A Look Back, A Spotlight on Education

A Look Back, A Spotlight on Education

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My Eighth grade English teacher walked around the classroom, in a daily ritual, glancing over pages of circled letters, occasionally muttering, "turn", in an exhausted, apathetic tone. Many of my classmates used the time she had allotted for "checking homework" to socialize, while others frantically fumbled for a pencil, asked for a neighbor’s workbook, circled, underlined, and copied while occasionally lifting their heads up to see how far down the rows she had gotten and how close she was getting to them. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard to copy another student’s homework. We had already been in this "orange vocabulary book" system for two years by the time we were in the eighth grade. The workbook called for no originality or unique thought, so all of our little workbooks were expected to look exactly alike, all the same a’s circled, the same words underlined. It was possible that on any given weeknight, ten out of the twenty-five students in class would actually bother to do the assigned vocabulary homework. A few of us would copy a friend’s answer a little before, or even during class. There were still a few students that wouldn’t even put in that much effort into the English class, and would readily take the "zero" in the grade-book for the day. After the all-important "homework checking ritual" was through with, we all reluctantly opened up the vocabulary books for the "checking the answer" ritual. Starting with the front right corner of the classroom, students began reading off answers, letters and words, and nothing else, one after another, being occasionally corrected, and fed the right answer.

I can’t say I learned too much from this vocabulary practice. I sat in my desk, looking at the clock mounted on the wall, listening to a random letters and words, with no other connotation, explanation, or implication of them, occasionally checking to see how far along the line we had gotten so that I would be able to answer promptly when it was my turn. For my teacher, however, vocabulary practice time seemed like the best part of the school day, next to her lunch break. She really didn’t choose to put much effort into the practices at all. The students didn’t protest, of course. It was an easy part of the day for us too. The vocabulary quizzes, did make up a big part of our grade in the class, as the vocabulary practices did take up a great deal of class time.

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I always managed to do well on the quizzes. I looked up the list of twenty vocabulary words the night before the quiz and drilled them into my brain, having my mom quiz me after I was done studying. Unfortunately, many of my classmates did not do as well, a few of them looking at the words on the quiz as if they had seen them for the first time. They were just slackers. It was their fault for being so "dumb". No one in the eighth grade stopped to think that teaching technique had anything to do with learning at all. I look back on my experiences throughout my educational career in the public school system now, and realize that teaching technique plays a gigantic role in a student’s learning, fulfillment from education, and self esteem.

The answer to a few of the educational lapses portrayed in this educational memory lie in gearing learning towards a critical thinking style. Socrates, as one of the intellectual roots of the Critical Thinking Theory, "established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief. He established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well." (Criticalthinking.org) Paulo Freire, one of the most influential thinkers on education in the twentieth century, advocate of the critical thinking method, and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, among other publications, would passionately attack the teaching methods described in the anecdote above. The situation described above is a prime example of students being treated as "receptacles" or "containers" of knowledge, as Freire would call them. Such methods, adopted by more than one of my educators, in the teaching of vocabulary alone, leave absolutely no room for the critical thought, student involvement, or probing that is stressed in the Critical Thinking method. In this way, students are taught to take for granted what the teacher supplies them in the form of information, without questioning or being involved in the gathering, or analysis of any of the knowledge. This lesson can be a harmful lesson to teach to a child at a young age, for the student may never be able to think at an efficient critical level. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere stresses the importance of dialogue in the classroom. Teachers have to work with the students and not for them in order to avoid what Freire would describe as a banking system. In this unproductive system, the educator simply makes "deposits" into the student.

In another not-so-fond memory of my educational experience, I recall an eleventh grade English class in which the focus was on student writing, both creative and analytic. We were going to leave the class as better writers. This was made very clear to us on the first day of class when the curriculum was discussed. Sadly, writing isn’t something we did much of in class at all. Instead, our teacher chose to gear the honors English class towards learning the necessary "skills" to pass an examination in order to be placed into AP English our senior year in high school. Although we wrote a few pieces, all of which were analytical, and none creative, because that is the type of writing we were going to be exposed to in AP English, we mostly memorized "key literary terms" such as "personification", "stream of consciousness", and my personal favorite, "onomatopoeia". We were given exercises where we had to find examples of those terms, amongst others, in small pieces of writing. Frustrated, and so extremely bored with an all too familiar exercise, we looked for examples, searching the paragraphs, as one searches a word puzzle for that very last, annoying word you need to find, not understanding any of what the author of the sample was trying to say, and not expected to. The teacher would then tell us where the literary techniques were used, and the basic reasons why the particular lines chosen exemplified the technique in question. I yawned, and waited, all too familiar with how slowly time seemed to pass in that class. We became experts at spotting metaphors, personifications, similes, and alliterations. However, we honestly never created any of our own that school year, because we were never assigned a single piece of poetry to write. We were tested in the form of the impersonal scantron, fifty multiple choice, true or false questions: fill in the bubbles. No one ever complained. The tests were incredibly easy because we knew what to expect on them. Moreover, I did pass the short exam for AP English placement. Within my first week in the new AP class, I knew I could have used the actual writing practice. Writing was most definitely on the agenda in this class.

Besides being another example of a teacher filling a "receptacle" of knowledge, the scenario above also rings of a "narration sickness" in which the student-teacher relationship involves, "a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified." (Freire) As our teacher was "filling" us with knowledge, she was also completely boring us out of any interest we may have had left in the writing process which she herself stressed as the core of the class’s purpose.

