Thursday, April 03, 2008

What They Don't Teach
in School

Actually, there's a whole lot of things that American education doesn't teach; where does one start? It's another broken piece of societal infrastructure that appears less interested in teaching our children how to think, than it is what to think. This mirrors the state of research; we're only interested in research that leads to new marketable products, not "basic research" into general principles with no immediate application.

What set off this rant is my daughter's second encounter with being assigned a 7th grade "group project." Several months ago, while studying Indians of New York State, she was partnered with two classmates to research and model an Iroquois village. The other two argued back and forth, goofed around, and the bottom line was, she did the bulk of the work herself. This has now reoccured in a new project, with two new partners, utilizing the ocean liner "Titanic" as a focus for developing schedules, menus, and manifests, all part of another NYS educational initiative on the use of documentation and source materials. The partners were (apparently) supposed to come up with some information that she was supposed to utilize in a "T-chart;" despite her reportedly "bugging" them for their contribution over the last two weeks, they have not delivered, and the project is due tomorrow.

Now, I chastised her for not learning (despite prior admonitions) that you cannot wait until the evening before the due date; we recently dealt with the fiasco of trying to produce pastries for her French class that were time-consuming and required material that we don't commonly stock! I emphasized that she should have let her teacher know that her "partners" were not keeping up their end of the project; but, exactly what was their end?? How was that decided? What were the expectations and time-frames?

I have tried to remain an involved partner in my daughter's education, and I have never heard any of the curricula including group-work and process. 'But, but, it's only the second year of junior high school!!' Yes, but the teachers are clearly expecting their charges to work together as if it is a natural, internal instinct. Why then do their sports coaches have to struggle to teach them how to function as a team? Haven't the teachers been required to read The Lord of the Flies?

I worked in middle-management in a human service agency for a number of years, and there are skill-sets that can be taught to promote creative group-think, filter ideas, organize, negotiate, assign, schedule, and reach conclusions. There are processes that can be labeled, printed on hand-outs and practiced, and they do not need to be cerebral, college-level theses. They can be plain, and practical, ready-to-use with your family, your church, club, or other civic organization.

But these skills need to be taught, and their practice, monitored and shaped. The teacher, as a good manager, needs to present the concepts, set up the initial groups, and guide the students in who does what, when, and establish time-frames for the operational steps to be completed. It isn't magic, it is learning a procedure and following the steps. Children, and adults, both; some will take to the process, and some will sigh and comply in a minimal fashion. Natural leaders and followers will emerge, sergeants and middle-manager will find their niches, and there will always be some dead-weight to deal with.

If we expect our society to work together and address its day-to-day problems, not just its crises, these sort of skills need to be taught just as surely as are basic math and language skills. They are necessary for the functioning of a democracy, otherwise we will revert to instinctual, dog-eat-dog, survival of the strongest, authoritarian structures.

... which, come to think about it, explains a lot. Hidden agendas, anyone?

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