What Are We Really Teaching Them?

Every week my kindergartener brings home a new poem to read and do some literacy based homework with.

I don’t know about all of you – but the above sentence had me at “new poem to read every week” and then lost me at “literacy based homework”.

I want my daughter reading. And she does. A lot. She wakes up early almost every morning so that she can lie in bed and read a stack of books. If you dare to interrupt her during her reading time, she will roar at you. Not a friendly, funny kindergartener roar – no, a big, mean, get out or I’ll eat you roar.

So I love that she comes home with a new poem to read every week. And I’d love it if the “literacy based homework” was for her to read it out loud, think about it, ask some questions, do some interpretation. Synthesize and analyze. Maybe write her own poem in a similar style. Now I realize not all kindergarteners are there yet. But they could be. They could be being encouraged to think. Because really, that’s all that homework is – read, or have someone read to you, and think about it. Discuss.

In other words, learn.

But the homework my daughter gets isn’t about thinking. It’s about being busy. Showing that you’ve done something measurable.

Technically her poetry homework can be done without her ever even reading the poem.

“Letters to look for and frame: Vv, Ii, Ww, Dd, Mm, Pp, Rr, Jj, Tt” (There were more, but I got sick of typing them, never mind hunting them down over and over in a poem.)

“Circle all of the letter Vv’s” (Wait, what, we just framed all the letter Vvs – Which I assumed meant we were supposed to draw a box around them. Now we have to circle them too!?!)

“Underline these words: you, is, the, in, me, It”

Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand that this is SUPPOSED to be teaching my daughter to recognize words and letters in different contexts. But it’s not. It’s just pissing her off and making her hate reading, homework and even school a little.

Her homework is supposed to take her 5-10 minutes each night. Instead it takes an hour of agonizing, teeth pulling, tear wrenching, pain and suffering.

Now, some of her poems have come back with a couple of “assignments” that are at least a little fun – “What words rhyme with tuffet?” “Write the missing word in the blank space.” “Write all of the two-syllable words.”

BUT, you’ll notice there is never a question about interpretation. No one cares why the itsy bitsy spider climbs up the spout AGAIN (Didn’t he learn his lesson the first time?) They just want to know how many times the letter s appears in the poem. No questions that encourage exploration like, what is a tuffet, and why would Miss Muffet sit on one to eat curds and whey? (For that matter, what are curds and whey? Most kids don’t know this.)

Now the reason this really bothers me, aside from the tantrum inducing tedium of getting my six-year-old to circle letters, underline words, and count sentences as if she was still in preschool, is because I also teach Junior Great Books to the third grade advanced readers once a week.

In case you’re not familiar (I wasn’t until a couple of months ago) Junior Great Books is a national program for advanced readers who are ready to start digging in a little deeper. Our school doesn’t follow all of the rules and guidelines for the program, but we stay true to the purpose – which is to encourage interpretive reading of texts.

I have a group of six hand selected (by the teachers and school librarian) third graders. Each week they are given a short story (this year they are all folk tales). They are required to read the story twice and come to each session prepared to discuss the story and text.

As the leader I am supposed to ask broad, deep thinking, interpretive questions. In my teacher’s guide they give me lots and lots of leading questions to choose from. But I also require my students to bring two of their own, as a way of getting their brains engaged. I’ve had to get really specific with this too because the first couple weeks everyone brought vocabulary questions (totally okay, and I want those too) but what I really wanted them thinking about was those “why” questions.

I have since realized that these third graders have never had to think about why. They’ve never been asked to interpret. They’ve never been encouraged to speculate.

When I asked them why the barnyard animals felt it was okay to bite, tease and hurt the Ugly Duckling they said, “because he was ugly. Duh.”

When I pushed and asked if that meant it was okay for them to be mean to ugly kids they all said “No, of course not!”

“So then, why did these animals think it was okay to pick on the ugly duckling?”

“Because he was different.”

This conversation went around and around like this for ten minutes. No one ventured “because no one told them it wasn’t okay.” No one ventured “because they’re animals and they don’t know better.” No one ventured outside of the duck was ugly, different, weird, tall, strange, etc. It was the ugly duckling’s fault for being an ugly duckling.

That was the most tangible answer that had been GIVEN to them in the book, and they couldn’t bring themselves to look outside the text to the larger CONTEXT.

Despite starting this class every day with a reminder that I’ll be asking questions with no right or wrong answers, these kids don’t know how to think any other way. They are tested daily on right and wrong terms. They are tested on reading comprehension, which is really just testing how well they recall information, not how well they actually understand (or comprehend) it. They are asked to read a paragraph and then vomit back the information in it in exactly the same form it was given.

We’re not teaching our children how to learn, or how to think, or how to understand with these methods. We’re teaching them to be information bulimics. They binge on information and then they regurgitate it back, never really digesting it or using it to help them grow.

