Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Short Treatise on Education

Here is guest post from a great collegue Kenton Biffert

Short Treatise on Education

Over this past summer I've been meditating and researching and discussing education and schooling. When we look at this new vision of Alberta Education in the Inspiring Education document, we as teachers need to be focused on developing our students to be creative, critical thinkers, communicators, ethical, leaders, and seekers. A tall order. Of course the question arises: can we do this within the curriculum we are held accountable to? Another question arises: can we do this within the current framework of schooling as we know it. I would venture a possible yes to the first question and a definite no to the second. I believe we need to begin to rethink and teach outside this square box called a school or a classroom or a desk in order to deliver the order our government and society look to us for. Before I jump into some changes that I believe, with some guts, can be made ñ I need to wax philosophical for a moment.

A couple items disturb me as a teacher when I look at the system I teach in. First is the disturbing fact that our students are not seekers. There are exceptions of course, but even within those exceptions, these exceptions remain passive consumers of the information and it is a rare gem to find an active contributor. A seeker. It is human nature to want to know. This is what separates us from the animals and what throws a beautiful wrench into the secular theory of evolution. It is a gift. An animal at night, after eating and surviving lays down to rest and sleeps. A man at night, after eating and surviving lays down to rest and wonders (Iím quoting a Canadian philosopher here, but I canít remember his name). So, how is it I ask that our students lose their desire to know. To seek. How is it that they become so such passive learners (simply tell me how to do it and Iíll do it) vs. active learners (donít tell me how to do it, Iíll figure it out and ask for help when I need it)?

This leads to my second disconcertion: is our current system of compulsory, mass schooling a type of communism? Think about this for a moment. Indulge me. Communism fails. Why? It goes against human nature. It tries to make everyone equal, diminishes differences and trumps initiative. Could we also be doing this in our compulsory schooling system? Do we not as teachers have to teach to the lowest common denominator the same curriculum to every student despite their personal interests and then demand that they take tests (standardized or not) that are essentially meaningless to them? Could it be, that in our efforts to educate our students we uneducate them ñ deseeker them?

And this leads to my third thought on education: are kids really dumber than they were 100 years ago or are we dumbing them down? Yikes. Crazy question. I read recently in John Taylor Gattoís book Weapons of Mass Instruction that 130 years ago grade 5 students were studying Shakesphere. That prior to WWI the literacy rate in the US was 98%. This was before compulsory schooling was forced (sometimes at gunpoint) on the common people. Over the next six decades the literacy rate fell to 73% (mid 70ís) and rose back up to 83% (2004) for whites and 60% for blacks. Literacy in this case was a proficient grade 4 reading level. Hmmm… one would think that with the astronomical amount of money poured into this schooling system to teach kids that weíd see an increase. Maybe the compulsory schooling, curriculum, and modes of learning kill initiative…

Lastly, my question is specific to Catholic Education. Last year I wrote an email to various members of our board and administration in regards to recent surveys stating that students graduating from public schools are not a whole different in their views on faith and morality than Catholic students. The question would be obviously, how can we send students through 13 years of Catholic education and they graduate questioning the existence of God, having little knowledge of their faith, little to no relationship with Christ, and a secular view of morality? There would seem to be little reason for Catholic education to exist if this remains the case.

Alright ñ enough with the skepticism that has kept me up at night seeking answers and driving me into a dissonance as I try to find my own place as a teacher in this system. How about some solutions. I believe in the Inspiring Education document and the vision they have our students. What can we do at St. Martin de Porres to help bring this to fruition? The following are a list of suggestions (some Iím sure will raise hairs), but all are worth some discussion.

