There was a time when child development was considered an essential component of our nation’s educational system. Once Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Maria Montessori and later David Elkind and Howard Gardner were factored into how kids were taught. Today we look to Arne Duncan, Steve Jobs and the folks who oversee standardized testing for our educational cues. These changes have prompted an over reliance on testing, as well as a proliferation of technology. Because of these modifications we are beginning to see the erosion of interpersonal/coping skills in our children.
Before going further it is imperative that I point out that there is a place for testing and technology. Testing used as a diagnostic measure has much merit. In addition, utilizing tests as a way to guide us towards future directions is essential. However, when standardized tests are used as the sole or primary indicators determining the success or failure of teachers and schools this is heavy handed. It is also unfair and not fully reflective of subject mastery. Again, standardized tests have a place, but weighing them equally with four years of academic rigor minimizes the efforts of teachers. The day-to day-hard work of students is minimized as well.
As for technology, it goes without saying that being adroit with computers is something that most folk need to be these days. However, an over reliance on technology can lead to a reduction in the amount of time young people communicate with each other face to face, as well as, their working together in teams.
Brainstorming, problem solving, character development and working cooperatively will all play secondary roles. Embracing technology is vital as our schools advance into the century. It brings a world of ideas to each student in an instant. However, a balance must be struck where young learners can work and socialize with each other in person. Aristotle once said that man is a Social Animal. Rather than moving away from the social dynamics of education we should be reinforcing them. Getting along, working together and accepting diverse ideas are important facets of learning.
Name me a parent, teacher or student who would advocate for an educational system that produces a group of learners who can’t work together. Name me a school district that openly advocates alienating its students from others. Balance, Balance, Balance. When do we find the time to promote those skills that enhance the ability of kids to navigate through their social dynamics/concerns? When do we recognize the fact that young people are much more than receptacles to be filled with information?
Keeping with the technology motif for a moment, Walter Isaacson’s book detailing the life of Steve Jobs contains an interesting statement from the man behind Apple and Pixar. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say Wow and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
Jobs would continue discussing how he created the Pixar building which encouraged collaboration. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,’ he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” Computers might be a great tool – but creativity was served best face-to-face.
So why are we going against Developmental Psychology and even Steve Jobs? Maybe it’s because tests produce raw data that can be interpreted as success (or failure). Maybe it’s because technology has that ‘advancement into the future’ smell to it. It’s exciting and ever changing. Smart Boards, iPads, laptops and so on are great – but nothing can replace the student/teacher connection. The way we’re going education is heading towards a Dilbert episode with kids being taught in cubicles. Now that’s a future worth ‘Racing to the Top’ of.
There was once a time when children were viewed as mini-adults (see Industrial Revolution). During this time they often worked long hours in factories or else were asked to crawl down chimneys to clean them out. While we certainly haven’t placed our kids in those situations, we have created dynamics where the phases of child development are ignored and kids are ‘hurried’ to get ahead. In that way we have begun to reduce education to a ‘test factory’ model. Don’t believe me? Check out what happens to schools that don’t test well. In fact, check out what is beginning to happen to kids who don’t test well. “Please sir, I want some more.” Something like this could ‘scare the dickens’ out of someone.
To reiterate, it is obvious that we haven’t created Industrial Revolution type conditions for kids, but, minimizing growth and development does have consequences. An increasing number of young people are being treated for stress disorders, anxiety and depression.
Not all of this can be blamed on how we teach children. Other societal issues need to be looked at as well. (parenting, pace of life, cultural norms, over prescription of meds, etc.) But, when we over–adultize a child’s world that’s not always good. Adults who protect, guide and serve as role models are necessary. Discipline (as opposed to punishment) is another valuable offering adults can make. This helps to teach kids how to use their skills. Problems arise when adults get in the way of development. When ‘free play’ is truncated and fun is put on the back burner things like ‘multiple intelligences’ are but a whimsical notion.
Within all of this is still room for fun (recess), working in teams, lively discussions and some hands on learning other than the computer. Prescriptive learning may offer some basics, but over prescription gets in the way of exploration.
Some will argue that in order to keep up with the rest of the world we have to promote testing and technology. Many will say that we must prepare our kids for their careers and therefore they must be good test takers and users of technology. For sure, keeping up with the world and getting jobs are important, but what of social skills, critical thinking and the ability to articulate points of view face-to-face with others? Don’t these items lead to success as well. Testing and technology have their places – but they should not be the sacred cows of education. We’d be better served if they were viewed as tools to augment education than as the goals of education.
There are those who have benefited from these changes. School Districts that can keep up with technology costs and test well are considered successes. Districts that test poorly and cannot pay for ‘educational advancements’ wind up being cited or threatened with State Oversite/Intervention. Such is progress–the rich get richer and the poor get taken over. Check out the 2012 RI’s Kids Count Facebook if you need further evidence as to how finances impact education. On the bright side, it looks as though RI is creating the greatest set of ‘receivers’ since Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. All of this is another article for another point in time.
We’ve put people on the moon, cured many illnesses, created technologies that allow for instant communications around the world and yet we still are plagued by things that keep us apart. Emotionally we are not much different from the ancients. Perhaps the real reforms we are looking for should come in the arena(s) of who we are and how we relate with others. Advances in science and technology have taken us from caves to the stars. Continued advancements in how we relate will make the journey more meaningful. Remember, the folks at ENRON were once ‘the smartest guys in the room’. Being smart and using your smarts to benefit the world are two different things. Till next time.
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