and break under the pressure.

Don’t you think the early 21st Century is difficult enough on billions of people? Then why are you, as an educator, being a hard-ass for no reason? And please, stow your whole “work ethic” routine. The kids need GUIDES. They don’t need BOSSES. When they grow up, they are going to meet their fair share of jerks. Don’t be the first one they remember. Don’t be that teacher whose name they curse as they sneak a beer around a campfire in the woods. Motivating someone to work hard does not mean that the person doing the motivating has to be mean. In fact, you get people to go much further if you inspire them. So, districts should be on the look out to hire INSPIRING educators, not micro-managing buffoons who like to browbeat kids with their anger and resentment at a life gone wrong. I’ve seen THAT one a million times as well. People like that break kids’ self-esteem, embarrass them, and even call them “stupid”. No one who behaves like this deserves the honor of being called “teacher”. Solution? A national task force to find, weed out, and terminate teachers who mistreat students. I don’t care how long it takes and I don’t care how much it costs. The cost to the future of nations is far greater than the immediate cost of finding these offenders and removing them from their posts.

I pray you, my colleagues, see that education is no laughing matter. In my eyes, a failing education system is a national security issue and as important as confronting with the full force of our resources as the terrorists organizations that threaten our cities’ safety.

When we as educators from all over the world, from all walks of life, nationalities, religious backgrounds, and belief system choose to unite and apply the best of our own learning, add the ideas that have inspired us to our own classrooms, greet the children with a smile, and give them our level best day in and day out despite the lack of resources, the negativity, and the disrespect, we do a massive public service: we remind the people that hope is not lost, that anything is possible, and that it is all going to be OK in the end.

Any leader can lead in the light.

A teacher can lead in the darkness.

May the God of your Understanding Bless You and Your Families.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, cliftonj.

Source: Fractus Learning

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