Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Twitter Book Club: John Holt (1964) How Children Fail - Chapter 5

To Summarize

"The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do." Holtless than a minute ago via Twittelator

"The bright child likes to experiment, to try things out. He lives by the maxim that there is more than one way to skin a cat." Holtless than a minute ago via Twittelator

"We adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children by the things we do to them (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

I also think we do this to children because it has been done to us. It is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. It is also why school reform is so hard. We have to unlearn these habits and we have to mutually agree and recognize this unlearning as necessary and that what we are doing to children (and have historically done) is a problem. I believe this is why Holt eventually gave up on reforming schools and chose to focus his attention on promoting homeschooling. With homeschools there are fewer people to convince that changes have to take place.

I also think the negative side effect of these practices carry on through adulthood. I have often felt that I am still in many ways child-like in this regard. I seek external approval and recognition for what I do and I am afraid of being wrong, even when the stakes are fairly low. I think most adults operate with this issue of fear and needing of acceptance. Perhaps recognizing this is a good first step to more substantial change.

"We destroy the disinterested love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

When I was a Junior in high school my application for National Honor Society was rejected even though most of my friends got in. When I was a senior my application was rejected again. My grade average was the same as theirs and I was involved with as many activities as most of them. I was an Eagle Scout, I was an officer in the FBLA club, and I had won plenty of awards for both my artwork and my computer programming skills. The way our school handled NHS applications was a group of teachers met, went over the applications made their "in" and "out" lists, then gave them to the building principal who then made his own executive cut and add decisions. I was extremely discouraged and angry about being snubbed by my school for what I felt I deserved. When I graduated, the principal gave me a keychain with the National Honor Society emblem on it. On the back he had inscribed, "Attitude Makes All The Difference."

I have long pondered what this phrase meant. I know I was not always a "good" and "obedient" student. I was one who asked a lot of questions. I was also one who would never accept an answer unless it could be substantiated. "Because I said so," or "because it is in the book," or "because you have to learn it," were never acceptable responses to me and I know I pressed my teachers to come up with better reasons for learning. Perhaps this is what was meant by "Attitude Makes All the Difference." Or, perhaps this principal saw something me that I didn't at the time. Perhaps he saw that I was placing too much emphasis on getting acknowledgment and that by denying this one I might ponder this question in the future and eventually break myself of this crutch. Knowing this guy I doubt this latter reason is why he gave me this token.

Alfie Kohn addresses this topic in Punished by Rewards. I think he and Holt are on the same page on this issue. We think that things like NHS and Honor Roll are good for kids because they positively reinforce behavior we who bestow these accolades wish to see in our kids. Unfortunately, that behavior is not always intelligent behavior, it is docility, unconditional and unquestioning acceptance of authority, and the ability to accurately regurgitate facts. They have nothing to do with understanding, creativity, invention, problem-solving, or critical thinking. To drive this point even further, how many students who rank in the top 10% of their high school graduating class end up not being able to make it through college?

For a long time I harbored a lot of resentment for what my high school principal did by denying me acceptance into NHS. I still retain some of those feelings but am convinced that what I resent was not being allowed in but the existence of these instruments in the first place. We need to eliminate this false notion of positive reinforcement as soon as possible if we want to make schools places where students learn for authentic reasons. How do we define achievement? How should we measure it? I think we have been answering these questions wrong for many years. This needs to change.

"We encourage children to act stupidly, not only by scaring and confusing them, but by boring them, by (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

"For heaven's sake, stay out of the classroom until you have got over some of your fear of the world. Do (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

In college I remember a speaker coming to talk to our class about reasons for teaching and what teachers bring to the classroom. He was a second career teacher and encouraged us all who had gone straight from high school to college to do something else with our lives before entering the classroom. This always resonated with me and going by this advice I did take a year off to work as a cabinet maker and as a museum technician.

"I have more than once shocked teachers by telling them that when kids ask me a question to which I don't (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

I have shocked many teachers who I work with when they see me answer kids' questions with, "I don't know." I have been told by many that this is the worst thing I can do as a teacher because it undermines my authority as an expert in the classroom. I completely disagree.

"Schools should be a place where children learn what they most want to know, instead of what we think they ought to know." Holtless than a minute ago via Twittelator

I have been seeing a trend lately where schools are asking students what they want to learn in school. I hope this continues and doesn't just become a fad-like thing that never really makes its way into making curriculum more responsive and engaging. I fear, like most really good reform-minded initiatives, that in most places it will be done half-assed with not enough teacher buy-in, time, energy, or commitment to make a difference. Then, once everyone makes a half-assed attempt at it and there isn't overwhelming positive results most will say that it just doesn't work and go back to old habits and procedures.

" If for no other reason, we could well afford to throw out most of what we teach in school because the (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

"The notion of a curriculum, an essential body of knowledge, would be absurd even if children remembered (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

Take note Common-Core folks!

"Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

Unfortunately, I think one of the things that school does a good job of training students is in thinking that they need a teacher in order to learn. Its learned helplessness and dependence.

"We cannot have real learning in school if we think it is our duty and our right to tell children what they must learn." Holtless than a minute ago via Twittelator

"We made a terrible mistake when (with the best intentions, we separated children from adults and learning (cont) than a minute ago via Twittelator

My favorite teaching assignment was at an ALC housed in a community center that also was the home of the districts early childhood program and senior program. We tried to incorporate these other two programs with our own from time to time. I wish we had done more to blur the lines. Perhaps if we had been allowed to continue what we had started we would eventually have full synergy.

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