Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Values, not programs

Back in Connecticut, Aimee is posting about more humane and respectful alternatives to programs like PBIS. I’m on her side, but I also share her skepticism about the need for any of these packaged “programs,” with their workshops and institutes, their implementation consultants and development kits. I certainly prefer the education-as-humane-engagement industry to the education-as-control-and-manipulation industry, but I disagree that what teachers really need is a high-priced instruction manual.

Most parents I know would laugh at the idea of getting trained in some kind of marketed program to manage their kids’ learning or behavior in the home. Nor is there any movement to provide extensive training in step-by-step teaching techniques to college and university professors -- most of whom are sent into the classroom on the assumption that, with a little common sense and a few semesters of practice, they can teach as well as anyone else. University professors are amateurs when it comes to teaching in the same way that all parents are amateurs when it comes to parenting, yet the world keeps turning.

In K-12 education, though, you’re nowhere if you don’t have a program, and if it comes with its own jargon, even better. Let me suggest that one of the primary functions of these programs, like of all types of jargon, is to wall out the layman -- in this case, the parent -- and to hang a big sign on that wall saying KEEP OUT. We’re experts, and we’ve got evidence-based methods, scientifically tested, so unless you’re trained in this field -- preferably with a doctorate -- step aside, please, and let us handle this.

I’m skeptical that this elevation of expertise actually helps our kids grow and learn. But as a walling-out technique, it sure does work. Faced with an authority figure brandishing a claim that a program is supported by the latest cutting-edge research, most laymen wilt. What parent is going to devote his or her spare hours and energy to scrutinizing the methodology of some education-school research article to debate its merits with someone whose livelihood depends on defending it? A fancy website with cool graphics, official-looking charts and graphs, and several footnotes -- even if it doesn’t withstand just a few minutes of close scrutiny -- is enough to send most people down the path of least resistance.

Funny how presenting everything as an issue of technique (“Does it work?”), rather than as an issue of values (“What do we want for our kids?”), has the effect of putting the institution in charge, rather than the parents. If we were to discuss the values that underlie our educational policies, there would be no rationale for excluding parents from the debate. Experts, after all, can’t tell you what values to hold. So that topic is, conveniently, ignored.

Give my child a thoughtful, humane teacher who respects kids, sympathizes with them, and takes them seriously. One who values inquiry, initiative, creativity, and intellectual curiosity. Give that teacher enough autonomy in the classroom that he or she can enjoy the job and stay in it long enough to acquire some skill and some wisdom. Then the kids will do fine -- and you won’t even need a flow chart.

..How can I comment?