Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Prussian military and beyond-American Education rant part two in a series of thousands

Back onto the education rant, the first part was about poverty and education.  The second part is about redefining what education looks like, acts like, and examining it's purpose.

To figure out what is wrong with education in the US one has to go back to the roots of public education.  The first Department of Education created in the US was in Massachusetts, the first Secretary of Education was Horace Mann, a lawyer and a Senator.  He had some great ideas (of course, this blog is biased) like universal education--every one, rich or poor, gets a basic education and it is funded by the local government.  Mann went to Prussia and gathered some ideas for public schooling, some ideas are good, some in the long term not so great.  

The Prussian system was set up because the nature of war was changing and they needed their troops to be able to understand some of the strategy.  They lost to Napoleon and they didn't want a repeat.  Battles were no longer of the face the enemy lined up in a field and run at them while blasting them with all you have  and if that fails use the bayonet type, they required more planning and the ability to adjust mid-stream.  The system also focused on creating a common experience for the students and to instill nationalism in the populace.  They wanted better soldiers.

Skipping back to the US, Mann came home and put some of what he learned in place.  

The idea was to create better citizens and consistency.  Some of this can be seen in the social studies textbooks of today.  Though these texts are somewhat better today for diversity, they are used to instill pride in the US, but they go about it by omitting many of the negative things that have been done in the name of the USA.  When I was doing my work study hours at the university where I received my teaching degree (MS) I met someone working in the next office who was working on his BS.  Three semesters in a row he enrolled in US History, he kept dropping it, not because he couldn't handle the material, but because the material was so negative and he "knew" that American history was glorious, because high school had taught him that was so.  He asked me why it was so negative, and I responded, "Because it is true, the high school textbooks are written to make Americans love their country, but that love is blind to the truth." He didn't know about many of the issues with slavery, Japanese internment camps, US intervention in South American and Middle Eastern countries' leadership or many of the other events that happened.  He had learned the white washed version, and in his early thirties he was learning new things, he felt he had been lied to.  It is still going on, look at some of the issues with the AP US History curriculum, they are still trying to push US exceptionalism.  The truth that we are fallible seems too much for some people.  Are we creating the thinking citizens that our republic needs?  I think not.


Mann started what were then called Normal Schools, teacher's colleges to improve the quality of teachers and to create the profession of teaching.  Before this time, anyone could call themselves a teacher and if they found someone to hire them, then they taught.  Some were good, some were great and the remainder collected a salary for a while.  Teacher's colleges are good things, I learned many really great things in my education program, but the one thing that they did not talk about is how you must check much of what you have learned at the school door because of "policy", "procedure", "new program", tradition, and the fact that most school decisions are made by  politicians (elected school boards - which are political training grounds - and policy makers inside the department of education) rather than by educators. Mann, a lawyer, the first education secretary, started that tradition.

Mann also introduced grade levels, age segregation within schools.  While there is some benefit, there are many drawbacks.  Children of the same age are not of the same ability.  There are certain windows of child development that need to be addressed, but throwing all the five year olds in the same room all day together with little contact with the older students misses many more opportunities.  Years ago, I conducted the readiness tests for kindergarteners.  Some could name one or two numbers, knew a couple of colors and no shapes, but would be the first to help another kid up when they fell, they had some of the soft skills needed that are not addressed much beyond the primary levels. Others came in reading or near reading, had extensive vocabularies, could put objects into a variety of categories and could do a bit of math.  Both the high achieving and the low achieving kids could have benefited from time with older kids, the low achieving (as defined by the tests given by the district) to see what older kids know and to strive for that, and to have the older kids benefit because to help teach someone a skill a person learns the skill to a greater degree in process.  

The high achievers benefit because there are people around who can understand what they are saying. I remember one tiny little kid, one of the youngest in his class with the reading vocabulary of a middle school kid, he'd bounce into the room all round faced and rosy cheeked in his Osh-Kosh-B'Gosh overalls, play in the house, build with blocks and talk about how he was going to be a surgeon when he grew up and why.  The other kids just smiled and nodded. (I wish I could remember his name, I'd love to see if he stayed on track, he could be a surgeon by now.)  He would have been able to go much farther had he had more exposure to a challenging curriculum with older children for at least part of the day.  The artistic children who don't draw the basic square house with the triangle roof and lollipop trees, but create crenelated edifices would benefit from exposure to others with similar abilities, but with more experience. I could go on and on, but anyone who has made it this far would give up on me.

Up until the public school system with grade levels was established children had much more exposure to adults and older children, so, out of the last ten thousand years or so since humans started living in larger villages/towns due to agriculture it is only in the last 175 years that we have isolated the children from the rest of society.  I think socializing children in a vacuum for most of the day is not a good idea, they need to meet and work with people of all ages, including the very old. (Putting all of the elders in one spot hidden from society is a whole connected, but at this moment digressive topic)


The work we give the children is meaningless, it really benefits no one.  Work instills pride and motivates.  Meaningless tasks assigned as an exercise induces the "why do we have to learn this?" whine.  I would love to have my kid have the chance to spend a few hours a week with someone who designs software for a living, because that is her interest at the moment and I would rather have her discover that it is or is not for her before we invest six figures in her post-secondary education.  She would also see how her mathematics and patterning abilities (first remarked upon at 4 months old) fit into her goals.  I would also like her to have exposure to musicians other than her regular teacher, he is wonderful, but he is but one of many different types of musicians.  I want her to use the mathematics that she has been taught, do something with it, rather than  just keep cranking out problems on notebook paper with little vision of their purpose.  I want her to use her math in art and music and music in her art and math.  I want her IRLA (integrated reading and language arts) class to read and write about science and history and math and art and...everything.  I want more adults with varied experiences (insurance agents, horticulturalists, waitresses, lawyers, plumbers etc.  maybe on the two days a month & two weeks a year model of the National Guard) in the classrooms and the kids to leave the classrooms regularly.  For many years we locked our children in windowless buildings (--a sarcastic-tone gets lost sometimes, insert here-- thank you to the designers of the late 50's through early '80's and the insurance companies who supported it) to teach them about the outside world.  Now many schools are now integrating windows back into their designs, but the windows face a blank and bland lawn or parking lot, and teach them nothing.


So in summary--tell the kids the truth, expose them to a greater variety of experiences, integrate them into the community, and give them some purpose.

The boxes that we trap curriculum and our students in limit the students and their potential contributions to society. We separate them from varied thoughts, varied people, and the world. So, are we seeking better soldiers or are we seeking a populace of citizens to wave our flag without understanding what it represents or ones who are ready for the future?

There are many more issues...are schools designed with children or adults in mind (are the children's needs met or is it just more convenient for adults), schools and property values, segregation by race and income...future rants,

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