1. Have specialists teach the subjects that they specialize in. (this assumes that with a specialization there is a passion). If we have a teacher that is brilliant at teaching math and loves math and brings math alive for the students, then why are they not teaching math to more grades than a homeroom? Passionate, inspiring teachers increase student achievement. (see Increasing Student Achievement in Writing by Kenton E. Biffert) Why are we so concerned about our grade 3-5 students having consistency with the same teacher? I think a case could be made for K-2 in having less teachers in the classroom… maybe…

2. Multigenerational classes. Having students live 13 years of their lives with other students the same age for the formative years of their lives is unnatural. It is unhealthy. Having all the grade 4ís together simply makes teaching curriculum easier on the teacher ñ but is not necessarily best for the students. (If this is too much to swallow, maybe we could look at having multigenerational classes ñ combining grades into groups for art, music and drama as an example).

3. More minutes dedicated to LA by shaving off minutes from the other subjects. We have subjects (French, drama, math, science, social, health, art, music, religion) and we have the tools of learning (LA). LA is a tool of learning for for the most part one cannot engage effectively in any of the other subjects without a proficient grasp of literacy.

4. Parental involvement at the decision making level. Compulsory schooling is pulling apart the family. Parents take their children at age 5/6 and place them in the hands of someone they barely know and with other children raised by parents they donít know and leave them there to learn a curriculum that they barely know. (hmmm… maybe this is why the family unit seems to be less and less cohesive…). One way to combat this is to find ways to bring parents back into being the primary educators of their children. They know their children better than we do and thus should be a part of the decision making process regarding decisions about their children. One could scream ëbut teachers are the experts!í I would yell back, "Bull." One does not need a B.Ed. to teach. I have learned an infinite amount from my father who is blind with a grade 5 education ñ more than I learned in my whole B.Ed. degree. We need to empower, encourage and motivate the parents to take a larger role in the education of their students.

5. Include more time for play by adding an afternoon recess. Finland has a 15 min. recess after every 45 min. class. Retention will be more. Engagement will increase. Achievement will thus increase.

6. No movies. Watching movies results in passivity. The brain ceases to fire on so many accounts that philosophers have said watching television as close one can get to losing their personhood. We are commissioned to facilitate the development of seekers ñ not pacifiers. Further, to read a novel and engage oneís imagination and then to watch a movie about the novel simply erases all that work one did with the imagination and replaces it with some directorís artistic impression of the book. A waste of great imagination. Further again, movies should not be used as entertainment or babysitting or as rewards for good behavior. We have a gym, creative minds, and Iím sure as teachers we can come up with alternatives.

- side note on technology: we need to teach students that technology is not out there to make us consumers, voyeurs or amusement addicts. This is when it gets dangerous. Technology can be a tool to help us become stronger communicators and to help make others lives better. This is our focus.

7.  Reject standardized testing (gr. 3 PATís). Now I realize we canít do this formally, but our parents sure can. There is nothing to be gained by putting a grade 3 students through the rigours of PATís. They are meaningless to them. They have no bearing on their lives. They are a detriment. We can educate parents that they have the right to refuse to have their kids take the PATís. This should be done. See http://bartlebyproject.com/ for some more info. Standardized testing is done for political reasons and economic reasons. It is not done for the best of the child.

8. Guarantee our parents that our students are getting a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity per day as organized by the school. This is our mandate. This is regardless of the weather. We would also need to sit down as a staff and look at defining DPA. Does sitting on a desk and throwing a ball back and forth constitute DPA as an example. We need to set some standards for ourselves.

9. Scheduled class time outside. Research is proving more and more that spending time in nature and learning in the context of nature increases our studentís creativity (amoung many other aspects). We need to be teaching in a real, lived, experienced, hands-on environment and less simulated digital environments. Read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv for a great wake up call.

10. Relook at how we teach boys. As a female dominated staff and profession we need to look at how to teach boys. Boys need competition ñ grade 5 basketball should be keeping score so that there are winners and losers. Separate the boys and girls in phys. Ed in the upper elementary. We need to as a staff do some professional reading on boy development in the early years. Dr. Leonard Saxís book Boys Adrift addresses how boys are taught in the school system and the results are lower achievement and high incidents of assigning medications.