So what we do? We change our tactics. We start early. We ask deep questions and allow deep answers. We also allow off the wall answers, goofy answers, unusual answers. We stop testing right and wrong and start testing innovation and methodology. “How did you get to this answer? How did you reach that conclusion? What steps did you take?”

We start teaching our children to be explorers, adventurers, innovators and thinkers.

Sure, we still need to teach them how to write, how to read and how to do math. But that can all be done in an environment that encourages deeper exploration and deeper learning.

After all most of the great minds we learn about in our history books did not get that way from classroom learning – Lincoln, Einstein, Edison, Gates… Only one of these even graduated high school. None have a college degree.

Regurgitating facts, circling letters day after day after painful day – these things do not make learners, or thinkers. They make factory workers and sheep. You know, jobs we outsourced to China and India. What our country needs is movers and shakers. And I believe we CAN create them, but only if we make our schools a place of exploration instead of a place of busy work.




Filed under Kids, Rant

12 responses to “What Are We Really Teaching Them?

  1. Jess

    Such great thoughts, as usual. I’m about to start leading a “book club” for 5 advanced readers at my friend’s middle school, and this has definitely made me think critically about how I’m going to approach discussing larger themes in the books we read. Brilliant Bree!

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      Definitely bring your big “Why” questions, and then smaller follow up “Why” questions. And be prepared to take some time battering down the walls of right and wrong thinking.
      Hopefully by middle school they’ve had a little more practice at this sort of thinking, but… I wouldn’t pin my sanity on that hope.
      Let me know how it goes.

  2. Bee

    I reposted this on Facebook – thanks for the excellent post, Bree. My daughter is enrolled this semester in a class for kids with average grades and above-average intelligence, and it’s designed to help them learn to think critically, improve their writing and organizational skills, and thrive where they are currently simply surviving. I thought it was a great idea, until she came home with a paper I had to sign that said she’d be taking Cornell Notes on every academic class, every day, and reviewing them every night. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Cornell Notes, but last year they were the bane of our existence in the one class that periodically assigned them – a preset list of supposedly thought-provoking questions to be applied willy-nilly to whatever the kid was currently studying. It turned into massive amounts of busy work, and she and I would sit at the table in despair trying to figure out how on EARTH to spit out some relevant answer to go with each question.

    They mean well, I think. I just wish they would stop to ask themselves, “Does Approach A produce Desired Result B, or does it in fact reproduce Original Problem C in a more dire and discouraging way than before?”

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      Thanks for the repost. I do believe there are ways to actually engage kids in their studies and their work, but you have to get beyond the busy work and the tedious tasks designed to tell the teacher that you completed an assignment and get into ways to show the teacher you thought about the assignment.
      This is especially true for higher IQ kids who get frustrated having to show every step of their work on a long division problem – they know the answer, their brain works faster than yours and it’s painful for them to have to back up and explain every step you want them to take when they can do them all in a single leap.

  3. miq

    What a phenomenal observation. I hope that my fiance and I would have done some of this before reading your piece, but having read this and talked about it I think we’ll be that much more aware of it and making sure we ask those ‘why’ questions. Thank you for such an insightful post!

  4. miq

    Reblogged this on Three Descriptors and commented:
    Think Banned Thoughts wrote a really great post about the critical thinking or lack thereof required in school. There are also suggestions for ways to encourage kids to think deeper than the words to increase their abilities to analyze and critically observe their environment.

    It’s a really great, articulate, and insightful piece. If you have kids, want kids, or work with kids you should most definitely read this article.

    Three cheers for Think Banned Thoughts for making me more aware!

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      I’m honored. Thank you for the great comments and the reposting. I’m glad I could express my frustrations with the status quo in a way that is helping others find the light!
      If we all just do our small part, I think together we can raise a nation of thinkers, dreamers and doers!

  5. Awww your daughter sounds so cute! And ugh, schools take the wrong approach to so many things. They can do more damage than good, and oftentimes they can actually discourage a love of learning instead of fostering it. I absolutely hate the regurgitation of facts approach and the mindless drivel students have to do. Why do teachers think that painstaking repetition, memorization, and hours of homework each night are the only useful methods of teaching? They’re often terrible.

    • thinkbannedthoughts

      In defense of teachers – it’s not them. It’s the school boards and other distant people making the curriculum. It’s policies like Bush’s No Child Left Behind, which ended up leaving most children behind.
      It’s not teachers. If they were allowed to do their jobs, and teach, trust me, they would. But they have so many voices, pressures and requirements bearing down on them.
      It’s a true tragedy.
      Reform needs to happen at the highest levels – in Washington DC and in our own state capitals. But it needs to start on the local level with our individual boards of education and school boards. More parents need to be in those meetings pushing back against bogus curriculum, bogus testing and super bogus zero tolerance policies.

  6. Pingback: In defense of teachers | ThinkBannedThoughts Blog

  7. thinkbannedthoughts

    One final addition to this post – http://zenhabits.net/kid-skills/

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