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The Weight of the Matter

Susan Notes:

I wrote this little piece for Huffington Post--back in the days when I was still hopeful about them. Now that this hope has dissolved, I repost the piece here. It happens to be one of my favorite stories from my teaching career.

Admittedly, I have a lot of favorite stories.
And I wonder why such stories are not regarded as legitimate research. I regard this as much more legitimate than most of the stuff published by members of AERA.

A recent column I wrote for the Washington Post received such positive comment that I decided to expand one of the brief anecdotes to give a broader picture of how children learn. Honoring how children learn is a messy endeavor, something no longer allowed in our current atmosphere of schools dominated by a corporate imperative to train kids in a conveyor belt delivery system of skills so they will grow up to be compliant workers who produce more now than they did a generation ago.

People are attracted to and co-opted by the rhetoric of systemic reform of education because it promises both to level the playing field and to offer a more challenging curriculum. But the promises are empty. For starters, task completers and problem solvers are two different kettles of fish. To complete a task, one needs to rely on habitual activity, rarely needing the kinds of thinking involved in problem solving. Here are the seven components of task completion: 1) begin work immediately, 2) work quietly, 3) remain seated, 4) ask good questions, 5) complete work, 6) work carefully, and 7) follow instructions. And after one completes a task, one moves on to another task. A child definitely does not persist at the same task over and over -- until he is satisfied that he's gotten what he needed from that activity. Such strictures may keep a classroom orderly; they do not produce problem solving.

Take Daryll, a boy repeating first grade whose official records labeled him as having "[a] short attention span, difficulty sticking to a task." One day Daryll worked for three hours straight on his proof that sixteen bottle caps on side of a balance weighed the same as sixteen bottle caps on the other side. He set up this proof and then tested it and tested it and tested it. Along the way he weighed other things. Lots of other things.

After taking a two-day break from bottle caps, Daryll weighed them again -- just to make sure. It reminded me of Frank Smith's story about the boy who was amazed that the label for a can of fruit cocktail still said "fruit cocktail" a day or so later. Think about the complex world these kids live in. They don't have a whole lot of things they can rely on to be permanent. And so they're amazed by that fruit cocktail label and they need to test those sixteen bottle caps more than one time.

Then Daryll wondered what would happen with one hundred bottle caps. This is messy stuff, just verifying the quantity of one hundred of something. It's not the sort of thing people who talk of benchmarks, rubrics, and efficiency can tolerate. There's no room for such problem solving in a schedule filled with state edicts about skill alignment and piles of accompanying worksheets from frantic district managers.

Once he'd verified the number of his one hundred bottle caps, Daryll wondered what would equal their weight -- a book, his shoe, the teacher's lunch. The classroom was filled with interesting things to weigh. And we were in no hurry.

Three days later, Daryll got the idea of putting one hundred bottle caps on the other side of the balance.

This was a very profound moment.

Think about it.

Daryll discovered that, just as 16 bottle caps = 16 bottle caps, 100 bottle caps = 100 bottle caps.

To verify this discovery, he recounted every bottle cap. He stared at the balance. He counted again. He stood contemplating the balance.

We had a couple of brief conversations during the three days. There would be more conversation later, after Daryll had time to think about his accomplishment, but this was Daryll's moment. On his own, he had made an important discovery.

I still get chills more than 30 years later

This is what it means to be a teacher -- knowing when to move in, when to keep hands off. A teacher should be judged as much by when her mouth is closed as when it's open.

A decade ago, the Business Roundtable declared, "The only way we can assure that the skills and abilities of our young people will keep pace with the rapidly advancing, technology-based world marketplace is by setting standards for our schools, putting in place the processes to meet those standards and then testing to ensure that those standards are in fact being met."

Yesterday our U. S. Department of Education and our Congress echo this sentiment.Today they insist that everybody swear fealty to it.

But Daryll and his teacher know differently. For the Business Roundtable with its decades-old agenda and the U. S. Department of Education with Race to the Top and Common Core State [sic] Standards they claim is voluntary, the members of Congress with the effrontery to write the LEARN (sic) Act, the education of young children is an issue of control.

For Daryll and his teacher, it is an issue of independence and discovery.

Adapted from Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?

— Susan Ohanian
Huffington Post


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