The other day on the internet a woman posted this picture of her 5-year-old with a pencil in her hand and her head bowed over a piece of paper. Her face was the image of despair—she was trying to do her math problems and just couldn’t get two of the problems right. Under the picture, the woman wrote, “The only picture of my daughter that I hate.”(see the whole story at http://missourieducationwatchdog.com/a-new-york-and-chicago-mom-discover-what-standardized-rigor-really-means-for-their-children/)
The picture could have been me except that I was in 9th grade and taking algebra for the first time. We had just moved to Cass Lake that fall–a month into the school year. I had started algebra with a teacher up in Babbitt who threw chalk and erasers at students when they didn’t get it right. As bad as that was, I then had to switch schools and try to pick up where the new class was. I was struggling terribly with algebra. My folks hired me a tutor, but the equations just didn’t make sense to me. Nothing made sense to me. And the more I tried, the harder it got. I remember sitting one night at the dining room table and just breaking into tears of frustration.
I felt just like that little girl in the picture. I clicked into the comment box and wrote, “Child Abuse in the name of Education.”
Friday night and again Saturday morning I was reviewing the new Common Core Standards (http://www.corestandards.org/) which are now being pushed down the throat of public education. (Okay, so I pass my Friday night with this fascinating reading. What can I say–I’m an education geek.) Anyway, here are two of the standards posted for Sixth Grade Writing.
- Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
- Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.
Over morning coffee I read a few of the standards to Milt. Oddly, I was not really put off by the concepts in the standards—but how these standards would be taught and measured by a bullying educational system.
I’ve been thinking a lot about learning versus education lately. You wouldn’t think there would be such a canyon between these two words. In fact, you would think they would be as close as twin sisters who always understand what the other is thinking. But instead our schools drift further and further away from how people actually learn.
In my mind the soul of learning and education is not about the questions you get right (in a multiple choice box)–but about whether you are asking the right questions. When our questions are tied directly to the things we care most about, they naturally lead to discovery and deeper inquiry both about who we are and the world in which we find ourselves. We love this kind of learning. The goal of education, at the very least, should be to guide us in asking better questions.
And here is the irony–in truth, most of our fundamental questions have no answers. Why war? Why did my best friend commit suicide? What is my place and purpose? What am I responsible for or to? Why do bad things happen to good people?
It seems like a great paradox that our educational systems are so tied to getting the right answer but life is filled with questions for which we have no answers. The human brain awakens to a good problem to solve, a question to be answered. Asking the right questions not only makes us feel good and awakens the brain to exploration and excitement—the quest alone seems to add meaning and purpose.
Unless we are taught to ask only questions that have a “right” answer.
I remember Joseph Chilton Pearce talking about the amazing energy that rises up in the emerging adolescent. He talks about the feeling of “a grape bursting in the throat.” I vividly remember that incredible feeling of awakening out of childhood to find a wide, black universe of unanswerable questions. I didn’t know then that I would one day be 60 years old and staring at the same wide, black, beautiful universe and still have no real answers. We were (and are) eyes wide open on the world.
The nature and quality of my questions may have changed in 45 years—or maybe not. I think when people ask only small questions they get a small life. Questions like how can I get a new cell phone, or will so and so like me if I say what I mean, or am I too fat, too skinny, too old . . . offer no sustenance to a hungry mind and soul. In fact, it deadens and flattens life.
My questions may have been too large, too hauntingly open-ended, my questions may still keep me awake at night staring out the window at a sliver of silvery moon—but I would not kill those questions just to be a tiny bit more comfortable in my own skin.
I like to itch and burn with questions. I feel alive—a student of mystery and deep inquiry asking impossible questions in an uncertain world.
How sad if we were to let “education” kill that burning desire to find answers to our most heart-felt questions. Children are filled with that desire to know. I remember my son when he was just little asking me, “Mom, if God is in all things and all people . . . do you think he feels crowded?”
Don’t you love a great question?
So, what questions are you asking? Are you more concerned about getting it right than expanding it outward? Are you taking enough risks? Are your questions big enough–or are you just filling in the multiple choice boxes?
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