Saturday, February 16, 2013

What does “teach” mean? (continued)

Nicholas J. and Karen W. have been posting about whether there is a better word than “instruction” to describe what schools should do. I like a lot of what they have to say, and their alternatives to “instruction” all seem like improvements, but I can’t say that any of them seem like a perfect fit.

I wrote here about how people use the word “teach” to mean two very different things, and I think there is also a third: to make someone adopt a certain opinion or value. You shouldn’t do drugs. Bullying is bad. You should respect your elders. You should be caring, honest, respectful, responsible, and courageous. Liberty, democracy, justice, due process, and individual rights are important, except when you are a child in school. That sort of thing.

I don’t think schools can or should avoid standing for a set of values, but I do think the transmission of values raises certain issues that the transmission of knowledge or skills doesn’t raise, so it would be helpful to have a particular word for it. “Indoctrination” carries a lot of negative connotations, but maybe that’s a plus, since it might help counteract people’s natural attraction to imposing their values on others. Maybe if we admitted that we’re indoctrinating, we’d have to think a little harder about just what values we want to indoctrinate kids with.

Teaching values also raises pedagogical issues that teaching skills doesn’t raise. Telling other people what to think is likely to trigger a different reaction than telling them how to do something. Coercive indoctrination is likely to provoke resistance and rebellion, and to model qualities that might be very different from the qualities you’re trying to instill. When it comes to transmitting values, I think the most defensible approach is modeling, combined with thoughtful, non-coercive discussion—always leaving kids the freedom to disagree. Dictating the mandatory values and then expecting the kids to parrot back “correct” answers is the worst and most counter-productive approach. From what I hear about our district’s “guidance curriculum,” it sounds like the latter approach has won the day, and I worry about what it’s really teaching.


Megan Samuelson said...

I'm glad I signed up for your blog. I tend to agree with many of the issues you raise here. I just read this DM Register article about my alma mater, Grinnell College, and thought back fondly to my college days of "self-governance" there. While this model for college-aged kids living in dorms isn't entirely applicable to elementary school, it does support the idea that kids will ultimately gain more from empowerment rather than checklists of "correct" behavior. Keep up the blogging!

Chris said...

Megan -- Thanks for commenting! That self-governance system seems like a great idea, and I don't see why something resembling it couldn't happen in K-12. As it stands, K-12 disciplinary systems, which are entirely top-down, do nothing to prepare students for participation in self-government after they graduate.

Here's the clickable link to that article.