In Defense of School (from 4-17-10)

If kids have learned, they should be able to pass a test about what they learned, right?

This simple premise seems to be at the heart of nearly every education reform scheme currently on the market. Teachers teach, students learn, students take a test, and the effectiveness of the teacher is determined by how students did on this one test. It’s so simple – almost elemental in its simplicity – that I can understand how seductive a concept it is.

Really – isn’t teaching as simple as that? Teach and test. Teach and test. They learned it or they didn’t. You taught well enough or you didn’t. Measure the results. If students don’t pass the Test, then learning did not occur, and the teacher is to blame.

I have tried to explain to people why this teach-and-then-test system is unwise, but until recently I had a difficult time of it.

I found the solution to my rhetorical dilemma not in a book about teaching but in a book about food. I recently read Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, and as I read it, I found myself thinking that its concepts don’t just apply to food– they apply to education.

Pollan’s premise is fairly simple. We have, for the past few decades, tried to use science to improve how we eat. We have tried to break down food into discrete nutrients and elements, both good and bad, to be either sought out or avoided. Currently, omega 3 fish oils, fiber, and certain vitamins are good; trans fats, sugars, and carbs are bad. Or I think they are. It might change next week.

Because of this focus on discreet elements within foods, the “whole food” no longer matters. What matters is what the food contains. This obsession with nutrients, combined with a desire to make food that will last longer for shipping and self life, has lead us to be consuming a lot of what Pollan calls “food-like substances.” For the past several years, I have been guilty of this dietary crime. Every morning before school, in the name of saving time, I have been drinking Carnation Instant Breakfast drink (now called Carnation Instant Breakfast Essentials Complete Nutritional Drink). This product contains 20 grams of sugar and ingredients like pantothenic acid and copper gluconate. I don’t think it’s food. It is a food-like substance. But it is supposed to contain all the nutrition of “a complete breakfast!” I have a few more packets left, and then I’m going cold turkey, I think.

In any case, Pollan insists that much of what we eat is not, strictly speaking, food at all. He also makes the case that we are constantly confused by what is good and bad for us, because we are basing all our food choices on “nutritionism” – the science of nutrients. He claims that the beneficiaries of this confusion about food are the food industry, scientists, and journalists. He says all three parties “stand much to gain from widespread confusion surrounding the most elemental question an omnivore confronts” – i.e., what to eat. He espouses eating what he calls “whole foods,” and gives a list of guidelines for good eating at the end of the book.

Before I take these ideas about food and apply them to education, please don’t think I’ve given away Pollan’s whole book. He gives away his main ideas himself on the cover and the first few pages – what’s fascinating are the details he uses to back up his claims. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Now – how do the ideas from In Defense of Food apply to school? Well, the parallels are quite striking.

First we have become obsessed with teaching discrete skills – sometimes called standards – at the expense of looking at the big picture of how a student is being educated. Nutrients become skills or standards, and Nutritionism becomes what I will call Standardism. Only the standards matter. To make sure we have the proper nutrients-of-the-week, we isolate those nutrients and pump them into food-like substances like Carnation Instant Breakfast Essentials Complete Nutritional Drink or Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. Food-like substances make health claims, but are actually bad for your health. To make sure we are getting our standards in easy-to-measure isolation, we pump those discrete standards into standardized tests, and into the test-preparation materials that go with them.

So instead of teaching real reading and writing, we teach discrete, measurable reading and writing skills, what I call “reading-like substances” and “writing-like substances.” You may ask what the difference is, but there is a world of difference.

Standardism turns reading into an activity where you read a “text” and then answer a series of multiple choice questions. There is only one right answer. Your personal connection to, resistance to, or like or dislike of the “text” does not come into play. Reading is about using discrete skills to answer questions for which there is only one right answer.

Real Reading is about not just understanding the low-level meanings for which there is only one right answer. Real Reading is about making a connection to the text, understanding that there is more than one correct interpretation, and that real understanding may happen on multiple levels at once. I recently taught Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to my Advanced and Gifted eighth graders. The discussion we had could not be captured on any kind of standardized test. They made connections to our current society, to their own lives, to other essays and fiction we’d read earlier in the year, and to movies they’d seen. We analyzed how one scene in the book could play out on multiple levels. When Montag is forced to burn down his own house, it works as plot, character development, theme, irony, figurative language, and symbolism all at once. And my students “got” it. When they finished reading the book and wrote reactions to it, some of them were less than enthusiastic about it. They are, after all, middle school students. But some of them wrote things like, “It made me appreciate the fact that I am free to read the books I want,” and “I am going to start reading more books!” The book had made them think about life, and about the power of words.

Making reading all about discrete, measurable skills takes away the real power of reading, the power of essays and stories and poems and novels to have an effect on us, to change our lives, to make us better people. Standardism actually undermines our students’ capacity to think independently and to resist ideas they disagree with. In that sense, it actually undermines real education, and perhaps even weakens democracy.

