Thursday, August 2, 2012

Desire to Learn or Need to Achieve?

...from Live Long and Prosper
Desire to Learn or Need to Achieve?

When I was growing up my parents assured me that it didn't matter what career I chose, as long as it was something I wanted to do. In high school I focused on music and was convinced that I was destined for a musical career. I entered college as a music major, and quickly learned the difference between talent and ability (I had the latter, but not the former). I needed a change of direction.

After floundering in the College of Arts and Sciences for a while I graduated with a bachelors degree in Religious Studies which, like a degree in Philosophy, Sociology, History or any one of a dozen other "Liberal Arts" degrees, didn't prepare me for any "job" or career. So after graduation I gravitated back to music, something I knew and loved, and began working at retail music stores.

When my oldest child was born I became interested in child development. I returned to school and got my teaching certificate and a Masters degree in elementary education.

After teaching primary grades for 17 of my first 19 years as an educator I had the opportunity to work with students who were having difficulty learning. Like most teachers I spent extra hours focused on the students who were having difficulty in my class. When I had the opportunity to work with those students in a pull out program I took it. During the last 16 years of my career I worked with students who needed help in (mostly) reading and for 7 of those years I was a Reading Recovery teacher.

Throughout my own childhood and even into college I had difficulty with reading, so when I began teaching I worked hard to analyze where students were having difficulty. I became a passionate supporter of struggling students. It's clear that the interest I showed for those students was, at least in part, because of my own difficulties.

At each step in my adult life I focused on my interests -- music, religious studies, child development, elementary education, and finally teaching struggling readers. I didn't direct my attention towards a high paying career. I didn't consider what the "lifelong earnings" would be. I didn't spend time analyzing the future prospects for advancement in the job paths I chose. I followed my interests and my passions.

I felt no competition as an educator other than with myself. I compared myself to others only for the purpose of self-evaluation and deciding whether or not I was doing well. Perhaps because I had never been a high achiever I valued passion over practicality. I favored understanding over achievement -- interest over monetary gain. As an educator I was competing with the problems I faced, not other professionals. I focused on what I could do to be a better teacher and how I could reach students who were hard to reach.

Are today's students given the same opportunity to follow their interests?

High stakes assessments direct a child's attention to facts, details, and quick responses. There's little time for the higher level thinking skills of Bloom's Taxonomy -- creativity, evaluation, analysis.

In some places parents are very competitive -- often because the system forces them into it -- and push their children into a single minded quest for high achievement, high status schools and high paying careers.

The competitive, data driven madness of the current "race to the top" mentality of education, is robbing today's students of the joy of learning. Children are born with the desire to learn. They are natural wonderers...explorers...analysts. Our society's obsessive focus on "data" crushes the wonder and destroys the internal thirst for understanding. The desire to learn is replaced with the need to achieve.

The competition for grades, schools and achievement is often pursued at the expense of personal development. We're educating students to achieve but not to be well rounded human beings...and then we wonder why cheating is such a problem -- in education and in financial circles. Walt Gardner writes that Students Pay a Price For 'Success'.
We see this disconnect in Wall Street and in the legal profession, where elite credentials have failed to instill a modicum of integrity in so many. Their actions have hurt the country in a way not seen since the Gilded Age. Yet the obscene wealth they've amassed is glorified. Little is said about their achievements as human beings. Is self-service the only thing that matters? "For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard - especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers - can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others".

That's why I question the direction of the reform movement in the U.S. If schools are judged solely on data that are easily quantifiable, values are overlooked. Don't these count as much or more than test scores? The cheating exposés that took place at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and at Great Neck North High School on Long Island serve as evidence. It's well to remember what Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891 in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." It's too bad that students are not taught this lesson.

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