Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thinking about education and character development

I was up a little late last night having a discussion with my husband about an article I sent him from the NYT:

Published: September 14, 2011
Why our children’s success — and happiness — may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure.
(Read the article so the post below won't be confusing- the headline is not very descriptive of what is actually in the article)
I read it and thought that the way they have framed the ideas is interesting.   They way they have defined character education, as well, is intriguing.  And, most interesting is the way they talked about implementing the same ideas in two very different schools and demographics.  The ideas- that some kids seem to know how to deal with adversity and stick to things- the "successful kids", and some kids don't seem to, is not really new, but trying to implement a system to help kids learn these skills might be.  (I'm greatly simplifying here).  One of the schools is a KIPP school- and while I'm always exited to hear that these schools are working well for certain kids, I'm always slightly horrified by the methods. Still, I never realized exactly why I had this gut reaction.  I think our discussion on the article will help me articulate my thoughts-and I'll just focus on the KIPP school because, the article didn't really articulate much about how the wealthy private school was going to implement the ideas. The private school thought that having report cards on these aspects of character was never going to fly, so did not do it.
The KIPP school measures everything, so they were going to try to measure GRIT and some other aspects of character that seemed to differentiate the ones who went to college and finished it after graduating from the KIPP schools and those that didn't.
The idea in the article is that we have figured out what kids seem to need to do well in our system- the system where you go to college and become part of the elite.  So we think our job is to make kids this way.  That's the premise.  And, being part of this college educated/educator class, I immediately didn't even notice the premise and certainly did not question it... until we had our discussion. 
Here are some questions we considered: Are we training kids to be "cogs in the wheel"?  Is it a good wheel?  Can all kids be in the "elite college educated class"?  Do we want everyone to accept the system? How much of our population do we need to be always questioning the system?  Should we be training them as well?  How?  Have we ever asked the kids what they want?  Why don't they get any say in this?  Are they qualified to have any say in this? Maybe they  are, ala Kohlbeg (people do gain moral reasoning as they age).  Additionally it seems that  peer influence  can be more important than grown-up influence in forming values.  That is, peers are capable of deciding what is moral and valuable, and making choices. 
In the KIPP system (as I understand it- not claiming I have had direct experience, so this is as its portrayed in the media), the school seems to take a very top down approach- this is the way things are, and you need to learn the code, and this is how your are going to do it.  And of course kids who don't know the code (the way white college educated people interact), need the opportunity to learn it- that's what I've always admired about the KIPP approach.  What always made me nervous as the top down, almost military way of going about it. Now I'm seeing maybe my concern is the focus on being part of the elite system- not like there's anything wrong with being given the tools to be in that class- but there is something to be said for questioning the system, given tools for other paths, ... its hard to articulate, but it just seems that something is missing.  Perhaps that thing is giving students more choices and asking their opinions- more akin to those schools that are run democratically.
And perhaps this asking students for their say in things is also missing from more elitist schools.  These students are also part of the system, college is a given, and they already know the social cues they will need.  But they also are put on a particular path to uphold and hold a particular place in the current system.  The school also is telling them how to take their place there.
This post is about ideas and thing to think about. I'm sure my conclusions will change over time as I think more about education from this perspective.  We did touch on this in my teacher educations classes, but over time, when you are embedded in a particular system you forget how to think about it as an outsider.

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