Sunday, November 29, 2015

Freedom, Free Choice, Free Will: The Home Runs and Pitfalls of Educating for Individuality

This post is the first of a series that explores current and nineteenth century notions of American freedom as they relate to individualized learning.

Both in the nineteenth century and today, the goal of education is described in terms of freedom. In the words of nineteenth century schoolman, William Torrey Harris, “An ignorant people can be governed, but only a wise people can govern itself.” At the time, the promise of freedom in public education meant the cultivation of an educated population that was committed to national progress, social order, and the upholding of democratic principles. The success of the group was valued more highly than the success of any single individual. In The Transformation of the School, Lawrence Cremin describes Harris’s belief that “While the free individual contributes his share to social evolution, what he proffers can be but an infinitesimal addition to a vast social whole.”
Today, achieving freedom through education has come to mean preparing students for maximized personal fulfillment and economic potential. Perhaps this is survival in today’s economic climate. While the preservation or improvement of one’s social class was always one impetus for the pursuit of higher education, educational reformers of the nineteenth century put more emphasis on America’s ability to compete in the global context as the broader motivation for the public school system. Today, the promise of freedom has more to do with the empowerment of the individual for the benefit of him or herself.
Let’s travel back in time for a moment. In 1892, a young pediatrician from New York named Joseph Mayer Rice wrote a series of articles for a popular magazine called The Forum that would later be cited by Cremin as the beginning of the progressive movement in American public education. In 1900, only 6.4 per cent of seventeen year olds graduated from high school (page 31), and thirty-four states had compulsory schooling laws, thirty of which required attendance until age fourteen or higher. By 1918 every state required students to complete elementary school (“Compulsory Schooling, the Family, and the ‘Foreign Element,” Evidence from the United States, 1880-1900). Under the editorship of Walter Hines Page, the The Forum had gone from stuffy to sensational, covering topics on politics, social reform, and psychology. In the writing that chronicled Rice’s travels to schools in over thirty-six cities and his conversations with 1,200 teachers, Rice described the worst of what he saw: institutional drills, rote learning, classrooms where students were not allowed to move their heads, hiring and firing of teachers and principals by “ward bosses”, and school districts drowning in their own corruption. 

As we might expect, while some celebrated Rice, others vilified him. The young pediatrician turned schoolman was both full of sound sense and radical thinking. He both exposed the regrettable condition of affairs and yet had very little understanding of American public education in a practical sense, having never been a teacher or administrator.
Through this early example of muckraking journalism, Rice called America on the carpet for failing to deliver on its promise. The schools themselves, he observed, were not embodying the democratic values that they claimed to be built upon. They were not, in fact, built upon the ideals of freedom at all. And, in light of this failure, was national progress possible? Did national progress necessarily depend on the modeling of democratic values? Rice saw, “in city after city public apathy, political interference, corruption, and incompetence were conspiring to ruin the schools” (Cremin, 4).
Horace Mann, among other Pre-Civil-War thinkers, dreamed of an educational system that could be the “great equalizer”; it would be unstoppable, the panacea of the nineteenth century, banishing poverty, crime, and sickness, rendering a happier life for the common man. And it wasn’t just Mann who extolled such enthusiastic optimism. Even some Europeans thought American universal education was the dream of the future. In 1857, the Polish revolutionary Count de Gurowski wrote, “On the common schools, more than any other basis, depends and is fixed the future, the weal and the woe of American society, and they are the noblest and most luminous manifestations of the spirit, the will, and the temper of the genuine American communities and people...Europe had polished classes; learned societies; but with less preponderating individual training, America, the Free States-- stimulated, led on by New England, by Massachusetts -- they alone possess intelligent, educated masses.” America and Europe (New York, 1857).
And yet, while Rice was a popular writer with a lot of strong ideas, it was William T. Harris who was tasked with making the dream of the “common school” a reality. Over the course of his career, Harris would become the superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools (1867-1880) and United States Commissioner of Education (1889-1906). For a modern audience, even though Harris uses the language of freedom to describe the goal of education, his message doesn’t feel very, well, free. In Psychologic Foundations of Education, Harris writes, “Education is the process of adoption of this social order in place of one’s mere animal caprice.[...] [it is] a renunciation of the freedom of the moment for the freedom that has the form of eternity.” For his predecessor, Horace Mann, “the essence of the moral act was free self-choice; and insofar as his ultimate purposes were moral, only in the arduous process of training children to self-discipline did he see the common school fulfilling its commitment to education.” Though Harris speaks in more explicitly spiritual terms than Mann, what is striking in both of these commentaries is the enmeshment of freedom and its enemy. What does it mean to employ “free self-choice” in service of achieving “self-discipline”? Is it possible to exchange the “freedom of the moment” for “eternal freedom”? The attempt to unite in an educational environment both freedom and its opposite places children in the cross-hairs of a national existential exam.
Returning to the present, the promise that independent and often progressively leaning schools make today is that the educational experience of each child will be personalized, that every child is valued as an individual. Now, freedom is a promise that the individual will be free for the benefit of him or herself. Freedom is no longer a renunciation of Harris’s “animal caprice” in service of “eternal freedom,” but rather freedom is meant to be experienced throughout one's years in school, in a thoughtfully designed journey led by faculty and staff for every student. At my school, one sentence of our mission statement reads, “At Hillbrook, students are known, respected, and valued as individuals and every day is a journey of self-discovery, imaginative thinking, creative problem solving, laughter and friendship.” At Crystal Springs Uplands, my former school, the “intimate, collaborative community encourages students to pursue passions, explore new interests, build confidence, develop compassion and thrive in an environment of academic excellence.” At The Nueva School, which self-identifies as a school for gifted students, the “school community inspires passion for lifelong learning, fosters social and emotional acuity, and develops the student’s imaginative mind.” Self-discovery, imaginative thinking, and passion seem a far cry from Harris’s notion that “The end product is the self-active individual, the reasoning person who can exercise true freedom in terms of his own civilization” (Cremin, 19).
Which student, of the past or present, achieves true freedom, the kind that transcends the American social-political promise, the kind of freedom that reaches into the realms of the Emersonian consciousness that the architects of the “common school” idealized, the freedom of the whole being, mind, heart, and spirit? Today, have we delivered on our promise? Are they free, and is it good for one or for all? As teachers today, who are tasked not only with instruction but also with curriculum design and innovative approaches to learning, we are tasked with crafting the dreams of our schools in the tools of the worldly plane, making manifest these vision statements, as the William Torrey Harris’s of our day.

