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The Problem with Education is...

Everyone has been a student at some point in their lives. Everyone has had to endure bad teachers and benefited from great ones. Many of us (including myself) have felt marginalized by the education system as students when we had to memorize useless facts for a test or fought against the tyranny of the "hat rule" as high school students (I really love hats and hate that rule!)

It is because of these experiences that many of us feel we can comment on the education system and the teachers within it, as there are many stakeholders involved. Teachers, parents, students, and the greater community are all impacted by the success of our schools and our students. However, I think it is time that teachers need to stand up and claim our status as the proficient professionals and intellectuals that we are. For too long have we sat idly by having to endure bad education policy and the dictates of failed theories that came before us.

All of us, including parents and teachers, often revert to thinking that if we were able to overcome bad teaching and policy, then why shouldn't my child/students? In other words, "If I had to deal with a crappy education system, and I turned out OK, then why shouldn't my child/student"? I realize that no one actually says this phrase, but it is essentially what we are saying when we tell teachers and the education system to go "back to basics" or "life is tough, get used to it".

This is an extremely harmful ideology on many levels. If we want to create good citizens then our classrooms should be models of what we would like our world to be. We cannot revert back to the harmful ways we were taught. Just because we persevered through it, does not mean that every student will or should. We need to engage and promote an education that will serve the interests of all students and meet their individual needs.

We often get upset when the latest round of test scores come and the results didn't work out in our favour. This is an easy ploy used by the corporate ED agenda, columnists, and politicians to try and poke holes in the education system and demand that teachers and students work harder and "pick yourselves up by the bootstraps". This is an easy statement to make that generally does resonate with the majority of the population (unfortunately). However, it would be at our disadvantage to take this advice. Testing is not the be all to end all in education. In fact, as most teachers know, it offers a very limited scope of our students ability. Teachers should be getting students to create work and assessments that they will be using throughout their entire lives. At no time in my professional career has my employer said to me, "Dan, I want you to complete this task, however, you cannot use any resources or talk to anyone and you have to have it done in 90 minutes, sound good"? In the age of the Internet, memorizing and regurgitating information on a test serves very little purpose. We must move past this if we are going to create the critically thinking, informed, and compassionate students of the future.

The future of education should be a conversation between teachers, parents and students. Teachers are intellectuals and it is time we use what capital we have to build our reputation to a higher regard. People love to criticize what we do, but would they go to a doctor and tell her/him how to perform surgery? Probably not. Teachers are the guardians and creators of the future. We need to earn our respect back as a force within our communities.

Lastly, let's not forget the one voice we often leave out of these conversations. The students voice. How often do we include their voices when we make policy that will impact their education? We have to start giving students more credit and respect in terms of what they know about teaching and education. Their voice matters and it must be heard. If we want them to strengthen our democracy of the future, then teachers and parents shouldn't act like authoritarians in their present.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Dan. Earlier today I read a different post from a high school teacher in NYC (who also happens to be a rabbi). He had a lot of the same thoughts to say, focusing not as much on the political and social justice side like you, but just on the point of not simply responding to kids of all ages that they "better get used to it". Here's the content from that post by Rabbi Brian (see his Wisdom Biscuit mail-out from Dec. 16, 2014 at www.rotb.org):

    BGUTI (pronounced Bə-ˈgü-tē) is an acronym that stands for: "Better get used to it."

    I work in education and I have kids of my own, so I hear this phrase a lot.

    Kids in kindergarten get homework so they can get used to it.

    And, worse than the homework BGUTI, is the BGUTI said towards our dear ones with regard to life's disappointments.
    "You'd better get used to disappointment, young man. That's how the world is!"
    "You'd better get used to heartache, sweetheart."
    "You'd better get used to doing meaningless work."
    "You'd better get used to it, because that's how it is."

    What principle are we trying to spread here? Do we want kids to grow up thinking life is just a series of pointless, endless suffering? That their future life - their life as an adult - will be miserable?

    Here's what's wrong with BGUTI.

    BGUTI is almost always used with either:

    A dismissive, callow attitude
    Smug, schadenfreude-like joy as though we get great pleasure from hazing subordinates to suffer, simply because we had to suffer and/or are suffering.
    Why do we BGUTI others?

    I can't figure out a good reason.

    Instead of saying BGUTI when a kid is having a hard time, wouldn't a more proper response be a compassionate one? Something like: "I'm sorry you're having a hard time."

    I cannot imagine a time where telling another person BGUTI is a good thing, with the exception of compassionately suggesting we accept the discomfort associated with change.

