Thursday, August 27, 2009

Quality of Information and Leisure to Digest it

School is back in session, and the blog has suffered as a result. I've been focused recently on student writing and my own WIP. I'm working on my time management skills, and I'm optimistic I'll find time for everything. (I write fantasy, and sometimes I fall prey to wildly impossible ideas.)

I posed a question to my students recently, and I feel compelled to share some of their responses. My pre-AP freshmen read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 over the summer, and so we began with that when school started. I love starting with Fahrenheit because of its focus on thinking for oneself. We use that idea in everything we read and write all year long. Following is the prompt I gave them.

"Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord." (p. 87)

What kind of education is necessary to create citizens who recognize "quality of information," take "leisure to digest it," and "carry out actions based on what [they] learned from the first two?" Do you think our current educational system does this?

The responses were varied, but a third of the class hit on a common theme. They believe the system fires information at them in the form of unrelated facts because the state says the material has to be covered. They don't ever have time to do more than memorize facts or understand ideas at the surface level.

One student said, "Our system crams it in without giving any leisure to digest it. This cripples our ability to learn due to the rush."

Another said, "Teachers always say 'hurry, hurry, hurry for the CATS test[Ky's statewide assessment].' We always seemed rushed."

Finally, the most telling, "It would take a system that could slow down so that students could process information. It would take a system that allowed students to form opinions based on an un-biased discussion. Lastly, it would take a system that was okay with confronting deep, controversial topics. In some ways, and in some classes, our education resembles this. In some classes, though, the useless memorization of facts seems like 'a lot of water and a lot of funnels.'"

These students have a point, and I'm not sure how to fix the problem. The scope of knowledge we are asked to convey in a 10 month period is broad, but which things would you delete? Do you let individual teachers decide? Honestly, that idea makes me nervous even though I like having autonomy in my own classroom.

I suspect the answer is in how the content is delivered by individual teachers. We have pacing documents that tell us we should be at "X" point by "X" date, but all of us quietly make decisions to touch on some of the content more deeply. Always hanging over us, though, is a sense of move, move, move. We don't want to let the kids down by not covering content on which the state will test them. At the same time, most of us believe it is better to truly understand something than to brush over it because it's on the test.

Maybe the problem is societal. How many adults recognize "quality of information" and take "leisure to digest it," let alone "carry out actions based on what they learned from the first two?" We live in a hurry, hurry, hurry world. Bradbury was correct. "The firemen are rarely necessary."

I love my job. The kids always make me think to the same degree I ask them to think.


  1. I wish we could give a broad overview of things, then let the students choose what they wanted to focus on. That way they could go into more depth and detail on the topics that are of interest to them (the topics/subjects they will remember because they will be self-motivated by their interest to learn).

    The firsth history class I ever liked was in college, when I took a class on the history leading up to the Civil War, 1820-1860. It was a small chunk of history, but I loved that class. I was interested in the Civil War because I'd read Gone With The Wind, and studying the issues that lead to the Civil War has helped me process information about other wars, other conflicts between people. I have internalized the facts and the way of processing and thinking about those facts, and I can use that knowledge to process and think about new facts/ situations that arise.

    So many kids "hate" reading because we force them to read this list of books that everyone should read. If we gave them a choice on what to read, they would become readers. Okay, so maybe Johnny will never read The Great Gatsby. So? Will his life lack meaning because he's never read Fitzgerald? So what if he only reads manga -- who said that isn't literature? And if we force-feed him Fitzgerald, is he going to read it? Is it going to have an impact in his life? We're more likely to turn him away from any reading, and he'll never get into manga.

    OK, now I'm ranting. But you get my point...

  2. I think teaching kids how to think and fostering a desire in them to keep learning is the best thing we can do. Then they can learn more about pre-Civil War history or read Fitzgerald if they want. I've never actually read Fitzgerald. I'm not sure how I missed it, but it wasn't required reading at my high school, and even with all my college English classes we never crossed paths. Even so, I turned out okay. :)