Standardism does similar things to Writing. The Standardism approach to writing is this: We will give you a rubric that shows you what good writing is supposed to be. We have defined good writing and made it scientifically measurable. We will give you generic topics that you don’t really care about (gum chewing, school uniforms, snacks in class) and have you persuade or inform an imaginary audience. Your writing will not actually affect anything. Your goal in writing is to move higher on the rubric scale. We will give you some tricks and techniques that will move you up the rubric. You do not have anything of your own to say, and your writing will have no affect on the world or on yourself.

Real Writing, on the other hand, is about having something to say and wanting to share it with people in hopes of moving them, changing their minds about something, or getting them to act. I even count on-the-job writing about assigned topics as real writing, because it is serving a real purpose and needs to communicate real ideas to real people. Real writing involves thinking about how what you have to say determines how you will say it, and how you will organize it. Real writing is about expressing ideas that really matter to you. It is about observing what real, published writers do and trying to emulate them, rather than writing to a cookie-cutter formula and using a bag of tricks to move up on the rubric. Real writers don’t think about rubrics. They think about how well this piece of writing has conveyed the meaning they wanted to convey. Real writing can be a journey of self discovery, can help you figure out your place in the world. Again, Real Writing is about the power of words. Standardism teaches students that they have nothing to say, and that their words will affect no one and nothing. It is both bad education, and bad for democracy.

One note – please don’t tell me that “they’re just students and have nothing to say.” Go talk to some real middle-schoolers. They have plenty of opinions, and they need to test them out to see if they are valid or not. Real writing is one of the only places where students can try their ideas on for size or take them for a test drive. The only students I’ve met who claim to have no opinions are the ones who have been crushed under standardized prompts.

Food-like substances are making us overweight and diseased. Reading and Writing-like substances may be leaving our students with underdeveloped minds that are disconnected from the power of words.

And just as our confusion about food benefits scientists, food manufacturers, and journalists, our confusion about literacy benefits scientist/statisticians, test/textbook manufacturers, and… journalists. Statisticians have a lot to gain from the constant measuring of supposed progress. Test makers are making a killing off of the testing craze that has swept the country. And journalists and pundits within journalism get to write story after story where they talk about “student achievement” (or the lack thereof) to sell newspapers and magazines. The powers that be say teachers have a vested interest in the status quo. I would make the case that scientists, test-publishers, and journalists have a vested interest in “reform,” and not because the reforms will benefit children.

The cover of In Defense of Food has a very simple message: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. This is where my analogy breaks down a bit.

By saying “Eat food” Pollan is saying that we should eat real food, not food-like substances. In that, the analogy holds. Most of what our students read and write in school should be the real deal – reading and writing with a real purpose. “Not too much,” doesn’t relate to real literacy – I think that you can never get enough real literacy. I would apply “Not too much” to relate to testing. Some testing isn’t bad, if we understand that it’s not supposed to be the whole diet. As far as mostly plants – well, I’m not sure what literacy activities count as plants, but I would say maybe they’re the things that offer the most benefit and the least harm to students’ minds.

If you look at the students who score the highest on the tests, they score high not because of test prep, but because they engage in real literacy, and the skills gained spill over naturally into the test results. When testing, Standardism, becomes the main concern, we lose the real literacy that makes students truly successful and lose both the true literacy and the test scores.

We are giving our kids Instant Education Essentials and hoping that the influx of standards and skills will make them educated. We need to give our students some fruits and vegetables, literacy that is real, purposeful, and meaningful. Pollan makes the point that when we get our food from corporations, we rely on rules and regulations to make sure our food supply is safe.

When all our educational ideas are handed down from the government and corporations, we must rely on rules and regulations and “accountability” to be sure it’s good. Pollan recommends going to the farmer’s market for real food, grown locally. Pollan says that in a “long food chain” (where food goes a long distance between where it is produced to where it is eaten) “Farmers can loose sight of the fact that they are growing food for actual eaters rather than for middlemen.” Food becomes impersonal. In a short food chain, he says, “eaters can make their needs and desires known to the farmer, and farmers can impress on eaters the distinctions between ordinary and exceptional food.” He says that as soon as you make food personal again by shaking the hand that feeds you, “accountability (there’s that word!)  becomes once again a matter of relationships instead of regulation or labeling or legal liability.

The politicians and test-makers and pundits want it to be all about rules and regulations and measurement. But true accountability comes when I shake a parent’s hand and let them know what I’m doing for their son or daughter to help their particular strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, no top down scheme can create a truly great teacher. Only the personal desire to help students grow for real can make you a great teacher.

Unless we give our students real literacy, we risk making our kids tune out and drop out of school more and more, and, worse, turning the ones who stay into “good citizens” in the worst possible sense: unquestioning drones who know they must obey, and that for any given question there is only one right answer. The one those in power have decided for you.