American schooling

Just a couple nights ago I had a doctoral level class where we discussed Vygotsky (1978) and a Franquiz and Reyes (1998) article. What came about was a discussion on American schooling and learning in general. What is the purpose of our schooling system? What should the purpose be? The first question seemed incredibly simple as all of us in my small group discussion had been exposed to Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigm video (if you haven’t seen this, it is an incredibly simple and direct way to visually see the way our schooling system has been influenced by the Industrial Revolution and how we haven’t yet changed the paradigm) as well as all of us either being teaching in the past or currently employed as such.

It seemed so obvious to us that our system right now IS set up to make sure that students do not have a chance to critically think. This helps maintain the status quo and to ensure that there are different tracks of people to funnel into various job needs. So the current purpose of the educational system seemed simple. Yet when we tried to answer what the educational system SHOULD be like, we had a much harder time coming to a conclusion (and actually never did come to one decision). There was a lot of talk about making sure students are critical thinkers. Good, that makes sense in general – critical thinking can be transferred to other realms of learning and life events. However, I kept on feeling the devil’s advocate approach coming up, “why should students be critical thinkers?” Why are we saying this is THE most important thing for students today?

Now jump ahead a couple days. I received an email from a family member about the problems with today’s schoolings. Included in the email was a link to the trailer on “Race to Nowhere,” a film from 2009 that seems to be the predecessor to the “Waiting for Superman” that came out last year. At first when I started watching the trailer, I felt hooked and concerned about our educational system. Worried about the boy that we will be raising in such an educational system. Then there was a part of the preview that stopped me in my tracks:

The audience gets to hear about the multiple hours a day of homework students are subjected to, and a high school age student comments on her lack of time to enjoy anything else, commenting on not knowing the last time she was able to go outside and run around. Then an educator comes on screen to say, “We could be sued by our children for robbing them of their childhood.”

Childhood. “Childhood.” The entire idea of there being such a thing as a “childhood” came about in our country incredibly recently, historically. It is generally agreed that childhood is not a definitive biological time period, but instead culturally constructed and therefore dynamic. Some people say that the concept of a childhood in how we discuss it today, one in which children should be able to run around and play and be carefree, only came about in the last couple generations. Before that, children were expected to be responsible young people and were hence given specific responsibilities to achieve (e.g. working alongside parents in the fields, in the factory, doing housework, taking care of younger siblings, having a paper route, etc.).

So I find myself wondering about how the idea of childhood is what most of us are concerned about in terms of the current educational system. For myself, I am a proponent of children being able to be “children.” Yet I am also a fan of such models of education as Montessori method which instills responsibility in young children (starting at age 2 or 3). This means that preschool age children can be seen not only learning to write, but also taking care of classroom duties such as putting away the learning materials, serving snack, and sweeping the floor. These types of activities are considered purposeful, meaningful, and allow for an instilling of life skills from an early age.

Perhaps then in thinking about Montessori education versus contemporary public schooling, “American schooling” in general, it is not the fact that students are being asked to do work (e.g. homework or classroom work) but that the latter schooling ideology often employs “work” that doesn’t necessarily apply to future learning and life. Vygotsky (1978) brings up the idea of what, if anything, can be transferred in terms of learning. Can learning be transferred? Should the transferability of learning be incorporated into what American schooling SHOULD be? In the case of Montessori, life skills seem pretty direct as a possibility for both appropriation and transferability. Homework drills however, as currently utilized in most public schooling systems, seem to have little to do with transferability to anything other than…homework (or as some people argue, the ability to put up with mundane work within other environments).

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