I am a product of public schools, and I am proud to say that fact. I have written a number of pieces about education both here and on other forums. Today public education and teachers are often the targets of criticism. I believe that much of the criticism is unjust as many people simply desire a scapegoat for issues and problems in society. Teachers have not been granted the power to fix or to solve every problem in the world today. It is too convenient, however, to blame teachers when the problems are not easy to fix.
There have been a number of so-called “reforms” that have been and are taking place in the classrooms. Many of these changes have dealt with creating common standards and evaluation methods for students, teachers, schools, school districts, and states. We have seen standardized tests emphasized and unfortunately many teachers have either knowingly or unwillingly resorted to teaching the exam and not teaching the subject material. For too many their jobs depend upon the student test scores so they are placed between that proverbial rock and a hard place.
In my opinion, there are many problems with these “reforms.” While some may appear profound or simply effective on paper, they fail miserably in application. There are a number of variables which would be difficult to quantify statistically, but these variables can be the difference between a student mastering certain skills and a student dropping out and becoming another statistic. You can find numerous studies on the relationship between economics and educational success. There are numerous studies about the role of parents and guardians and its relationship to success in school. One of the most important issues to me is that I doubt that a consensus exists on how one defines education and learning. For that reason, we see many fancy “solutions” which if they actually address anything, address only a symptom and not an underlying cause of problems.
Do simple solutions exist? In some ways yes, and in other ways the answer has to be no. I mean if every parent and guardian championed the importance of learning and education; if every student performed to the best of his or her ability; if society as a whole made the education systems and learning as the “it” or popular thing; if every teacher could communicate and reach every student regardless of any special needs that student has; if, if, if and the solution is simple. Unfortunately, students are not alike and neither are schools. What might be effective in a small rural school may be ineffective in an urban setting.
Now this specific piece is not about problems or solutions. I will emphasize that I believe teachers should be considered as lanterns or flashlights if you prefer, lighting the way for their students to discover things along a never ending pathway of knowledge. To me a teacher introduces material, and then helps the student learn the techniques necessary to learn more outside the classroom setting and well beyond the length of a semester or academic year.
What do I mean? Here’s an example I read earlier tonight. In no means am I contending that this is the only method or even a correct method, but it represents the manner in which I view education and learning. Much of my personal learning took place in a similar environment, so for me it was effective.
Students learn some basics and then apply what they learned in a different environment. They also learn to adapt “book learning” to “real life knowledge” and hopefully develop their own innovations by experiencing need and incorporating creativity and practicality. Think about all the subject areas necessary for this activity. Everything is there for STEM. Business applies as well. My field of history is well represented in a number of ways. What better ways to learn and appreciate some of the obstacles overcome by previous generations than by doing some of the same activities as your ancestors? In this particular application, cultural history is also prominent. The teacher is a descendent of the Hungarian Settlers who founded the communities where both he and I were reared. The school in a neighboring Parish is part of a community that has a long line of Italian ancestry. Back when I was a child, the language spoke out in the strawberry fields differed, but the methods used, quality of the produce, and work ethic and respect expected by both the farmers born in Italy or Hungary or those who like my Grandfather had been born in the United States was the same.
I am biased in that I know the teacher. While Frank, Jr., was a few years ahead of me in school, his younger brother Joey was only a grade or two ahead. Their Dad, Mr. Frank had been my science teacher back in the 8th grade, and that man was brilliant in so many respects. I won at the State Science fair that year with his support and guidance, but he also embodied the importance of those intangibles of a strong work ethic, fairness, and curiosity. Because of that curiosity, he taught me a few things that I impressed my Grandfather and some of the professors from the LSU Agricultural Department with while listening and observing some of the experiments in one of my Grandfather’s hothouses. Their Mom, Ms. Dorothy was our high school librarian, and needless to say was a valuable treasure trove of information on where to start searching for information about countless projects.
This work of Frank Jr., however, combines the book learning inside the classroom with application outside. It promotes individual effort and teamwork. It can also be outlet to release a lot of pressure. I cannot even guess as to the number of times I went into a field angry, worried, or upset, and whether I was working alone or beside someone the issues either resolved themselves completely or had been placed into the proper perspective by the time I left that field.
Will any of these students farm for a living after high school? I would think not given the driving forces in today’s economy. A few though might put down some plants where they have produce for family for friends. It’s a hobby that has many rewards. All the students, however, are learning things that cannot be found inside a classroom, a textbook, or online. They are learning to think and to adapt. They are combining multiple subject areas and disciplines in the process. They are learning the value of work and commitment. They are learning about previous generations. They are learning about individual effort and working as a team.
They are learning to learn and learning that knowledge is not finite but infinite. Education is not about entertainment. It might not always be fun. We might not see the benefit or understand something at a particular time. If we keep an open mind, have a touch of curiosity, a little patience, and work toward our goals, the rewards we reap may in fact be greater than the seeds sown. That’s education and instilling the value of lifelong learning in my book.