Rant of the Androgogue (public high school pt. 2)

In my line of work, there is a lot of discussion about “pedagogy” v. “androgogy” (thank you, Dr. Knowles) – basically the differences in how children learn v. how adults learn. I won’t bore you.

But the question that always interests me is, of course – what about our teens? How do they learn best? 

 Ubiquitous chandeeregreen ***disclaimer*** : I know that there are many many many high school teachers out there doing much better and more interesting things than the “pedagogy” example listed below. But I don’t think the majority are. Sorry. Just haven’t seen it much.

Social science pedagogy: Assign a textbook reading on Maslow. Use class time to draw a pyramid on the board and lecture through the hierarchy of needs. Give a pop quiz at the end of the week.
Social science androgogy: Give students – groups of four to six – 3/4 of a class period to come up with a Lord of the Flies list.  You and your classmates are stranded on a deserted island in a shipwreck, have to establish a civilization that meets everyone’s needs. What must happen? Prioritize it.
Use the last quarter of the class period to fit their ideas into the hierarchy of needs.

How much of high school still relies on listening to class lecture, taking notes, reading text, and taking written tests? How many students thrive in that environment and emerge well prepared to function as adult members of our society?

Can we do better? And does the question of whether teens should be treated (and educated) like children, like adults, or like a special entity of their very own have anything to do with doing better?

The thing about public high schools…

is that they don’ t seem to work for a lot of kids. Why is that? I know that the trend in U.S. education is to try to make it all more standardized, to get rid of the gaps between the “great” schools and the barely-functional ones that may be doing more harm than good. But from another point of view they are also becoming “one size fits all” – we are putting our youth in a box that suggests all humans are the same, during a zeitgeist of increasing demand by adults for individuality?

It’s a volume business. Providing our children with enough individual attention that they could strive for personal academic goals, capitalize on their strenghts, learn coping strategies for their weaknesses… sounds great. And would take (at a stab) about five times as many well-trained, committed secondary education teachers as we currently have in the country. In the world of shrinking school budgets and urban population expansion, providing an actual high quality education for our kids is at best a logistics nightmare.

In a way the bad news is an offshoot of the good news. Compulsory education for all is a relatively new, relatively “wealthy country” concept. Back in the “good old days” when only wealthy boys went to school at all, wealthy girls and middle class kids had governesses or were home-schooled, and lower income kids just got jobs when they were old enough, those who did get an education at all generally got a pretty good one. Exceptions, of course. But generally.

A lot more kids are getting educated now. And there are lots of good logical reasons why the schools, the curricula, then teachers in place are doing the very best that they can.

But look at our teens. Many many are bright, motivated, inspired, committed to go on to college or vocational training and acheive their dreams. Many, many more are not. Start with the dropout rate, sure. That’s a nice easy statistic. But there’s more to it than that. How many 16 year olds give up on their dreams because they have to slog through algebra without ever understanding how algebra will matter? Or because they got a C- in Literature Appreciation and it blew their GPA and now they think they just aren’t smart? Not so measurable. And, of course, different from school to school, from region to region.

So what do we do? I respect homeschooling parents tremendously – what an amazing calling that is! But (back to those hard logistical realities) we can’t all do that. Even if we could, not all parents are suited to. I am the first to admit that I do not have the appropriate temperment to teach young children. In a perfect world, my boys would have had a governess until high school, and I would have taken it from there. My world was not perfect, and they went to public schools.

My oldest was the kind of kid that our current public school system was built for. Industrious, detail oriented, ambitious – I think he would have excelled even in a middling-to-decent “regular” public high school. He got lucky, in his freshman year our district piloted a really well designed high-end vo-tech high school. He excelled brilliantly.

My middle son was a different kind of kid. Smart, but not ambitious. He excelled at things that caught his attention. He ignored things that didn’t. Most of high school didn’t. He did not accumulate enough credits to graduate in his allotted four years, so he went out into the world without a diploma. Where, by the way, he DID excel, because the kid has a work ethic that would embarrass a Nebraska farm kid.  As long as he’s getting paid, he works his butt off. Employers love him. He went back and finished his credits when he was good and ready to, so that he could get into the tech school program he wants to get the job that he wants. But it had to be on his timing, to meet his goals and interests. Not the school boards goals. He couldn’t care less about what the school board thinks is best for him.

My youngest fell out halfway between the two. He graduated. And hated it. Loved his business classes and vocal music. Hated math and English, barely scraped by in it. Liked history okay but only the parts that he liked – WWII yes, the Roman Empire not so much.

Enough illustrating the problem. What do we DO about it? The “voucher” idea has some merit, and a lot of painful controversy… but at least it would force schools to compete, if parents had the option of taking their kid and their money to wherever the best education could be gotten. Still, though, that would assume that there were choices. In my particular town there is the public high school, an ultra-conservative and very small private Christian school, and a tiny charter school that works well but carries the stigma of being “where the bad kids go” as well as relatively low academic standards.  Not all counties have even that many choices. What we need, I fear, is an educational revolution that shakes the entire public secondary school system to it’s core. I’m not really the earthshaker type. But I do love high school kids, and I do NOT think they are getting a fair shake, for the most part. And attempts to make it better are often making it worse (NCLB, for example.)

