07 November 2013

Child-centered education vs. adult-centered test

A few months back, I got into a conversation about the concept — and consequences — of child-centered education with a friend who teaches high school. Suffice it to say that neither of us is a particularly big fan of it, and the discussion was, for the most part, more cathartic than edifying, but halfway through the discussion, my friend commented that “child-centered” could be understood to mean that education is focused on the child’s needs (seemingly not a bad thing) but that it could also be understood to mean “education that is focused on being a child.”

That got my attention: as obvious as it seemed, I had never really considered that meaning before.

The word “education” means “to lead from” (Latin e = from + ducere = to lead). It contains a suggestion of movement — from ignorance to knowledge, and eventually from childhood to adulthood.

“To teach” is a transitive verb, which by definition requires two people — a leader must lead someone else — and it also implies a hierarchical relationship (in the best sense of the term) because a leader cannot be a leader without a follower. The very concept of child-driven education therefore strikes me as an oxymoron, not simply because it eliminates the student-teacher relationship that lies at the heart of the very concept of education, but also because children, being children, do not know what they do not know and thus cannot be expected to teach it to themselves.

That discussion came back to me as I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, a remarkable treatise/deconstruction/rant about the most pernicious beliefs on which the contemporary educational establishment is based. Christodoulou trained and teaches in the UK, but a lot of what she says is equally applicable to American schools. (Although the ideological basis for the antipathy toward direct instruction differs somewhat in the two countries, in practice it manifests itself in much the same ways, with equally atrocious results.) Christodoulou makes the point that when students do nothing but project-based group work, they are effectively restricted to topics already familiar to them because they have not actually been taught anything new. Moreover, when they attempt to research new topics without having the necessary background knowledge or the vocabulary to filter what information is relevant, accurate, etc., they end up either confused and frustrated or flat-out misinformed.

Christodoulou cites one student who, assigned to write a report on the life of Dickens, confused the author’s life with that of Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations — I realize that sounds impossible for anyone who hasn’t worked with with weak readers, but trust me, I’ve seen kids fall prey to similar types of confusion. After the first five or six times, I stopped getting surprised.

The end result is that schools, while attempting to teach students the skills they’ll need to succeed in the adult world, end up inadvertently short-circuting the entire educational process and keeping them children. And when it comes to Critical Reading, that is a very big problem indeed. Critical Reading, you see, is the epitome of an adult-centered test: it covers topics from global warming to creative writing programs to Pauline Kael. There is little, if anything, that is directly relevant to most eleventh graders’ lives. Which means that if a student’s exposure to the adult world has been limited — if their teachers have gone out of their way to make everything relevant to teenagers’ lives — they’re in for a rough ride when it comes to the SAT. Even when they understand what the words are literally saying, they can’t make sense out of them because the concepts are so foreign. They often end up ignoring the text entirely and reducing what they’ve read to a familiar idea (everyone is really the same inside, so can’t we all just get along? Actors should try to be more creative to express their characters more effectively!) instead of trying to understand what it’s actually saying.

There’s a passage in the Official Guide in which the playwright and actress Anna Deaveare Smith talks about the limits of the traditional, psychologically-oriented approach to acting, a method that asks actors to transform themselves into characters by relating the characters to themselves. As Smith points out, the result for acting students was that the characters behaved exactly like the actors — there was nothing to distinguish actor from character, and all of the characters sounded the same. That passage flawlessly describes the limits of an education that never requires students to get past themselves and deal with other people’s ideas on their own terms. The irony, of course, is that most students taking the SAT cannot make heads or tails of that passage, even though (or perhaps precisely because) they’ve spent their entire school careers in a system based on the very principles that Smith criticizes.

Recently, the mother of one of my students told me that when her son first started studying for the SAT, the test just seemed like another irritating hurdle to jump through, and one that would take time away from schoolwork at that. As he studied, though, she started to realize that preparing for the SAT was forcing him to read at a much higher level than anything he would have ever been asked to contend with in school. “If not for the SAT,” she told me, “they’d never get past elementary school.”

How many times have you heard the complaint that SAT passages are boring and pointless and irrelevant to everything else in the world? It’s a pretty familiar refrain, and I’ve even heard it from parents. As it true for most things about the SAT, however, it’s a matter of perspective: the reality is that people do in fact care about those topics — it’s just that those people are generally well past high-school age. True, some of the topics are relatively obscure by mainstream, pop-culture standards, but others are taken from best-sellers (fiction and non-fiction) read by thousands upon thousands of people. A kid who isn’t really aware of what goes on in the adult world is pretty unlikely to know that, however.

Being engaged with the adult world does not necessarily entail diligently reading, say, The Economist. When I was in high school, I read plenty of great literature, but I also read all sorts of trash. I had (and still have) a soft spot for detective novels and medical thrillers — books that probably won’t show up on any school’s reading list but that taught me a whole lot about the world beyond high school (as well as a surprising amount of vocabulary) and about the sorts of things that adults cared about. Those junky books no doubt gave me context for understanding debates about “esoteric” topics like global warming and the impact of personal biases on scientific policy, allowing me to quickly situate complexly worded passages in pre-existing “slots” and understand the big picture of what they were trying to say. No one would have ever recommended that I read Michael Crichton and Robin Cook to study for the SAT, but in their own way, they helped me just as much as Dostoyevsky did.

Look: high school juniors and seniors are not children. They’re getting ready to go off to college, where they’ll have to read lots of lots of different things, some of which will be interesting and others of which will not, and most of which will be written at or above the level of the SAT. They don’t get to cherry-pick the interesting bits, and they certainly can’t go to their professor and complain that an assigned book is dumb and about some weird topic that no one really cares about. And they can’t look it up on Sparknotes.com either. If nothing else, the SAT is preparation for that.

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