Thursday, March 18, 2010

Could I Just See the Top of the Box, Please?!

I just jumped through educational hoop #86 (of about 121) bringing me one step closer to clearing my teaching credential, which will enable me to teach in California for my whole life, no strings attached (except for my annual monetary "support" of our fine department of credentialing). Hoop #86 is really a series of little hoops arranged throughout a full day of professional development with other educators from the surrounding districts.

First thing this morning one of the "Facilitators of Professional Development" brought us to the first page of our educator's resource packet: "Effectively Implementing Teaching Strategies," which had a list of characteristics of good teaching. Smack dab in the middle of the page it read "No wrong answers."

Now I wish I could assure you that "No wrong answers" was a short-hand way of writing, "If the students aren't spouting a stream of wrong answers then you're probably doing a good job teaching," but I can't. Because the facilitator made it quite clear that a good teacher tells students that there are never any wrong answers. Unless of course you're teaching math, because some committee of big-wigs somewhere decided that the laws of logic apply in math, and math only.

The sole purpose of education is to promote human flourishing. I don't know many people who would disagree with this; everyone seems to understand there is more to life than survival of the fittest--we all crave something more than just existence. The problem is an educational committee somewhere decided that the only right thing to teach our students is that there is no right, and certainly no wrong, because morality (and ultimately, reality) is relative to the individual. So the state tells educators to teach students that there is no objective system of morality--there is no "right" or "good" way of living because human flourishing looks different for different people. And then the state mandates that we teach students that it is "good" to cooperate and share with others, manage and express emotions "appropriately", and that students can promote human flourishing by doing "good" things like showing consideration and concern for others, and being emotionally and mentally healthy. Students who do "wrong" things like cheat, fight, steal, and lie are punished and sometimes kicked out of the system, because their "bad" behavior might somehow disrupt the established system of standards within the school. In essence, we tell students there are no true, moral standards for living, and then force them to abide by our moral standards. And we wonder why 1 in 5 students drops out of high school, the students that stay in school are morally confused, and our nation is littered with communities that are far from flourishing.

When I was in high school I noticed a sign outside one of the main school entrances that read, "No drugs, alcohol, or weapons allowed on the premises." Armed security guards stood by the school entrances during school hours, and parents who wanted to come on campus had to beg, plead, fall on bended knee, fill out stacks of paperwork, and hand over their retirement to get clearance to visit their kid during lunch. My school made it clear they were going to do everything in their power to protect us. But if you were to spend a few days in the classrooms you would see movies with explicitly vulgar material, read books with inappropriate sexual content, and listen to teachers share raunchy stories about their weekend escapades. You'd also hear teachers espousing the potential their students have for increasing economic capital by contributing positively to the work force: students must do well in school so they can get a good job, so they can earn a lot of money. End of story. You may also hear students talking about other high schools that pay their students to graduate, teaching students that the reward for learning is not developing character, work ethic, integrity, or even the learning itself, but is the money you may get from somebody on the outside.

It didn't take me long to catch on that my high school viewed me as merely a body to protect, that my shell was worth protecting because it housed and was mysteriously related to my mind, and that my mind didn't need to be protected from filth and vulgarity, but needed to at least learn its potential for generating me and my country a lot of money. My school (and all state schools) reduced my humanity to a body with a money-making mind. That's it. Money and health were their key to human flourishing.[1]

It's no wonder our educational system is so ineffective: we tell kids there's no such thing as truth, there's no "good" and "bad", and then we reward them for being good and discipline them for being bad. We teach kids that they have a pretty terrific potential net worth, make sure they understand how "bad" drugs and alcohol are, and then pat them on the back and shoo them into the real world, calling after them, "Live fully and flourish, young person!" This is the philosophy that informs their living. This is the foundation upon which they build their lives.

We're not teaching kids how to be appropriately human. We're creating artifacts. We are carving, chipping, and shoving students' souls into a cookie cutter that some committee somewhere decided would shape our kids into a "good" product that our society can view, evaluate, and shuffle into the cycle of earning, spending, and earning some more money. Our goal of human flourishing is completely dependent on the biases of a far-off committee (sound tyrannical?), rather than being grounded in true reality.[2]

The final activity for my professional development day was to work in a group to put together a jigsaw puzzle using solid blue and yellow paper puzzle pieces with crudely cut edges. Each piece had an educational goal or teaching standard printed on it, with a specific strategy for accomplishing that goal. The finished puzzle was supposed to be the big picture of successful education. None of the six groups of teachers could finish the puzzle. One girl jokingly asked the facilitator, "Can we look at the puzzle box top?" I think she's onto something.

Educators are trying to fit together puzzle pieces to create a picture of human flourishing that informs the way we teach. But it's a daunting task and most of us aren't looking at the top of the puzzle box--we have no idea what human flourishing should look like. I think that's where the truth of God's word comes in: it's the top of the puzzle box. It paints a picture of the reality that humans are inherently valuable because we are created in the image of God with the ability to think, reason, imagine, and love. It describes the reality of the human condition, of God's involvement in history, and of the Truth that sets people free. It describes the abundant life that we receive when we place our faith in Christ, the life that renews our minds in knowledge, makes our hearts increasingly others-centered, gives eternal value to our bodies, and makes our learning purposeful and significant. It shows us how to live fully and flourish, the way God wants. It's the simplest solution, really: a look at the top of the puzzle box is exactly what educators need.

[1] One of my third grade teaching standards is to make students aware of their potential net worth. There are no third grade teaching standards about developing character and maintaining values. There can't be, because the state doesn't believe in an objective (and therefore universally teachable) system of values to promote character.

[2] C.S. Lewis develops this idea in his book The Abolition of Man.