Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Education Is All About Control

HARBESON: Education needs a new way of thinking

I caused a near riot in an elementary school once. It happened in the late 1980s when I was a lunchtime/recess monitor. I wanted to give a present to the kids before winter break so I purchased a bunch of Hershey’s Kisses to hand out.

I decided to have some fun with this, so I hid the candy behind me, stood on a cafeteria chair, got the kids’ attention and said, “I think you guys are great so I want to give a kiss to each and every one of you.” Then I puckered up.

The boys responded just as I expected and started to boo. But then the trouble started as everyone started yelling — louder and louder. I grabbed the bag of goodies to show them I was only kidding, but by that time no one was listening and I think I even got pelted with a couple of tater tots. The kids were eventually corralled outside to work off their energy and I imagine the principal and teachers are probably still talking about it.

I tell this story because I think Indiana’s teachers and the state’s education schools might have a point being concerned about the proposals made by Indiana’s Superintendent Tony Bennett. The Department of Education is considering changing requirements for teachers, one of which is to require fewer “methods” or classroom management classes and more subject matter classes.

On the other hand, Bennett has a point when he says it should be easier for noneducation majors to teach in the schools. It never made sense to me that someone who has a passion for a subject and actually worked in a career where they used it has to jump through so many hoops in order to teach.

I can see how this is controversial. What it would say about our current teachers if people who don’t have a specific teaching degree but know the subject well do just fine, or even better, in the classroom than education majors? The possibility of this happening has to scare those invested in the current education system.

I question whether any of this really makes any difference though because as long as we continue to copy the Prussian school model, we aren’t really doing much for anyone interested in learning. It does work well to grind up and mold large groups of children and force them to fit into boxes that can easily be organized, controlled, and artificially measured though.

Teachers working in such systems do need “methods” courses. It takes some time to learn how to tell a lively group of kids they need to sit down, shut up and learn about stuff they probably aren’t the least bit interested in.

Controversies between teachers and administrators presuppose that it’s all about them but it’s not. It’s about the learner. But no one ever asks students what they think, which results in a system that too quickly subtracts out natural curiosity, innovative creativity and zest for learning. So whether or not Tony Bennett gets his way and changes the rules so teachers learn more content or whether pedagogy wins, the kids lose.

It’s really not hard to help someone learn if he or she is engaged and has a real, not artificially created, reason for gaining knowledge about a topic. We need to give kids more freedom in what and how they learn without all the control freaks getting in the way.

If we ever decide that it’s learning that matters and not simply controlling the masses and maintaining old institutional ways of thinking, many of our education problems will be much easier to solve.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson really enjoys starting riots in elementary schools, particularly now that she’s developed gear that offers protection from wayward tater tots.


  1. I had a chuckle today, over an interaction with a fairly close friend that I've known for two years or so.

    Background: we met at a local minor league baseball game, when his daughter and my son (both 5 at the time) found each other and True Love ensued. We wound up staying in touch in the fan club, organizing meals for the teams, then even setting ourselves up as volunteer broadcasters, webcasting the game so players' friends and families could listen. Our kids continued playing together at almost every game, and our mutual love of family was as important as our love of baseball.

    Fast forward to about 1:30 this afternoon, when I was at his store. I mentioned that I had to leave, because I had dropped off my wife and son (now 7) at the grocery store, and they were probably almost done. His brow wrinkled. "He's... at the store?"

    I thought he misheard me and thought the kid was on his own. "The two of them are at the store."

    This didn't ease his expression. "But... why isn't he in school?"

    "He *is* in school. He's in school every day. We home-school."

    "I had no idea."

    It struck me as a bit bizarre that a friend, someone who knows most of the personal details of your life, could miss such an important clue.

    It also struck me as sad that anyone is so programmed to the Prussian model as to question why a 7 year old isn't locked inside on a gorgeous Autumn early afternoon.

  2. I'm currently taking classes on Education and it's amazing how well the Prussian model works. Future teachers absolutely cannot see outside the box that the government put them in. I talk about the Prussian model and they say that it sounds terrible and they're glad we don't have a system like that. Ummmm . . .

  3. Chabouk, I had similar experiences. And what's doubly funny is when you can tell they had preconceived notions of what homeschoolers were like and then they find out we're homeschoolers and their experience with our family kind of messed that up for them. :0