11. Micromanage less. I know this sounds scary. When dealing with the masses it is far easier if they are all helpless. However, we need to be developing leaders, and ëself-directed learnersí (Inspiring Education). So how can we micromanage less?

- Understand that getting hurt is a part of life and not the end of the world. In fact a ton of learning comes from getting hurt. Ex: As a kid I touched a hot iron to see how hot it was. I burnt my finger. Iíve never touched one since. Allowing the boys some leeway on the playground/gym to explore their physicality is an example of this. This is how boys learn.

- Find times to have the grade 4/5ís line up in a line less. They can be self-governed at age 10 and 11 if we expect that of them. Treating them like they are in kindergarten so we can maintain unnatural level of control keeps them helpless and dependent.

- Teach in such a way that the student must discover first. Our students are trained to do the opposite so this would be a painful process. For example: Rather than teaching students how to do long division first, I could have them try to come up with a system of division first and then teach the lesson. Or even begin math class having the students read their text and figure out how to do long division via the instructions in the text. The goal would be to make the students less dependent on me to have to teach them how to do things, and more independent in their abilities to figure things out.

12. Get a hill built on our playground so the kids can play on it in both the winter and spring and fall. Hills provide tons of play and hours of fun ñ which in turn, of course, will effect their affect as they jump back into classes.

13. Plant some trees and build a rock garden and make a forested area in our playground. This could include mud and we could nurture a small ecosystem with frogs and bugs. Yes this would mean that kids would come into the school muddy. Yes, this would mean the janitors or us teachers or the students would have to do a bit more clean up. The pay off according to Richard Louv is well worth it as time in nature develops creativity, balance, agility and fitness.

14. Medicate last. See Boys Adrift for the stats on how most of the students on ADHD medication are boys. He suggests that most of the boys donít actually have ADHD. The meds would help any student with or without ADHD to focus better. We need to be more cognizant of where boys are developmentally and maybe they arenít ready to sit in a desk to learn to read and write yet.

15. Use the fine arts more more more. The more I read on integration of drama in the arts the more I understand the absolute necessity of having the arts and engaging the right brain in our classrooms. As Sir Ken Robinson suggests ñ it is the arts that develop creativity and creativity is going to be the necessary skill these students need 30 years from now.

16. Find a time to do practice meditational prayer for 12min. per day as a class or as a school. See How God Changes your Brain for details. In a nutshell, students will increase their retention levels by 10% at 12 min./day. This in addition to the relaxation effects it has on those students who come to school with high anxiety.

17. Inculturate Catholicity. Pope Benedict XVI as Cardinal wrote a book Truth or Tolerance. He discusses in here how to make the Christian message stick with this generation. We no longer live in a Catholic culture, but a highly sexualized, highly technological, highly materialistic, highly morally relativistic society. The first step in helping our students live authentic Catholic lives in this society is of course to present them with the truth as given to the Catholic Church via Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. (This assumes that we as teachers are knowledgeable enough to do this). This of course is not enough. We then actualize the faith. We must make the Catholic faith applicable to their lives. Then we must inculturate the faith. We must develop a Catholic culture. Their faith must become cultural, a part of their every day lives. Habitual. Ritual. Then faith can become permanent. See the Pontifical Biblical Commissionís The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church for an entire section on actualizing and inculturating.

18. Pray. Protestant private schools get together in the morning before school and have a devotional time. Gateway is an example. Each staff takes a turn taking a passage of scripture and giving the staff a little something to meditate on. Then the staff prays together for the students in their school. Change in our students begins with prayer.

I will end here. Prayer seems like an appropriate place to finish off this short dissertation. These are some possible answers, and with much discussion we can come up with many answers to help us develop students into seekers, leaders, ethical individuals, authentic Catholics, and communicators. We can find ways to work within a system that by its nature has been making students consumers, helpless, and dummied down. Change takes work. Guts. Passion. Compassion. We can do it.

