Monday, November 22, 2010

What is “content”?

Last week, I wrote an opinion piece in our local paper, arguing that our school district is teaching kids behavior rules in a way that promotes authoritarian values and discourages critical thinking. (The unedited version of it is here.) The piece elicited a variety of responses, which is unsurprising, since people vary in how comfortable they are with relatively authoritarian approaches to discipline and behavior. I’m not comfortable with them, at least partly because I see our country becoming more authoritarian, and I wish it weren’t. I don’t think thirteen years of “do as you’re told” is the best way to produce capable citizens of a healthy democracy, regardless of what effect it might have on standardized test scores. I’d much rather live in a country whose people are inclined to ask good questions, to develop their own sense of right and wrong, to be skeptical of other people’s assertions, and to think for themselves about the institutions they find themselves in, than in a country of people who score well on their math tests. That’s one reason why most of us would be more comfortable here than in, say, Singapore, where math performance is high and you can go to jail for criticizing the government.

A couple of the commenters suggested that there is not enough time to get the kids thinking and reasoning about their behavior because “there is content to be covered.” I think this partly misunderstands my objection, which is that the time the schools are already spending on behavior, through programs like PBIS and our school’s use of Social Thinking, is being spent in a way that discourages critical thought. But more importantly, I’m not sure what people mean when they talk about “content.” To me, developing kids’ ability to reason about their conduct in the world, and their relationship to the social peers and to authorities, is content, and is at least as important as how quickly they reach arbitrary benchmarks on their reading and math scores.

I’m afraid that our obsession with standardized test scores has led us to disregard big parts of the “content” of what it means to be well educated, such as the importance of curiosity, initiative, reflectiveness, creativity, skepticism, and a meaningful sense of oneself as an autonomous and thinking human being. To me, those are the qualities that are fundamental to being well educated, regardless of whether you know how to use the quadratic formula. (As one mom said to me, “When I imagine what I want my kids to be like, I don’t think, ‘I want them to be really quiet and obedient.’”) The pursuit of higher test scores, at any cost to those qualities that are hard to test, strikes me as greatly diminishing our conception of education.

Many people readily believe that what goes on in elementary school math classes will determine the future of our country’s economy. But if you suggest that immersing kids in authoritarian institutions for thirteen years might affect the future of our democracy, you hear a collective “P’shaw!” I’m afraid that the latter is teaching our kids much more thoroughly and effectively than the former, and that we’re going to reap what we sow.


northTOmom said...

I'm afraid this immersion in authoritarianism *is* the new content. (Well, maybe not all that new.) Most kids will remember very little of the math/science/history etc., that has been crammed into them over the years, but they will likely never forget the lessons of compliance, obedience, and deference to authority. By implementing the programs you mention, like PBIS, it is almost as if the school is conceding that "behavioral education" is indeed a form of content. I'm surprised then that more parents don't see it that way, and that more of them don't want to do something about it.

KD said...

It is easy to be dsmissive of math. However math can open, or close a lot of doors, depending on what you want to study. This is definitely true at the university level, and also holds true for some programs offered by community colleges.

I think we all might have differing views of what "content" might be. For me one definition might be having the background knowledge necessary to do legitimate critical thinking. In a school setting, it might be having a complete understanding of how the House and the Senate work, if the class is having a discussion about the recent elections. Or if the class is reading a short fiction book about WW2, what facts do they know about WW2, outside of the facts presented in the book.

KD said...

Regarding math, I think it is easy to be dismissive, but math, or lack of it can open, or close a lot of doors.

Regarding "content", content I think is any knowledge that allows us to actually be good critical thinkers. If our kids are discussing the elections in class, or reading a fiction book about WW2, are they better critical thinkers, if they have little to no background knowledge about the topics they are discussing.

Chris said...

Hi, KD -- Thanks for commenting! I don't mean to be dismissive of math, only to suggest that there are costs to focusing single-mindedly on raising math and reading test scores at the expense of other important aspects of what it means to be well-educated.

I agree that there are a lot of subjects through which kids can learn critical thinking. Background knowledge is certainly important, but I don't think it's enough just to learn the background knowledge without ever actually practicing the critical thinking itself. (I don't get the sense you're saying that, either.) Right now I think there's too much emphasis on meeting math and reading benchmarks relative to the emphasis (or lack thereof) on developing independent critical thinking habits -- and that the former is undermining the latter.

I'm also skeptical that the current approach to teaching math is really the best way to produce students who are proficient at -- and not avoidant of -- the subject. But that's the topic for another post . . .

Chris said...

NorthTOmom -- I know what you mean. But on the other hand, I don't know what the other parents, as a whole, think about these issues. As I wrote in my very first post, there doesn't seem to be any mechanism for assessing or aggregating parent opinion on issues about curricular content or goals or educational philosophy. In theory the school board elections should serve that function, but in practice the candidates never seem to have differing positions, or any positions at all, on those issues. And so many of the decisions seem to have been taken over by the state and federal governments anyway.

There seems to be this presumed consensus that no one ever examines to see if it's really there. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to learn that my views are in the minority. But, until people start talking more publicly about these issues, who can say?

The fifteen-minute-lunch issue seems like a great example. I never heard any mention of that issue in any public forum, and certainly not in the course of any board of education election. But then one person starts a petition drive, and it really touches a chord. What I love about the comments on the petition is that they're filled with opinions that I almost never hear expressed publicly in local discussion about education. It turns out that public opinion is much broader and more various than anyone would have supposed from what made it into "official" discussions. I suspect that's true on many other issues as well. I think that's one contribution the blogosphere can make to public debate.

FedUpMom said...

There's a false dichotomy getting set up here. I don't think we need an authoritarian environment to impart real content. We need a decent curriculum. It's a separate question.

Also, the fact that you've got an authoritarian environment does not mean that actual content is being taught, or that test scores will go up.

If the curriculum is lousy, which I'm willing to bet it is, then not much content is being imparted.

With a good curriculum, you could teach more content with less time and effort, and still have time to encourage actual critical thinking with the kids.

Also, these authoritarian systems actually take a great deal of time and energy to teach. How much time goes into teaching the rules, enforcing the rules, keeping track of each child's compliance with the rules, and doling out rewards and punishments? It's not an efficient system.