“Educability, humanity’s species characteristic, is not simply a matter of learning the answers to old questions, but, more importantly, the increasing ability to ask new questions that may lead to new answers. There is always the danger that old answers will discourage the raising of new and appropriate questions, with the result that the error becomes institutionalized, often as a way of life.”
I went to a concert yesterday in a church sanctuary. The concert was unrelated to the business of the church, but the materials (bibles, hymnals, etc.) remain in place no matter what is happening in the space (services or otherwise). A stack of cards in a box on the back of each pew read “Welcome. This card may help you communicate a need or provide information.”
I had this thought: What if we gave cards like these to children in school? What if young people had an ongoing opportunity to communicate, on paper? When I read the card, I got the impression that my experience mattered, that I was being invited to participate.
I thought about the young people I know and wondered what each of them might write on such a card. The first person who came to mind is in sixth grade. He might write “Most of the time I’m confused when we’re doing math.” Another would likely say something like “I’m really interested in invasive species; can we learn more about that?” Two high school students I know might say “Is there any way you could punch holes in our handouts before you give them to us, or keep a hole punch in the room so we could punch them ourselves? That would help me keep my binder from getting so messy.” Another might say “I’m really not trying to be a brat, but I’m bored, and it’s so frustrating when we spend so much time going over the homework that is exactly what we just did in class the day before.” Given the chance, I think they’d tell us all sorts of things that would be helpful to know. Things that would help us understand their behavior, things that would help us provide the best possible support for them, things that would help us know them better.
My guess is that there are some teachers and schools who have something like this in place, some way for students to communicate with teachers and administrators that does not require trying to get an adult’s attention verbally, or reveal his or her need or information to all those within earshot. But in general, I think we expect that young people will speak up if there’s something they need to say, and I think mostly they don’t.
Some might abuse an “opportunity to communicate a need or provide information” in an anonymous fashion, as one quick look at the internet will tell us. It might be worth the sifting and sorting it would take to manage that, though, if it would make it possible for us to hear more from young people who are sitting quietly not communicating with us, and, too, many of the ones who aren’t sitting quietly but aren’t going to say theirs out loud either.
Even if none of them wrote anything down, I think they’d get that message that I got when I read the card sitting there in the pew of a church I don’t even attend – that if I was there, I was invited to communicate and thus to participate.
I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college. She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.
You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is. I think it’s a sorting problem. Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions. And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.
This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science. She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science. Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.
What would we have to do to make it otherwise? First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data. Must one? I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything. Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought? Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me. To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise. Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.
I was on the phone with a mom today who told me this story about her son, who thinks of himself as a lousy student who can’t do math and isn’t much better at other things. She told me:
“I was filling out the form [for school] and I asked him what he thought his new teacher should know about him. If there were one thing he’d want her to know, what would it be? He sat there for a minute, looking out the window, and then as he went back to what he was doing he said ‘Tell them I’m kind.'”
This child knows that kindness is not the currency of schooling. He knows that it isn’t what anyone will be measuring when he gets there. And maybe he thinks that kindness is all he has to offer, in spite of its relatively low value in the eyes of the institution (as indicated by the fact that it doesn’t appear on any report card he’s ever seen or heard of).
Or maybe he thinks it’s important, and thinks that while his past performance on timed math tests and the like suggests he doesn’t have what school is looking for, he does have something that matters, or something that should.