    While I'm hesitant to "BGUTI" others, I have no problem self-reflecting on things I ought to get used to.

    Here is my BGUTI list of things I ought to accept:

    I cannot make the world be what I want it to it be.
    Sadness, sorrow, and frustration are here to stay.
    People will disappoint me.
    I know that I must get used to these things.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Mandy! Rabbi Brian's thoughts are so important to reflect on. I'm trying to figure out ways to engage in dialogue with people of the BGUTI mindset in order to have a meaningful conversation. However, it's much easier said than done! Instead of getting used to it, let's get kids to change it!

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  3. I think another, related, issue is that he world has changed. The education system we had when we grew up was bad for our time, it was outdated then, but it is even less adapted for the kids we are teaching now.

    Take memory, for example, we used to have to remember a lot more information when we were young because it wasn't stored on our smart phones. Now we don't memorize things nearly as often.
    It could be argued that teaching memorization skills are still important regardless, but either way we have to change the way we teach with regards to memorization.
    We either believe memorizing is not an important skill and teach in a way that does not require memorization. OR we have to explicitly teach it because it is practiced less and less outside of school.

    My personal feeling is that in a world where there is so much information available it is more important to teach kids where to find information and how to evaluate. Even more important, we have to figure out how to teach in a way that does not kill the curiousity they had on the first day of school so that they actually WANT to go find the information.

    I read a quote somewhere that if we put a 19th century doctor in a 21st century OR they would be totally overwhelmed by all the new technology, however a 19th century teacher would feel perfectly at home today.

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    1. Thanks for your reply Erin. I love the last quote you mentioned. I think it's something all educators should reflect on. At the end of the day, we have to have a conversation about what are the skills and attributes students will need to have to be successful citizens. Our assessments should reflect that!

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    2. Yes unfortunately with standardized tests being so important, part of preparing students to do well post-school is preparing them to do well on these tests. This is why most teachers defend using tests as their primary form of evaluation. Being able to write a test is a skill (although not a particularly useful one once they graduate).

      I teach in Quebec and it makes me sick to read policy that states "evaluation should be a means to an end and not an end in itself" and yet my students have to write ministry exams that are worth 50% of their final grade.

      From my understanding US standardized tests are designed to differentiate students, placing hem in different percentiles of achievement. They have therefore they have been accused of focusing on details instead of focussing on what is the most important, because the teacher will have emphasized what is important and most students would get that right, whereas only the "brightest" - best at memorizing - will remember the details. I don't know to what extent this is true, but if so it's disgusting.

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    3. I have a similar situation here in Alberta. Grade 12 students write a diploma exam worth 50% of their mark. It's a high stakes test for the students, especially if they're looking to go to post-secondary. A test can be valuable in some cases, but the info it gives us only shares a small part of what the student is capable of. Thanks again for your comments!

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  4. Hi Todd. A fascinating read. I hope you don't mind if I point out what may have been a slip of the keyboard: in your "About" blurb it appears you accidentally used the wrong word in one place. You write "education can be used as a tool to empower youth". I think where you wrote "empower" you actually meant "indoctrinate". Yes, school is a great place to accomplish social transformation because as the sole arbiter of power in the room, the adult teacher can shape young minds according to social dogmas they never would accept if left to work out their world view from their own common sense, the school of hard knocks or outdated nonsense that might be passed on by (shudder!) their parents. Get them before they're too independent-thinking to make up their own minds. It's so refreshing to find forward, progressive-minded teachers like yourself who understand that teaching is about creating an army of activists whose views reproduce correct political dogmas of their teachers -- models for the great new society we are building. This kind of transformation could never be accomplished in the open market of ideas where adults of equal persuasive power must compete on a level playing field! We must ensure that it gets done while the kids are still a captive audience in school. That is why "empower" is surely the wrong word here. If we mean "empower" perhaps it is only to empower to "transform their lives and the world around them" according to the correct views we are giving them -- certainly not to empower them to choose any old kind of lives and world.

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    1. Hi R. Craigen! The name is Dan, not Todd......or were you referring to someone else? Either way, thanks for reading and commenting! There is no indoctrination going on here, I gladly give up my power to students in my room. They direct the learning. I work to "empower" (no that wasn't a typo!) them to challenge my authority, bias, and understanding of the topics we study. Very little of my teaching involves me lecturing or just spouting my opinion to them. I'm sorry you felt otherwise. Perhaps before sarcastically criticizing my abilities as a teacher as a mere "indoctrinator of propaganda" you should take the time to engage in constructive dialogue and maybe actually witness me teach or at least get a reference. You should actually give the youth a little more respect. As it turns out, youth actually think for themselves when they're taught to analyze and think for themselves. They have the power and agency to challenge their teachers and conventional knowledge! At the end of the day, all I want is for them to think freely and care about the world they are inheriting. How they choose to live and act within that world, is ultimately up to them!

