For decades we have been trying to push a cart with the nose of a horse.
The horse is strength, freedom, individuality, and desire to run unfettered – to take an idea and explore it to its logical end, to self-direct, to be free to empower your own discovery and as such your own education. The horse wants to run, and it can pull a sizable cart while doing so.
The cart is full of essentials, the basics we need – computational fluency, reading skills, order of operations, definitions of literary elements so that we may speak intelligently about these ideas – all of the standards.
Yes, the standards are in the cart – all of those important, testable, measurable aspects of education are NOT the horse – they are the cart. We are putting them first – we have been for decades…that used to work just fine when creativity and innovation were not such significant aspects of our culture. But now, we have a lot of disgruntled horses with sore noses, many of whom would rather just stop pushing the cart forward. Many of whom have given up because they are tired and see no point. The horses who are still moving forward, those obedient and unquestioning horses strong enough to push on, are moving at a standardized pace that we set for them. They could be moving much faster, could be flying – pulling their testables and measurables in the cart behind them – using them as needed. The top 5% of students who land in “gifted” programs have successfully pushed their carts fast enough that they get to fly, despite the order of things, but even they could have gone much further with more purpose – if allowed to do so they would have.
This feels stifling to young humans. They have zeal for learning and spirit for life when they enter school, then slowly their zeal is stamped out. They know no better. They don’t question the system until they are much older, but already tired of pushing their cart without realizing it should be pulled. Despondency is the result. We have millions of brilliant and creative minds who are just playing along, going through the standards – not knowing that they are capable of much more.
The concept that each of our students must fit into a desired outcome or reach a designated level at a specific point in time is terribly flawed. Instead of serving their purpose, standards and benchmarks have become an entity we serve at all costs. We pour resources into the students who fall below these benchmarks; we create special programs for the ones who rise above them. We are so intently focused on these outcomes, that we have ignored the well known and solid educational practices of differentiation, individualization and student centered approaches – best practices. You will not meet a knowledgeable teacher in this country who disagrees that current best practices are the best ways to reach and teach children. However, our traditional educational culture of standard based sameness is not conducive to their success, nor is it convenient to implement them within our current rigid paradigms.
Intrinsic motivation is all one needs to pack the cart full of important information. Orsch has beautiful horses flying toward uncharted destinations and new territories.
To Require Proficiency is Counterproductive
In an attempt to standardize, leave no child behind, and reach rigid benchmarks, traditional public education introduces detrimental elements into a child’s school life. Because schools and districts are under immense pressure to show that their students are proficient, the typical American classroom requires proficiency from each child at a specific date in his development. Kindergartners are pressured to read sight words. Third graders’ math facts are tested with a timer. Students are subjected to uninteresting reading passages in an effort to increase fluency scores.
Among other risks, attempts to require proficiency can easily lead to a student’s lack of confidence, lack of desire to learn, lack of interest in subject matter and diminished thinking skills – in short, rigid requirements can crush aptitude and zeal.
Consider Annie. Annie is a precious little kindergartner. She loves to wear dresses over jeans and insists on wearing her pink cowboy boots every day. She has her own sense of style. She entered kindergarten self assured – confident in the personality and love in which she was raised. She loves books. She loves to be read to and immerses herself in the aesthetic delight of the pictures. The text makes no sense to her. It seems a strange language, mixed up and confusing. She understands that grown-ups know how to derive meaning from those funny looking symbols, but has no interest in figuring them out. At home she pours through books absorbed in the story told picture by picture. At home her parents read to her; it is her favorite moment of the day – complete joy. Kindergarten started out well enough –everyone was happy – songs were sung to begin the day – coloring felt good – show and tell was fun – recess was a whole new world of friends and laughter. But then the pressure started. Flash cards full of arbitrary letters are presented to her but she does not understand them. She feels frustration from her teachers. She is trying but cannot understand how all of this goes together. She cannot always remember the sound a letter makes. She doesn’t always recognize the combination of the letters that are supposed to represent a word. When she opens a book she is no longer allowed to absorb herself in the pictures, but must point to clusters of unfamiliar symbols. She begins to feel differently about books. She is sad about it. They are no longer joyful, but are a reminder that she is not good at this sort of thing. She sees her peers grasp these concepts but feels frozen in fear that she will answer incorrectly, so she guesses – her fears are confirmed. She begins to lose confidence. Her peers begin to lose respect for her as they see their teacher grow frustrated. They begin to see her as dumb and she can feel this. Later in the school year she is whisked off to another classroom for reading – an intervention specialist again attempts to hammer sight words in with no context. It should work this time because the student/teacher ratio is smaller – the district has spent money on an interventionist to solve this problem.