Teaching methods such as my eleventh grade English teacher’s, involving the use of "key terms" to teach students concepts exemplify some of the possible horrors of a Core of Knowledge type of style of teaching, advocated by E.D.Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, and founder of the Core of Knowledge curriculum. There may be a problem where there is a set list of terms to be learned, such as the proposed list of what literate Americans should know, developed by Hirsch. Hirsch himself comments that he has been at work on a large explanation of "listings" which he is calling a "dictionary". (Hirsch 135) Key terms in such dictionaries of knowledge call for set definitions. In narrating the terms, teachers may easily make the mistake of spitting out predetermined and mind-numbing definitions, without making much of an impact on the students who are listening, and without calling for any involvement at all from the students. There is an impersonal sense that goes right along with the teaching of such terms. Teachers are lowered to the status of mere human dictionaries in a classroom situation like this.

Another consequence of such lackluster teaching styles of a selected few of my educators was a feeling of apathy, and underachievement by my classmates and I. We could sense how much effort our teachers were putting into teaching us. There were teachers who could never distinguish my handwriting from my neighbor’s because they had always given us scantrons to test what we learned in the classroom, even when perhaps an essay or short answer questions were more applicable. Scantrons are just easier to grade with a class of twenty students. There were teachers who, in a high school honors class would show students videos on hot summer days towards the end of the school year. What on earth did The Lion King have to do with a Spanish class? There were teachers that read almost directly out of the textbook, which we could have easily read ourselves, and assigned problems out of the same textbook for homework. They didn’t have us fooled. We knew exactly how much time they put into their lesson plans for that day. There were teachers who, because they did not keep up with the pace of the course, and had a great deal of material left over to cover before the finals, in a very short amount of time, would teach "key terms" right from the finals, instead of teaching concepts that we could have actually used in later classes. I have noticed that such teachers didn’t expect much of their students either. There was a mutual sense of "do what we gotta do and get outta here". They didn’t want to give us a hard time with grading and we didn’t want to question their teaching styles. As a result, we did our minimum, were pleased with the grades we received, and in most cases fell in love with the teachers that boosted our GPA’s. Everyone was happy. It was a win-win situation. However, our goals for ourselves were set lower, and our minds lacked stimulation.

In order to provide the desired stimulation for students, Modern Critical thinking theory calls for a drastic shift in where the responsibility lies in the learning process. Students have been conditioned to take for granted what they are taught by their educators. Modern students have also become lazy and spoiled because they have had to make no effort whatsoever in the process in which information is presented in the classroom. Lauren Elder, the author of quite a few articles in the Journal of Developmental Education, calls for students to step up and take responsibility for teaching themselves and their classmates through discussion and interaction with the class along with their traditional responsibility to learn the concepts taught in the classroom in her article, "Critical thinking: Why we must transform our teaching." In Elder’s definition, "Critical thinking is best understood as the ability of thinkers to take charge of their own thinking." Elder stresses that all students "develop sound criteria and standards for analyzing and assessing their own thinking and routinely use those criteria and standards to improve its quality." Such key involvment in the actual learning process allows students to utilize and practice their critical thinking skills instead of letting them waste away and makes room for constant self improvement. There is no room for innocent bystanders. All students must be involved. As a result, there is less of a possibility that students will become utterly uninterested or lost in the shuffle.

In a final anecdote of how a public school teacher helped determine my self worth as a student, we will revisit the dreadful college application period of my life. On of the most pain staking parts of a college application is running around, searching and begging for recommendations from leaders, employers, and teachers. Looking back, I felt I had done an excellent job in a sophomore year English class. I had put a great deal of effort, especially into a memorable, exciting, and original final presentation for the class. I was extremely proud of my grade in the class, and more so of the enthusiastic approval of my final project, which was one even my English teacher will not forget for years to come. Confidently, I asked my teacher, and by that time, good friend, to write me a recommendation for college applications. She could not refuse me. She asked me how many copies I needed and added that I could pick them up, signed, the next day if I needed to rush for any application. It turns out that this particular teacher was printing out generic college recommendations that year. I did, in fact, use the recommendation she provided me with. It gloriously praised my effort and achievement in class, just as it gloriously praised the achievement of basically any other student to that was fortunate enough to be in that her English class. It would have been quite impressive for the admissions officer to hear about the final English presentation that was never to be forgotten. How was I any different now? I was just another face in the crowd.

By implementing teaching styles that involve little enthusiasm, narration, or one-sided discussions, our teachers are doing today’s students more harm than good. They are promoting memorization, as opposed to critical thinking. On the other hand, what they aren’t promoting by using such tedious, lackluster teaching styles is enthusiasm for learning the topics covered in class, or a hunger for knowledge. By expecting students to regurgitate specific information provided to them by the teachers themselves, without discussion, explanation, or any question as to the validity of the knowledge being given, educators are dangerously gearing students away from any critical thinking processes. By making it evident how little some teachers care about what and how the students actually learn within the classroom, they are degrading the importance of learning in the minds of the students. Finally, and most tragically, by setting such low standards, and having surprisingly low expectations of students’ efforts and achievements, teachers are lowering students’ expectations of themselves. I would love to walk into that eighth grade English class now, and ask a student to read the vocabulary word along with the corresponding answer as well as the multiple choice letter. I would then ask her if she understands the meaning of the word, and can use it in context. I am confident that the student would then have a better chance of answering any test questions, corresponding at least to that one word she was asked to think about. She would know I cared.
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