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  5. Dan, in my quest to understand social justice, I am often confused by the correct definition of the term. I often ask the question , and often receive a different answer.

    I am also an educator and would like to know what your personal definition of SJ is and how you make it a focal point in your classroom. Thank you.

    Jason Cantanella

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  6. Hey Jason! Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting! You're right, Social Justice can mean a lot of different things to different people. An understanding that I use to frame my pedagogy is how to deal with the issue of power within the classroom and in the content. We need to understand power relations within our classroom and work with students to understand discrepancies in issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, and colonialism. Basically, I encourage my students to challenge power (including my own) and ask the questions "why?" all they time! (Why is that man rich? What is that man poor? Why are we going to war? for example).

    I know that's a long winded answer and probably not exactly what you were looking for.

    Here is a link to give you an example of teaching issues from and Social Justice framework: http://www.good.is/posts/ordinary-citizens-catalyzing-change-a-people-s-history-of-2013

    And here is a bit of a "guide to social justice education": http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2012/02/osos106_Teaching_Social_Justice.pdf

    I hope that helps!!

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  7. Dan, how do you properly introduce and teach on a topic such as the Alberta oil sands and their positive/negative effects? If a student decides that the oil sands are positive, do you try to, in a subtle manner, convince them that the oil sands are a detriment? Or do you accept that his or her position may be different than yours?

    Jason Cantanella

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  8. Hey Jason,

    I always present the oil sands from a number of environmental, cultural, and economic perspectives. It's important students understand and critique all sides to a debate (right or left).

    Social justice is not about getting your students to have the same opinion as you. Quite the opposite actually. I want students challenging me, thinking for themselves, and coming to their own conclusions based on the evidence presented (evidence coming from academia, journalist reports, students own research, and even oil companies). Teaching is not indoctrination, it is working with students to create critically thinking citizens that will be able to deal with the challenges of the world they live in.

    Social Justice provides a challenge to students to work towards a more equitable and just world. I want them to care about themselves, their communities, and the world they live in.

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    1. I'm a first year teacher, and learning as I go, Dan. My question is, what do you do, as a left-leaning teacher, if a student takes the side of the oil companies? Do you allow the student to hold on to that position or do you as a more knowledgeable educator try to steer the student to a position that is more agreeable to you? Is there any bias in your approach?

      I assume you lean left from reading all your blog posts. My apologies if I made the wrong assumption. Enjoying the discussion.

      Jason Cantanella

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  9. Imposing your beliefs on students is wrong. Social justice is about challenging students to think about the world they live in and the inequalities that exist within it. I would suggest you read the links I provided earlier if you're interested in learning more.

    There's not much more I can say on this topic. If you want to continue this conversation you can reach me on twitter (as that's where I assume you found this blog). Twitter allows a public dialogue to take place, which will allow other talented educators to help you with your questions.

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  10. Hi Dan. Actually I stumbled upon your blog through a google search on social justice as I was trying to gain a deeper understanding of the term.

    Is social justice just a friendlier term for Socialism

    I believe, we as educators, need to prepare students with important skills that will allow them to live decent life as adults. Students need to learn to ask questions the proper way. For instance, the black block questions authority, yet do it in a destructive, unproductive manner. We can't through stones at the windows of those we disagree with. Does a chemist need to understand chemistry or how to question authority.

    Are many people rich because they have (had) the drive and determination to succeed?

    An NHL hockey player earns more money than me. I'm fine with that because there is a high demand for NHL caliber hockey players.Some teachers I talk to feel it is wrong for athletes to make that much. I disagree with them.

    Dan, do you believe if all things were perfect, that any student could achieve the status of a medical doctor?

    Jason Cantanella

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  11. * Sorry, I meant to say "throw" stones.

    Jason Cantanelal

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  12. I'm disappointed that by were unable to answer my question, Dan. I guess you want the comments section of your little blog here to be an echo chamber. I understand. You do not welcome differing opinions. However, It really makes me wonder how fair and unbiased you really are in the classroom, and how readily you accept opinions that differ from yours. I'm disappointed.

    Jason Cantanella

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