Sincerely and respectfully,

Jerry Maguire

Kenton E. Biffert MEd


  1. Is this the Kenton Biffert who was President of SARDC a few years ago?

  2. Lovely thoughts: keep pushing them all, so that some will see their day in the system.

    I would like to suggest one more:

    Expect more from students, don't be satisfied with minimum achievements.
    My students often say "I have tried my best", and then I show them that they haven't. Were they lying? NO, they do not know how far they can go because they are not pushed to their true limit. Of course this is not possible when fear of failing is behind everything they do academically. So push them, let them fall and help them up and push them again, until they can stand on their own. This may also have the additional benefit of making them learn how to deal with the temporary failures that are part of life and that can look so permanent to them when they do not know how to handle them.

    Just a thought.

  3. I don't know if he was.

    You make a great point Roberto. I believe that traditional grading pratices have a hand in motivating students to a point. I have heard students even say "Now that I have over an 80%, I can stop trying".

    I wonder what education would look like if we didn't have any grades at all and were required to answer only the question of "Will this student be successful at the next level?"?

  4. "And this leads to my third thought on education: are kids really dumber than they were 100 years ago or are we dumbing them down? Yikes. Crazy question. I read recently in John Taylor Gattoís book Weapons of Mass Instruction that 130 years ago grade 5 students were studying Shakesphere. That prior to WWI the literacy rate in the US was 98%. This was before compulsory schooling was forced (sometimes at gunpoint) on the common people. Over the next six decades the literacy rate fell to 73% (mid 70ís) and rose back up to 83% (2004) for whites and 60% for blacks. Literacy in this case was a proficient grade 4 reading level. Hmmm… one would think that with the astronomical amount of money poured into this schooling system to teach kids that weíd see an increase. Maybe the compulsory schooling, curriculum, and modes of learning kill initiative… "

    I have done quite a bit of research on the notions in this paragraph and the simple fact is that very few kids went to school that long ago and many of the ones that did, did so sporadically. And High School didn't kick in, except for the kids heading toward the few colleges, until the 1920's and it wasn't till after WWII that it really became universal. Then we have the civil rights changes in the 60's and 70's. There is no way that literacy was higher 100 years ago or even 50 years ago than today. No way in hell. If the 98% figure is accurate then it could only apply to the minority of students in school, and I don't even then believe this to be accurate in that context because absenteeism was rampant. I suggest that if you want to go back in time and look at education then, then search for educational journals and superintendent reports on schools in google books or archive.org and you will see that until we were well into the 1900's, this was a very unschooled nation.

    I agree with the author that compulsory education is a culprit, but not for the reason he suggests. Naturally schools did better when the only students there were students that wanted to be there or students with parents wanting them to be there. Although, that doesn't mean I am against compulsory education, only that it is what it is. As more and more students were included in the rolls, the averages IN SCHOOL could do nothing but decrease. However, if you could have done an average of ALL children then versus ALL children now, you would find that the real literacy rate has increased quite a bit, probably from the 20% to 30% level to what we see today.

    Bob Hansen

  5. Dave:
    I would even ask "Has this student internalized the ideas of this level AT this level?"

    I find that motivating a student to learn something because it is needed at the next level is very difficult and maybe even counterproductive. What if the student uses this rationale to decide NOT to go on to the next level? I have seen that happen.

    Mind you, I realize that you are not advocating preparation for the next level as the main motivator for assessment, but I though I'd clarify that.

    I was not convinced by that argument either, but I had no knowledge basis for an objection. I am glad to provided evidence for it. Your thoughts also bring up another important issues.

    Because of the democritization (is that a word?) of education, we need to realize and accept the fact that we cannot achieve stellar AVERAGE results. That's OK to me, as long as me achieve the maximum possible for each student. Competitivity (is that a word?) will then take over and do the rest.