I don’t know the answer.  I do know that I will keep looking for an answer. One that includes:

  • Self-paced options for kids who function poorly in group-paced environments
  • Group-paced options for kids who need structure
  • Vocational/functional emphasis – forget about quadratic equations because someone somewhere said all 9th graders should learn quadratic equations. How about algebraic equations as they apply to  medicine (calculating dosages based on bodyweight) or mechanics (finding the horsepower increase of an engine when you bore the cylinders .0020 over) or design (how much extra energy will it take to heat/cool this building if we increase the floor space by 10%?)
  • Community mentors

So, yeah – I like the West Florida model, and others like it. I think it needs some alterations to be tenable on a broad scale. And the logistical equivalent of the Augean stables. But it has to be done, unless we are willing to keep sacrificing half of our children on the altar of standardization.

Could the secret of life be polarized sunglasses?

***Very Important Note*** The information contained in this blog is NOT scientific or supported by research in any way. The experiences with various medical, quack, holistic, and utterly random interventions that I cite here are purely anecdotal and may or may not relate to anyone else’s experience in any way. I am not a doctor, nurse, pharmacy tech, or avid watcher of medical TV, my medical experience is limited to “Mom/Band-Aid dispenser/Forehead fever checker.”

I have been diagnosed at various points in my life with adult ADHD, social anxiety disorder, depression, and anxiety. Some of which I may have had, to some extent, I guess. I hardly have the education to flatly reject a diagnosis by an actual medical professional.

However, some weird things have come together in my life just lately. A faculty member at the school I work with saw another education specialist about his dyslexia and other reading disabilities, and she showed him how to use colored transparencies to dramatically improve his reading. By *dramatically* I mean – this man had never even considered higher education before and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree, after a few consultations with a specialist just a couple of months ago. Furthermore, he enthusiastically told me “I am reading… and LIKING it!”

Well, as another education specialist, how could I help but be intrigued? So I did a little digging and found references to “The Irlen Method” – based on a contention by author/therapist Helen Irlen. Her work has been dismissed by many as sheer quackery, but my friend’s success was so dramatic that I had to at least check it out. So a few days ago, I received the book “The Irlen Revolution” as part of a larger Amazon order. (side note: I have never been formally diagnosed with bibliophilia, and if there is a treatment available I am decidedly not interested.)

So this morning, after yet another sleepless night, I got up and started working on my homework. I immediately, as usual, became irritable, distracted, edgy. At first I assumed it was the subject matter – my final exam for Conflict Resolution is a very long paper on the Virginia Tech mass murder, hardly a cheery topic. In my usual ADHD manner, I was reading a little of the reference materials, writing a sentence or two, checking my Facebook, playing a FitBrains game, reading a little more, maybe writing a little more, checking my Twitter feed … well, that is what I almost always do at homework time. And work time period, come to think of it.

When my computer slowed down (because I had about 15 windows and tabs open) I needed a new distraction to kill time while my game loaded. So I picked up the Irlen book and opened it to the attention disorders chapter. I didn’t read, I skimmed – but it did not take long for me to get the gist of the idea behind Irlen’s whole theory. In a teensy weensy nutshell, here it is. Some people are extra-sensitive to harsh lighting. So going to school under florescents, or sitting in doctor’s or hospital’s waiting rooms (florescents), or shopping at mega-stores (yep), or driving at night past people who have those HORRIBLE blue super-bright headlights, or reading things that are printed on bright white paper in bright light, is overstimulating, distracting, and crazy-making.

Thinking about it based on other, prior rants — one of the main criticisms of the ADHD diagnosis is that it is becoming more and more common as the years go on. Twenty years ago it was very rare. Fifty years ago it was unheard of. Detractors use this argument to contend that there is “no such thing” as ADHD, discipline in schools is just getting worse or teachers are getting lazier and can’t handle normally active children or whatever. I know these arguments. I have MADE these arguments, which is a huge part of why Ti Bo was not diagnosed until after he was required to repeat a grade (bad mommy!)

But what if the dramatic increase has more to do with how many schools and other public buildings have converted to cheaper but harsher florescent lighting in the past twenty years? The number of children who actually, no kidding, have ADHD could have remained perfectly stable – but the number who were just jumpy and twitchy from the lighting would have increased dramatically, would it not? And now we are all switching over to compact florescent bulbs in our homes.

It also caused me to recall something my own mother said to me about five years ago when she visited here in NC. We had a need to purchase some things, so I drove to Wal-Mart. It was a gray, dreary sort of a coastal day, so neither of us was wearing shades, but as we walked in the front door, she put her sunglasses on.  She explained to me that because of her self-diagnosed ADD, Wal-Mart made her crazy – but if she wore sunglasses to cut down on the visual stimulation, she could handle it.

So what makes mild-mannered, calm, generally friendly and easy-going Chandra transform into PsychoFreakChan who wants to strangle kittens and blow up balloon vendors? Generally, doctor’s waiting rooms (see previous rant), public school and community college buildings (my poor freshman stats professor probably did not deserve that harsh critique, in retrospect), Wal-, K-, and other large  Marts, staring at my computer screen for more than five minutes, those unbelievable horrible blue headlights, and my office.