In a forthcoming post, I will investigate the work of contemporary educational visionaries and their contribution to individualized learning. Stay tuned, too, for an update on using data to personalize learning in my 6th grade English class.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Data Will Set You Free

Confession. I arrived at the 88th Annual ERB Conference with a bias. I would be tough, analytical and shrewd, gathering the necessary data to make the case that our independent school could leave the ERB behind, for good. After all, if the California Association of Independent Schools could remove the ERB as a requirement for membership (and they’re not the only ones), why couldn’t we?

Over the last five years of my career as an English teacher at Hillbrook School, a K-8 in Los Gatos, California, I’ve seen my students given more and more opportunity to deeply engage with their passions. Students are building things, working together, identifying problems and prototyping solutions. Last year, a group of eighth grade girls even built a mini-house that stands proud in the center of our campus today. Talent in the arts and engineering are beginning to be displayed in ways I didn’t think were possible.

Correction. -- in ways I didn’t think were possible at a school like ours. What do I mean by that? I’ll provide a little bit of personal history. As a child, I spent a significant amount of my schooling at The Peninsula School, a progressive with a capital “P” school Menlo Park, California. At that time, nearly three hours of a six-hour school day were dedicated to playtime and activities that included weaving, ceramics, woodshop, music, library time, and open studio for art. Indeed, my early years at The Peninsula School were some of the happiest of all my school experiences. I developed a passion for weaving, such a passion in fact that when my straw was not drawn to go to the weaving room one day (it was a popular choice among third graders), I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. Stored with that memory is one of baking fresh bread at my teacher’s house in the woods, on a school field trip. I often climbed trees from the top of which I could see San Francisco, sat in tree houses, joined a rock band, went on camping trips where children were allowed to explore the woods in small groups without adults, and enjoyed near daily pillow fights with my peers in any of the multitudinous classrooms that had designated pillow rooms. Standardized testing, even muttering those words under one’s breath, was something close to sacrilege.

But The Peninsula School is not the same as my current school, nor the school I had attended for my high school years. At the school where I currently teach, we grade student work and publish those grades to an online gradebook. We assign homework. Though we are invested in making and tinkering, we've not placed those experiences as a higher priority than academic classes. And we take standardized tests, namely, the ERB, every spring. And yet, if Hillbrook School were leaning that way, toward the big “P”, mustn't we also do away with the E-R-B?

Historically, the answer is no. Ironically, standardized testing emerged as a tool of the progressive education movement. Lawrence Cremin’s scholarship, specifically explored in The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957, investigates the early progressive movement, looking as far back as the nineteen-teens and the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. Standardized tests were meant to equalize education for everyone and, at least for a time, they did.

