Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mind the gap

Yesterday’s post reminded me of a saying I once heard: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” As I understand it, the saying does not mean that people chafe and grow resentful when much is expected of them. Instead, it means that people who expect too much from others, or from life, are likely to end up disappointed and resentful. Applied to life, the saying is a little too dark for me. Applied to compulsory education, though, I think it has a lot of truth to it.

Teachers are only human. When you’re under pressure to get a class to master certain material on a certain schedule, or to live up to certain behavioral rules, it is only natural to feel frustrated and upset when the kids fail to meet the goals. If the kids still fail to meet them despite the teacher’s best efforts, I think most teachers would, at some point, reconsider whether the goals are realistic. But if those goals are imposed from above, and the teacher is stuck with them, it’s unsurprising if the school atmosphere becomes more adversarial.

Compulsory education, by definition, involves some degree of coercion, but some approaches are more coercive than others. There are strong arguments (for example, here) that the best way to promote learning is to accommodate kids’ interests and inclinations as much as possible, and to give them a relatively large degree of autonomy, rather than simply dictate what they must know, when they must know it, and how they must behave. But there’s another argument in favor of the more accommodating approach, separate and apart from its effect on learning outcomes: it is more conducive to a kind and humane school environment.

Our school officials seem to think that we need more emphasis on behavior and discipline because something in the nature of children has changed. I think their focus on behavior is more likely driven by a change in the nature of schooling: that we are increasing the gap between what we want to make kids do and what they are interested in doing. Increasing that gap is naturally going to lead to a more coercive, adversarial dynamic, in which schools are more likely to employ authoritarian practices and model authoritarian values, and in which school staff are more likely to feel frustrated and angry with the children and to treat them accordingly. Not all school staff will fall prey to that dynamic, but the greater the gap, the greater the odds.

Promoting a humane school environment has value in and of itself, separate and apart from its effect on learning, though you would never know it from today’s educational debates.

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