Many of you have seen the newest Prince Ea video where he puts schools on trial because, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will go through its life believing it is stupid.” I would agree with many of the sentiments in this video: teachers are underpaid, educational bureaucracy is bloated, children are being institutionalized etc., But, the basic ‘fish’ metaphor is wrong headed, represents an outdated educational theory and is, ironically, what fuels our pursuit of a failed educational model.
You see, we are not fish.
Or monkeys, or elephants or cheetahs. We are not one-trick ponies with limited skill sets. We are human beings: capable of learning many things in many ways under diverse circumstances. If I was an eccentric millionaire who told you I’d give you 1 million dollars to learn calculus, I doubt any of you would pass it up. I doubt a single one of you would say: “Well, I’m a WORDSfish and couldn’t possibly understand what MATHgorillas do. You mock me sir and now I will wallow in the stupidity-funk you’ve put me in.”
You would go online. Maybe Kahn academy or wikipedia or any other number of places. Should I make you a list in case there are eccentric millionaires in your life? Maybe you’d go to a library, ask a librarian for some books on Calculus..for dummies. Maybe you’d whisper but, I’d guess that, for a million dollars, you’d shout it with a grin on your face. You would do this because you are a human and capable of learning a lot of things when they benefit you.
The majority of facts those nasty educational bureaucrats think your grade schoolers should learn, are facts you’d be embarrassed for not knowing. The types of questions, if you were asked and unable to answer, the questioner would wonder: “Don’t you have Siri on your phone?” The types of information Jimmy Kimmel scours the streets to find those who are ignorant of so he can poke fun.
And yet you whine when we, as educators, assume your child should know these things, even though he has a much more apt brain and the information is darn near everywhere. Your child is a fish after all. If he’s not good at math, he must be a GYMgiraffe, and I’m a fascist bully when I push him in math.
We educators are damned if we do or don’t. We are tasked with both official and idealistic goals for education even though these missions are contradictory. We are supposed to teach children a base of knowledge in a variety of subjects, morally obligated to mind their self-esteem if they don’t master that knowledge, supposed to inspire them in whatever pursuits they deem valuable and find, encourage, and guide whatever special skills they might have hiding inside themselves, and we must keep them safe and unchaotic in large numbers over a long period of time, with not enough human resources to do so reasonably. We are supposed to be fulfillers of test quotas, life coaches, lifeguards, innovators, custodians of missed things, peacemakers in prepubescent wars.
If we fail to see your child’s special talents, we are Fascists. If we fail to bring up test scores, we are ineffectual. If we miss an argument, a slip in the hall, a fight: we are Facebook checking clock-watchers. Truth is, we are being asked to do far too many things for far too many children (20-30 per class for 6-8 hours a day!) And it would be a lot more simple to disband the whole project.
Truth is: you don’t really need us.
All of what your child needs could be provided at home, through the internet, through your guidance, and through numerously available sets of standards for what children should know (don’t hate Common Core!) You could plop your child in front of a computer or a few books, tell them where to look, keep track of what they learned and the learning is done! But you need to work, to pay those bills, and that is the modern world we live in, so let’s deal with it.
Teachers are talked about in that same martyr-adoring tone that our society talks about soldiers: because we know that they are underpaid, over-utilized, and fighting in wars they ought not be fighting. So we give them that ‘God bless you’ pat on the back for compensating for our unwillingness, as a country, to fix its problems.
I’ll be honest with you.
Maybe 5% of teachers can do that magic that you expect but know is unreasonable. 5% of teachers can improve test scores, ensure mastery of all subjects, find the unique abilities in all of their 30 students and foster growth, teach emotional intelligence, social competence, make school into a unique, modern, dynamic, life-simulating experience etc.,
You want all of us to be able to do these things but you don’t want to admit that it’s unnatural: that the natural place for these things to happen is in the home and that, if they aren’t happening in the home, they won’t happen in school, no matter how many fish videos you create.
But we are here, and we’ve been developing systems, new ideas, standards–we’ve been courting and training compassionate, creative, knowledgeable professionals to accomplish all of these conflicting goals. So, when we teach to the test because you as a society know that your children should know multiplication, U.S. history, and how to write 3 sentences in a row: don’t beat up on us for being institutionalizers. And, when we want to live in the moment, be creative, follow the children: don’t beat up on us for being ineffective.
You want us, like chefs, to create the fine foods of a dozen different cuisines on a daily basis and you damn us when we turn to the blender. Then you damn us when your child hasn’t eaten Italian yet.
And you damn us when your children throw the food all over the walls of the restaurant because the taste is boring or they’re not hungry.
Education is simple. You don’t know something? Somebody tells you and you listen. You don’t know how to do something? Somebody trains you and you try. Teachers train to be good at this process and a whole lot of other things. And if we, as America, think education is failing (as though education were some abstract, ephemeral thing and not just a simple process) let’s just take a step back and decide what we really want.
Close all of the schools for a few months. What do you want your children to understand, be able to do, and become? What is reasonable to ask of any professional charged with accomplishing these goals? Figure that out and get back to us. We are ready and willing. We always have been.