Monday, December 20, 2010

"Ban Fiction"

Grant Wiggins is someone in the education field whom I usually admire. I've seen him speak numerous times, I like the book he wrote with Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, and during my years with Big Education Company, I trained my curriculum team to write according to his principles.

So it was a bit of a shock to see a friend post the quote "Ban Fiction from the Curriculum" on LinkedIn today, attributed to Wiggins. It sounded unusally stupid and thoughtless. And, not too surprisingly, when you check out the larger context within which he made that statement, you find that his thoughts are, as usual, thoughtful.


I think it's still a bit extreme to say "ban fiction" or even "ban most fiction," just because most boys seem to dislike most of it. I think the important point here, relevant to the arguments Wiggins usually makes, is that fiction becomes dreary at best and useless at worst when taught by itself, for itself, as though it were an Absolute Good (art for art's sake). That may be fine in an MFA or PhD program, but kids by and large do not see ANY academic subject or sub-subject as an Absolute Good in and of itself.

Kids have real-life, real-world concerns, and we do a poor job, in education, of validating them through the curriculum. Instead, we take obvious labels and design towards those. "Oh, you're a Puerto Rican girl? Okay, here's a book about Puerto Rican girls." When I was forced to teach such a book to such a population, I came close to having the book thrown back at my face. "Mister!" one girl wailed, "I don't need to read my freakin' diary in school."

The whole point of fiction is supposed to be to allow you to explore different worlds, different times, and different kinds of people. But we don't do that out of mere curiosity; we do that to learn something about people, or the world, or ourselves.

So why isn't the English curriculum tied to anything? That's the important question here--not whether or not what the kids read is 54% fiction. Why are we putting students through a literature curriculum instead of a life curriculum? Why can't middle and high school students explore genres of writing from and about important periods of history while studying those periods? For that matter, why can't students learn the history of art and music, and have the chance to play with artistic media and musical instruments of particular times and places, while studying those times and places? Why can't we, now, finally, in the 21st century, stop fracturing the world into arbitrary and nonsensical shards of life for study, and allow students to come at the world in all of its variety and complexity, looking at important themes or questions from different points of view and through different lenses?

When we make everything a "studio" art, studied off in its own corner and taught lovingly by an expert who believes that the only way to approach the art is to learn it as a lover and life-long practitioner, of course we turn off tons of people. And worse, we give the philistines all the ammunition they need to cut the arts (and, soon, literature) out of our schools. They're frills. They're not "core." They can go without harming "the important stuff."

The arts (and let's be honest and admit that literature is one of the arts, and is a completely different subject for study than English grammar, rhetoric, or writing) are either central to our understanding of life, with tendrils and connections snaking out to history, philosophy, math, and science, or they are, like the philistines say, a frill--a silly thing--a "womanish" thing, not to be taken seriously.

Wiggins is right. It's not necessary for any American student to study or understand 1984 or Lord of the Flies. But it is absolutely necessary for American students to study and understand power and its relation to individual freedom. And a true understanding of that issue can be informed not only by a study of history, philosophy, and psychology, but also by a close reading of literature, both fiction and non-fiction. There are things to be learned by Orwell that you will not learn in your Civics class. For that matter, there are things to be learned by looking at "Guernica" that you simply will not get from a textbook. Important things. But if you're 16 or 17, the most essential thing to talk about isn't, "what an interesting metaphor" or, "look at how he draws those horses."

With all of the tools at their disposal, why must our schools focus on trivia and ignore the world that our teenagers are so hungry to talk about and learn about?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"School is Where You Learn"?

Over the past week, my older son, age 10, has been teaching himself how to make stop-motion animated videos. He was inspired partly by repeated viewings of Wallace & Gromit movies, and partly by a series of LEGO-based science-fiction movies made by amateurs and posted on YouTube. He started making his own LEGO movies and then decided to move into Claymation.

How did he learn how to do this? By watching more YouTube videos. He studied animated clips, and he found how-to videos, and he watched them patiently, repeatedly, stepping away from the computer between viewings to experiment on his own, with clay and a video camera. He's getting very good, very quickly.

Last year, we took him and his little brother to the local Air Force base to see an exhibition of planes and fancy flying. I bought him a souvenir model of an F-16. On the way home, he asked me question after question about the F-16. All I knew about it was that it had cost me 10 dollars. So he took my wife's I-Phone, and in the 20 minutes it took to get home, he taught himself everything he wanted to know about that plane, using Wikipedia, YouTube, and a few other sites.

What would I have had to do, at age 10, to learn about F-16s? I would have had to go, physically, to my local library. Or I would have had to go, physically, to my school library. Or I would have had to go to my basement, to check out the 20-year old World Book Encyclopedia that my parents had inherited from someone. Information and expertise lived in clear, discrete places, and you had to go to them to get what you wanted. That's why those places existed--to centralize the information and expertise, so that any people could have access to them. That was the democratic principle in action, because in earlier times and other cultures, only the very wealthy had access to information and expertise. They built libraries and brought tutors into their homes for their children.

Now, today, information is in the air, accessible by anyone, anywhere, at any time. And expertise is likewise being uploaded into the air, through video demonstrations and lectures, podcasts, lesson plans, and so on. You can learn how to knit. You can learn how to draw. You can learn how to factor quadratic equations. If you want information, it's there for the taking. If you want to develop a skill, some form of tutoring is there for the modeling.

So, if all this is true, and our 10-year olds are already comfortable living in this world, what is the future of the school building? What is it for?

In other words, if I don't have to sit all day in a prison-like building, moving herd-like from room to room to be talked at in groups of 30 by a succession of lecturers who care more about my obedience than my learning, why should I?

Take a look at this article by a former homeschooler, about "boredom" and his association of boredom with school learning. It reminds me very much of a chapter from John Taylor Gatto's "Dumbing us Down," in which he talks about growing up out in the country, and how he learned many things about life, nature, auto mechanics, and other things just from knocking around on his own--unscheduled, unschooled, and free to pursue his own, Tom-Sawyer-ish curiosity.

Back when Gatto wrote the book, the choices were stark: play by the rules or walk away; go to school like everyone else, or opt out entirely. Now, though, it doesn't have to be quite so either/or. There are more and more "blended" learning models being built and experimented with, combining live, on-site instruction with the use of online learning. Here is just one example.

On the one hand, this is all fascinating from a theoretical viewpoint. It's interesting to see where it's all going.

On the other hand, though, what does it mean right now, today, when I look at my 10-year old and hear, from his 5th grade teacher, that he is daydreamy and distracted, that he jumps ahead of the class conceptually in some areas but lags behind the group in fact-gathering, in other areas? How do I reconcile the child who can't/won't get his work done in school with the autodidact who is rapidly and effectively self-educating in areas of interest to him? How much conforming-to-the-norm should I have to force him into, for his own sake, if that norm is rapidly eroding...but not yet gone?