So just for my own personal quasi-scientific “hmm, I wonder” purposes, I am writing this blog with the lights off in my kitchen and dining room and just natural daylight coming in from the big window behind me, with the brightness on my screen turned as low as it will go, and wearing polarized sunglasses. I’m almost done writing now, and I haven’t clicked over to another screen yet. I’ll keep y’all posted if anything new develops, in the meantime I think I am going to go “summarize changes to campus policies resulting from the shootings, ” because maybe, now, I can.

What I imagine.

– The problem of crushing poverty is extremely complicated, and addressing one or two facets of it doesn’t seem to help. Throwing money at it without addressing the root cause of it appears to make it worse, in fact (note, I am not a public policy major, I’m speaking from uneducated observation and reading a couple of books!)

– Giving food, water, and clothing to the poor is a good thing. In fact, Jesus specifically endorsed it (Matt 25:34-45). I am hugely in favor of feeding programs and donating. However (sez the woman who never thought seriously on this matter until about 2 years ago) it is not a long term solution. If you give a man a fish, etc etc.

– The facet of thriving (vice surviving) that I understand is education. I don’t have any clue about sustainable agriculture, microfinance, community organization, job creation, infrastructure support, or appropriate ways of addressing corruption. Not a thing. But I am reasonably confident that all of those things, plus the dozen-odd that I am totally forgetting, are most effectively done by an educated population.

– The most effective secondary school model that I am familiar with is the one used by the West Florida High School of Advanced Technology, among others. Fundamentally –

  • up through ninth grade, students follow a fundamentally standard curriculum similar to what is probably already common at existing schools. However, their elective time includes options to explore various career fields and vocational tracks.
  • after ninth grade, students study in tracks. The core subjects of math, science, literacy, and social awareness are still taught, but they are targeted. To wit:
    • The medical track, for students who want to pursue careers as radiographers, lab techs, physician’s assistants, doctors, nurses, et. al. emphasizes math as it pertains to calculating medication dosages, determining caloric needs of a kwashi sufferer, deciding on safe radiation levels in diagnostic equipment. Science leans towards biology and anatomy. Literacy includes reading and writing assignments selected with a bias towards medical histories, journal articles, understanding research and statistics, etc.
    • The agricultural track writes its math curriculum using examples from things like calculating water usage per acre, estimating crop yields – science leans towards botany and ecology – social sciences include extra material on the law of supply and demand and marketing.
    • The mechanical track teaches math from the viewpoint of calculating compression, finding amperages; science offerings include physics, hydraulics, and electronics…

I could go on about this model forever, because I’m a huge fan, but I’m actually getting sleepy finally. Plus I don’t want to bore you, there are dozens of potential tracks and options to create core curricula around them in ways that are not narrowly focused and still include broad learning outcomes, but make the core subjects relevant to at least a potential productive future.

What are Chan’s favorite words? “What if?” And these kinds of schools are right at the top of my all time favorite “what if” list. I can help design these kinds of curricula, devlop these kinds of faculty, administer this kind of education. I don’t know if this is exactly what God is calling me to do in Haiti, but from a limited human point of view right now it seems that way to me.

What I know.

What I know:

– My heart is in Haiti. It’s been there since February 2007, even though I didn’t actually go until October of 2008. When Dave and Sue first announced that they were going, my heart jumped. Literally – I felt it move. It was a little scary. I have known since then that I need to be there, that I have something to do there. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what.

– My education, background, and vocation all point to work in adult education. I have an M.Ed, working on an Ed.D. I’ve worked as a tutor, vocational teacher, curriculum designer, faculty evaluator, and faculty developer; loved every second of it.

– About a year ago I ran across an old blog by a young couple starting an NGO in Haiti. They made a passionate argument for the importance of education in addressing the country’s problems, and described their dream of one day building a college in the Northwest peninsula. Again, with the jumping heart.

– And then there was the earthquake. The young couple diverted their efforts to rebuilding projects further south, and I began thinking of school development as a “someday” thing. I lost that sense of urgency I had started with.

– So I went back to the Northwest last summer. We were in a tap tap, on the way to Saline Mayette, and we passed the site of the old orphanage in Port de Paix. I asked Josh what the mission was doing with that property now. He told me that it was the site of a large feeding program and a – <drumroll> – new secondary school. Any guesses about what my heart did next?

– So with my ventricles training for the Olympic trampoline team, I eventually made it back to the mission main campus and found a chance to talk to the director. He explained some of the financial realities of higher education in Haiti, and what needs to happen to keep the school running. We also found that we agree on the idea of a dual track program; that high schools should be able to address both university prep and vocational needs. It’s been two months now since that conversation, and I’ve about given up on getting the old ticker under control. It is still bouncing like a caffeinated toddler.

That is all I really know. Everything else I have at this point is theoretical or an outright daydream. But I know that something big is due to happen with higher education in the Northwest region, and I know that I am called to be involved in it. I guess I’ll figure the rest out in His good time.