I bubble “Why?”

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When I think of the people I know who do tech stuff really well, from integrating it into their classrooms to overseeing district policies to those working in the private sector, they hold in common that they tend to tinker, they question what the rest of us take as already settled, they are the small child grown up who has not lost the tendency to ask why. (I am also not asserting that those folks identified as “techies” can’t get equally entrenched as “traditional” types: ever get into a discussion of the constraints of a certain tool and the person defends it to the death? Not very useful either.)

It is a throwaway line, a cliche, sure, but we are experiencing an unprecedented rate of change that is rapidly leaving many of our educators in the dust.  Even those members of the so-called “Digital Native” generation, who happily type text messages at blistering rates while simultaneously updating their facebook statuses, even those pre-service teachers are having trouble conceiving of a classroom that looks any different than the classrooms in which they were taught.  They agonize over employing constructivist methods.  “But how will you make sure the students are doing what you want them to do?”   The theme I hear running through  questions from current pre-service teachers is an underlying anxiety of losing control.  Because for them, obedience to the standards has always counted more than engaging in sustained inquiry, the type of inquiry we know leads to better learning outcomes, even on those wretched tests.  Our young people heading into the classrooms were taught and learned the majority of their K12 careers in the shadow of NCLB.

We have a fundamental issue in the way we discuss education: we are hardly able to agree on the purposes of education.  Business models of schooling dominate the debate, as if our children were products that we produce in our factory schools, and yet business leaders complain that these children, the ones who “succeed” in our current model, can not think for themselves.  Daniel Pink has achieved cult status pointing out this new mind of the future and how incredibly rare it is.

I want to be sure I am not misunderstood here: this is not the fault of the teachers.  This is the fault of our entire culture, deeply entrenched beliefs about the very nature of childhood, myths about human nature, and the lie that because we have all experienced education, each of us has a valid understanding of how best to educate.

I was struck the other day when I ran across this quote from a 2005 article in The Atlantic, “Lost in the Meritocracy:

That’s why we’re here: we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That’s what they wanted, so that’s what we delivered. A talent for nothing, but a knack for everything.

It’s a grim observation from the upper-echelons of our intellectual and educational hierarchy.  I worry: is that what we are training our children to do? This aimless acquisition of knowledge with no passion or creativity? I hope not. I know educators who do better, every day, in spite of the odds. But when I look out across the vast landscape of our nation, the concerns remain.

What I would like to see is a whole generation who is encouraged to ask why.  Who is told: go ahead, press the buttons, it’s okay if you break it.  A generation whose talents are encouraged and honed into marketable skills. In the end, what I really want is for everyone to bubble, “Why?”


  1. YES, Andrea. Thank you for articulating and affirming this. Your model of living in the search and manifesting zest instead of alienation. So vital. The stuff of hope. The alternative to standardized assessment with their shallow promise of lining up in mass-produced, ill-fitting boxes. Thank you.
    Joseph, aka dochorsetales

    1. Thank you, Joseph. That’s very kind of you. I, of course, owe my voice to the folks like you in the NWP who have blazed the trail.

  2. I’m worried with you Andrea, wondering what all this pressure is doing to kids. I watch my partner’s grandson here from Israel, learning English in a public school first grade. He loves the experience, but he gets 15 minutes for recess every other day. He needs to run around and misses it.
    We are experimenting with humans,

  3. Fifteen minutes EVERY OTHER DAY? That is heartbreaking and not surprising. Good luck to your partner’s grandson, may he survive what we subject him to. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I had a conversation with my principal the other day. The test scores for my grade are down (under a new scheme to track progress over a given year) and yet he says he loves how engaged my students are, and so, he and I are struggling with the balance of the two: engaged, active minds that can still perform well on any assessment thrown in front of them. Of course, it is always better when the assessment is meaningful, and not just data collection for the state.
    Why, indeed, and how do we cherish that concept of “why.”
    PS — our students (6th grade) only get two recess periods a week now, for 25 minutes, because of new math requirements that eat into the day. They do need more math, but I wish there were more ways to get them outside for unsupervised play.

    1. Thanks for that example, Kevin. It is much easier for me to think about this from outside than it was ever to put it into practice on the inside. When the test scores go down, there is so much panic and shame that goes along with it: too often schools react by reducing to test coaching and that is one of the biggest mistakes. I certainly don’t have the answer, but it seems like a whole system myopically focused on test scores (above the engagement and learning of the students) is a problem. The thing is, tests often test how well a student does on the test, and doesn’t reflect the entire messy enterprise of learning.

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