Annie does eventually learn to read, but doesn’t love books. She did not develop an understanding of stories as they had originally presented themselves to her. Even though her preschool years prepared her well, in kindergarten she was not nurtured to develop a strong connection with a book’s characters. Books are a requirement. Books are no longer a peaceful, pleasant story to her, but are now something she gets through to satisfy teachers. By second grade students begin commenting on her cowboy boots – they adhere to sameness as they have been inadvertently taught to do. Annie is forever changed. A child who came into her school career a budding, creative lover of literature is now unknowingly going through the motions, questioning her intelligence, lacking confidence. But Annie doesn’t know any better. She is too young to question the grown-ups. She doesn’t lament her lack of self…yet. She is relieved that she can finally read even though she is in special classes and even though it is hard – at least she has passed the test. That is what her education wants of Annie – at least she has passed the test. She has a safe pair of sneakers now too.
If Annie had been allowed to learn to read within her own aptitude, without fear, perhaps with a more creative approach – if she had been allowed to develop within a supportive environment she would not only be a proficient reader, but she would have retained a love for literature. But traditional public education is not patient enough; it too is fearful of not meeting its own benchmarks.
Hans came to Orsch after a year of high pressure kindergarten. He still fears those letter combinations meant to represent a word, but he is making progress. He has been in our program for just over a year now. He finally shows an interest in books. He finally doesn’t shout out, “I hate reading”. He now participates in letter bingo and word games. Because no one is forcing him out of his confidence zone, he is beginning to see that written words and letters are potentially a fun thing to know. He will learn to read; there is no doubt. And he won’t have any fear or hatred toward literature when he gets there.
Harold is a strong willed, very smart kid. He came to our school because he feared timed math facts tests. His fear was crippling. His disdain for this element of his day was flooding over into other aspects of his learning. He can calculate just fine, but cannot do it under the pressure of a timer. His school would not bend; they would not accommodate or consider that he may be able to learn higher level math despite the fact that he can’t seem to get 100 facts correct within two minutes. Their benchmark is set. Therefore, Harold must need remediation, homework, meetings with parents. I cannot understand this logic. One conversation with Harold reveals that he is too scared to think in this situation. He knows his facts, but cannot present his knowledge in the manner that is required by the school. Would the real world require this presentation of his skills? Is this method of presentation really a skill he needs to become successful?
Such situations illustrate that traditional public education is concerned with benchmarks over what will actually teach a child, concerned with scores over finding out what will enhance a child’s educational experience.
To force proficiency is a fallacy and is counterproductive to authentic education. Introducing doubt and frustration into the mind of a kindergartner will undoubtedly hinder confidence. She will then lose belief in her ability to learn other skills and gain knowledge. Furthermore, when specific proficiency is required, students can easily lose their desire to learn as well as lose interest in given subject matter. Although learning is naturally enjoyable, it becomes mundane and uninteresting when it is forced; deep learning requires that content carries meaning to the learner (Sousa, 2006). Thinking skills develop in young minds through exploration and experience which takes patience – each learner requiring a different timeline.
If we truly want proficiency we must be willing to allow it; we cannot force it. We must be willing to be creative in our approaches and assessments. We must be willing to trust that children are capable, able to be proficient within their own timeline and within their own style. Rigid requirements are largely to blame for lack of proficiency.