Monday, March 11, 2013

Education vs. Control

Last week, I subbed in the special ed resource room at a high school, helping a sweet boy in a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy – an easy and pleasant ten dollars an hour.  But while in the resource room, I heard an exchange between the main instructor and another boy that was not so pleasant.  The boy was sassy, rude, combative; he challenged her authority and refused to submit.  She stood her ground adequately – I was kind of impressed because I think if I’d been her, I would have immediately sent him to the principal’s office and refused to deal with him.

I didn’t know this boy, of course.  I don’t know his story or his issues.  But I’ve known many boys like him and could make some intelligent guesses at what was happening here.  He doesn’t do well in school, for whatever reason – and there could be many (he was in the special ed resource room, after all).  Therefore, school is a miserable place to be because it throws his weaknesses in his face all day long.  Because he’s miserable, he tries to escape the misery by adding pleasure to his day through behaviors (like talking to his friends) which, in a lot of other settings, would be entirely acceptable and understandable, but in the classroom, they are deemed to be “acting out”.  So, the teacher, whose second greatest concern behind actual instruction is classroom control (and sometimes this is the primary concern), comes down on him and forces him, under threat of penalty, to return his attention to the activity that he doesn’t do well and that is making him miserable.  And this happens all day long. 
If you spent seven hours a day in a work situation where you sucked at what you were asked to do all day, you’d probably end up being just as much a brat – if you didn’t quit or go on a shooting rampage first.
Even for those of us that enjoyed and did well in school, it was hard sometimes to willingly submit to the school game when it appeared its most ridiculous.  And yes, school is a game.  A game with ultimate goals that are other than learning.  I remember talking with one of my at-risk class students years ago about her getting in trouble in science class earlier that day.  “I already knew what she was talking about – why did I need to listen?” she said.  And frankly, that’s a good question.  If she knew the material, why did she have to sit and listen to it taught again?  Why couldn’t she do an assignment or take a test or whatever to give evidence that she knew the material and then go do something more useful with her time? 
In our at-risk classroom, we wanted to be able to offer time out of school as an incentive.  If you finish all the work for sophomore English in March, you don’t have to show up for that class.  You can shift your schedule around and leave school an hour early or come an hour later.  I mean, why not?  If the goal is learning, and they’ve proven they’ve learned the material, why not let them go?  But we were not allowed to do this; state law required that to get credit for the class, they have to be sitting in the classroom for a minimum number of hours.  Interestingly, state law did not require evidence that the student had acquired any particular skills or knowledge to get credit in the class; many students passed sophomore English by racking up points and never really learning what the teacher was trying to teach – but by golly, their butts were in their seats for the required number of hours.
Yes, it’s a game.  A poorly constructed game.  Really, it’s long past time we changed the rules.

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