Right now at Hillbrook, among other purposes, we use the ERB to help us identify learning differences in our students and to let our greater community know that, yes, our program measures up well among our peer schools. Beyond that, it seems we encounter an almost French Existentialist level crise d’identite, or maybe that's just me. If we invest in the test, bad things will happen. From some unknown place, Pink Floyd’s The Wall will be playing on repeat. The nature of our classrooms, the still burgeoning culture of creativity we’ve worked so diligently to build, will crumble. Our teachers will transform into robotic purveyors of worksheets and check marks for poor behavior. Worst of all, our students will be miserable. “Love of learning? Oh no, we don’t have that here.” Twisting of mustache. A harsh disciplining of a weeping child.

And don’t get me wrong. I did see those things at the ERB conference. One teacher whose session was dedicated to using data to drive individualized instruction presented a photo of a collection of colored bins affixed to a wheeling cart, full of worksheets for “early finishers.” Once the in-class task was complete, the teacher identified an area of growth for that specific student using ERB data, and sent him or her to the colored bins. No, there isn’t candy in there. There is a worksheet on run-on sentences. “And we’ll teach you to write correctly, if it kills us both,” she said. With an aggressive smack of her lips she informed the crowd that a certain teacher at her school who would remain nameless had been “let go” as a result of stagnating ERB scores. My inner child let out a small shriek of terror.

Like lots of other educators, I believe that methods of teaching formerly claimed by self-identified Progressive schools could be one strategy for unlocking students’ love of learning and their future success. The phrases “fall in love” and “fall in line,” though notably often used to describe the Democratic and Republican parties (for better or worse), are also associated in my mind with stereotypes surrounding progressive versus traditional educational models. Students who attend progressive institutions “fall in love” with learning, know themselves, have higher EQ’s and perhaps even a greater shot at happiness. They are likely to understand the value of following their dreams. They are highly equipped to become artists, musicians, and writers, to become the creatives of the world. But how are they underserved? Beneath the surface, perhaps, the stakes are quite high. Among my own community of friends, some landed in the Ivy League, and others never graduated high school.

And what about the students who “fall in line” in traditional schooling contexts and thrive in those environments. These are the top performers in their classes, the valedictorians. Are they still associated with the strong and the mighty, those who rank high in capitalistic measures of success? Everything I read these days seems to point to the near impossibility of even the highest performing students finding good jobs and sustainable, healthy futures for themselves. The recent documentary, "Most Likely To Succeed," does a nice job probing this problem. The days of standardized tests working as tools to cultivate social equality seem to have vanished, in service of even greater advantage for the children of the rich.

Enter Jobs, Gates, and Dell and the emergence of a new mythology: the genius drop-out. Are the success stories of these legends replicable, perhaps even at school? Does baking bread make a child more creative? How about using power tools? Being left alone in the woods? What is the outcome of allowing a child to pursue her passions at school? If these famous drop-outs had had the opportunity for a school experience they loved and in which they thrived, might they have stuck around?

Thankfully, in contrast to Ms. Colored Bins, I also encountered educators who had used ERB data for good, the Glinda’s of Oz. I was particularly impressed with presenters from the Taipei American School and The Trinity Episcopal School in Austin, Texas. Through their presentations, I learned how ERB’s could inform a school’s understanding of itself and create opportunities for faculty members to continue to improve their craft. Students’ ERB scores can tell teachers what their students need, and leave it up to the teacher and his department to come up with a creative way to meet that need. I also learned from these educators that the ERB is just one of many tools, meant to be used in harmony with all sorts of other data, from demographic, to programmatic. Even with small sample sizes like ours, we can make the ERB work for us, rather than asking students to work for it.

In the end, what I came away with was that the data, when used for good, may be the very thing that liberates educators, not binds them. Inference, analogical reasoning, verbal and quantitative reasoning, vocabulary.... Greater understanding of these cognitive processes doesn’t come from worksheets that espouse to improve those very skills. In fact, when one thinks about learning that way, it sounds rather absurd. Twenty-first century educators pride themselves on their openness, creativity, and ability to collaborate with one another. Many of them are the curators of their courses, the curriculum developers and class coaches. With well-understood data to inform them, inspired educators have their paintbrushes, palettes, and canvases at the ready. The supplies they need to meet the need. Welcome, students, to school today.  

In a forthcoming post, I’ll be sharing concretely the ways in which data is driving creative instruction in 6th grade English this year.