I will return to my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US next week.
I was really worried when I went to college. Part of my elementary and all of my middle and high school years happened in a public school of choice (like a charter school, but established long before charter schools were a thing) with a radically alternative pedagogy. I hadn’t been formally graded since I transferred to the K-12 school in fifth grade. And I was hung up on the fact that I had never had a US history class.
Classes at the Open School were and are designed to incorporate the classic subject areas (readin’, writin, an’ ‘rithmetic, plus science, social studies, history, language arts, etc.) not by teaching them specifically, but as natural side-effects of deep learning. Courses ranged from the historic and contemporary music of the American South (as a preparatory class for a trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) to a group read of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (long after my time, but a perfect example of the type of classes offered). Students also did extensive learning in the classic content areas as they pursued personal projects and self-directed learning experiences.
So, no, I had never had a class that specifically studied US history. I did not have the background that I imagined all the other kids would have from their traditional schools.
The nail in the coffin of those worries came when I spent my sophomore year abroad in Nairobi. I was hanging out one evening with some other American students and some of my Kenyan classmates. One of the Kenyans was studying US history. Having a few handy Americans available, and not wanting to look it up, he asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Of course, I deferred to the kids who had been through a traditional school education. They had no idea. “I’m pretty sure it was 1776,” I told him, still lacking some confidence.
As I have gone on in life, it has become increasingly clear that our school system crams young brains with facts which are retained long enough to be regurgitated on a test, then promptly flushed from memory.
In a survey of 41,000 Americans, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (name change pending in the Fall) found that only four in ten Americans had enough historical knowledge to pass the citizenship test. If I’m reading the article correctly (the language is a little ambiguous), that drops to only 27% among those under 45. And mind you, that doesn’t refer to acing the exam, just passing it, even scraping by with a D.
In the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, only 39% of Americans could identify the three branches of government. Alarmingly, this was a significant improvement over years past. In 2017 (I don’t know why they are not citing updated numbers here — maybe they changed the wording or something), more than a third of respondents couldn’t name any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In the 2017 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), a general test of workplace skills administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Americans were able to hold their own in literacy, coming in a bit above average. However, adults in the US tested 24th out of 32 countries in numeracy, and only 31.4% of the adults who took the test scored at levels 2 or 3 (the highest) in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.
It’s clear that the summer slide that so concerns teachers turns into a permanent slump once students leave school.
Given all this, people are right to be very concerned about switching to distance learning during the pandemic. But it is equally clear that this isn’t just a pandemic problem. Students are not retaining the information and skills they are learning in school, regardless of interruptions.
If our kids can’t even handle summer vacation without falling behind, and if we can’t respond to a public health crisis without jeopardizing their future, shouldn’t we be taking a deeper look at how we teach, instead of just agonizing over how to open schools safely?
We have talked a great talk in recent years about teaching “21st Century Skills” such as critical thinking (which I posit has been a crucial skill throughout history and will continue to be one well beyond the 21st century). Perhaps our performance as adults will improve as more students are graduated from a curriculum that focuses more on such underlying skills.
But what I haven’t heard in articles and from pundits is a discussion of meaning in education. I was very lucky to go to the school that I did. Critical thinking skills have always been an important part of curriculum there, but it’s hard to think critically about something, let alone retain it, if it isn’t imbued with meaning and context.
Talking about meaningful education can sound pretty touchy-feely, but without developing a context of importance to one’s self, one’s various communities, and one’s own history, why would our brain retain facts? We retain what we care about, and it seems to me that many students in our current system aren’t shown very many reasons to care about what they are learning. Teaching to the test means that teachers are swimming upsteam, fighting their hardest to imbue learning with meaning, while the current is constantly sweeping them towards the next content standard.
W.B. Yeats may or may not have said “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Plutarch did say “the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” A student who is (metaphorically) on fire gains more knowledge during the summer break, instead of forgetting everything they’ve learned. A student who is on fire might actually benefit from a gap year during the pandemic — it would be a chance to further pursue the things she or he had found most interesting in previous years.
If we choose to use it, this horrible health crisis actually presents us with many opportunities. We can build back a better, more just, more equitable economy. We can rethink commuting. We can use it as a chance to create a national health system that brings us up to the standard of other developed countries. And we can think deeply about how we can create an education experience for our kids that creates context and meaning. An education to remember, if you will.