Saturday, February 23, 2013

Required classes and 20/20 hindsight

People vary widely on the question of how much we should force educational experiences on kids against their will. It’s ultimately a matter of opinion, of course. But I do think there is sometimes a confirmation bias in the way that people think about the issue.

I hear two common reactions to the topic, variants of “I was required to take a foreign language, and now I’m glad I can speak Spanish,” and “I wish someone had made me learn to play the piano when I was young.”

In both examples, there is a kind of cherry-picking going on. You wish you could play the piano, so you wish someone had made you learn it. In reality, though, it would have been other people—parents? schools?—choosing what you would have to learn. There’s no reason to think they would have chosen the one thing your later adult self would like to have learned. Maybe it would have been field hockey, or equestrianism, or something you would have loathed. Maybe it would have been ten, twenty, or thirty things. And if you weren’t interested in learning piano at that time, how can you be sure it would have worked out as you now wish? (And what’s stopping you from signing up for lessons now, anyway?)

You’re glad you know Spanish, so you’re glad someone made you learn it. But many people would eventually choose to learn a language even if it were not required; are you sure you’re not one of those people? Moreover, the kind of people who would make you learn a foreign language are likely to make you learn a lot of other things, too, including things you might never have had any interest in; are you taking those costs into account? Can you be sure that the value of speaking Spanish outweighs the value of what you might otherwise have chosen to do with all that time if you had been given more say in the matter—including the value of gaining experience with independence and with making decisions for yourself? And isn’t there at least some reason to think that people who choose what to learn will learn it more effectively? It’s easy to support coerced learning when you compare it with nothing at all, but that’s not the real alternative.

That said, I’m much more comfortable with parents making those decisions for their own children than with the schools making a blanket decision for all kids—especially if that decision is being made by distant politicians and bureaucrats who know nothing about the kids as individual human beings.


@educatoral said...

This is something I think about often. I hate that we base decisions of what kids "should" be learning on what is being tested. The focus in schools is on Reading, Writing, Math, and, hopefully, Science (yes, I teach Science). Those are valuable skills to have but should be balanced and in context of the arts, sports, music, history, etc, which are often dropped first.

I teach in a small, rural school. Offering choice is based on what classes we can offer, which is determined by who can teach what and by schedule. We have ten teachers at our middle school. If no one can teach home ec then we can't offer it that year. We also don't have enough teachers to offer PE to all kids all day, they have rotate each trimester.

I've read about teachers who have kids spend 20% of their time working on anything they want, passion projects. That sounds great to me but I have to weigh that against the Science state test my 8th graders take in May. If they get low scores any passion learning they engaged in will be blamed. And if I, a Science Teacher, give students Science class time to work on things they're interested in that is not Science, I have to justify that.

I don't have answers. I just wish I could support kids in learning what the want, but in the current "school" model that isn't easy.

If I had my way school would look like this:

Karen W said...

There is some economics joke about that (I won't tell it right). Someone says they wish they could play the piano and the economist says no they don't, or they would have found time to learn how already.

Matt Townsley said...

Chris, you said, "I’m much more comfortable with parents making those decisions for their own children than with the schools making a blanket decision for all kids—especially if that decision is being made by distant politicians and bureaucrats who know nothing about the kids as individual human beings."

I think for some parents this choice could be made in a thoughtful and beneficial way for our students. I wonder about the students whose parents might choose not to be as involved. I wonder about the students whose parents might suggest "I didn't take (class), so I don't know why you'd need to take it either" when this choice might be setting the student up poorly for his/her future. I.e. the budding engineer whose parents were not engineering minded. Can we assume that parents of diverse backgrounds would be able and willing to make quality choices for their children?

I don't see a clear cut solution (i don't think you're suggesting one either). When politicians set these requirements, the individual is likely taken out of the picture. When the decision is left solely to parents of adolescents, I believe a bit of an educational lottery based on parents preferences (or lack of involvement) is a possibility as well.

Karen W said...

Kids are subject to educational lotteries in other ways too, though. Curriculum directors and guidance counselors don't always get it right for every kid either. Kids can happen to get assigned to teachers who appreciate their personalities or teachers with whom they constantly clash.

There's an idea in law that hard cases make bad law. We can take the worst case neglectful parent, or the worst case failing school for that matter, as a reason for the state to micromanage educational decisions for every child. But that doesn't necessarily make for a very good rule for most cases because they can rule out lots of other good, and possibly better, options for many other children, while still not helping the worst case situations. (Think you can compel attendance or 8th grade algebra but you can't really compel learning).

FedUpMom said...

Re: "I wish someone had made me learn the piano ..."

Shortly after we adopted Younger Daughter, I found that when we were out and about people would frequently remark, dreamily, "I always wanted to adopt a child."

My feeling was that if they had really wanted to adopt, they would have done it. I suspect their real desire was to think of themselves as the kind of people who would be willing to adopt.

Oddly, I never had the slightest interest in adopting until it became apparent that was the only way we could have a second child. Yet I actually did it, unlike those others who think they always wanted to adopt.

Psychmom said...

What about the reality of getting a child to play the piano who doesn't want to play? Tears, yelling, hard feelings....who wants that. It's the same as homework pain.

I've stuck to my guns about skating lessons when the impetus for the classes was hers, and I know that it's the "getting out the door" that's the hard part. Everything is rosy once she's on the ice.

I only hold myself responsible for the things I haven't done. Wishing someone had "made" me is just plain fooling myself. I'm way too stubborn and independent to listen to anyone else anyway.

Chris said...

Educatoral -- Thanks for commenting. That video is very interesting -- here's the clickable link.

I think a lot of teachers would like to teach in a way that draws more on student choice, but are restrained from doing so by the need to score well on the state-mandated tests. For all the talk about data, the importance of raising those test scores (and sacrificing other educational values to do so) is taken on faith.

Chris said...

Matt -- I guess that's always the problem with blanket requirements; they're good for some people, bad for others.

When I say I'm more comfortable with parents making those decisions than politician and bureaucrats, don't get me wrong: I'm *most* comfortable with the students themselves making those decisions. If I were to devise a blanket rule, it would be that one, with the understanding that some parents would insist that their kids make certain choices. So if there are parents who aren't willing and able to make those decisions for their kids, I don't think that's so terrible; let the student decide, within a broad range of options.

I do think, though, that if you have to force a kid to take engineering classes against his will, he may not be the budding engineer you think he is.

Chris said...

Karen -- The principle of "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," isn't appreciated much by today's schools.

People seem to recognize that students don't retain much of what we make them learn, but apparently the feeling is, "If we force them to learn it and they still don't, at least we can say we tried." They don't take the next step and consider whether compelled learning might actually result in *less* learning, over the long term, than a system driven by student choice.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Yeah, I wish I had made a fortune practicing law -- but I don't wish it enough to have led the life that would have been necessary to make it happen.

PsychMom -- It does seem strange to wish that someone had made you do something or "pushed" you harder. I don't doubt that it sometimes works for some people, but it seems to encourage a kind of passivity. It raises the whole question of intrinsic motivation again: is there any reason to think that extrinsic motivators make kids more, rather than less, likely to develop intrinsic motivation?