Photo of machine monster from Fritz Lang's movie MetropolisThere’s a whole new climate of opinion that’s been sweeping over the educational scene in America these days.  It’s all about accepting as perfectly normal the creation of a monstrous monolithic “learning” enterprise from preschool to post-college that consists of uniform standards, standardized testing, the collection of “data”, and the evaluation of teachers based on test scores (a practice incongruously called “value-added”).  I find this development very troubling.  Perhaps even more troubling is that so few educators are seriously questioning it.  There’s a very corporate feel to this movement (and many of the terms used now in education such as “value-added” and “data” come directly from the corporate sphere).  I hardly know where to start in critiquing this brave new world in education.  Perhaps I can begin by quoting what one superintendent of schools declared was his optimal moment in learning:  “I want to see all the kids on the same page at the same time.”  There’s a uniformity to this movement that’s reminiscent of the dehumanizing machinery in Fritz Lang’s classic movie “Metropolis” (see photo).  Yes, I think that’s what’s at the core of this standardization of learning – it’s dehumanizing impact.  We’re no longer concerned with educating whole human beings – instead we’re focused on collecting “data.”  We’re no longer interested in the very different developmental worlds that preschoolers inhabit compared with elementary schoolers, middle-schoolers, or high-schoolers.  Instead, preschoolers are now cramming for standardized tests that will determine which kindergartens they enter (see an article on this practice in the Chicago Tribune this week), and high school students are abusing stimulant drugs to keep them focused on their ever more “rigorous” Advanced Placement courses and exams.  Everything these days in the classroom seems to be about “harder” “tougher” and “faster.”  Where are the voices that are saying “let’s slow things down, teach fewer things, chill out in the classroom, and take time to ponder the wonders of nature and culture.”  The world is an incredible place.  There are galaxies, and DNA, and Beethoven, and Moebius strips, and Impressionism, and Bali, and a million other things to be fascinated by.  Why can’t classrooms become places where students are slowly and gently introduced to these things?  Why can’t we allow children more time to play, more time to engage in “reverie” (those times of wandering off into mental space and considering life’s imponderables)?  Why can’t we spend time in the classroom inspiring teenagers to question the way things are, to challenge authority in the way that Robin Williams did in Dead Poet’s Society?  Instead, everything these days is about getting ready for a four-year college, where there will be more pressure, more grades and test scores, more cramming, and less time to wonder about life and one’s possibilities.  Will there never, then, be a time for students to learn about who they really are?

Thomas Armstrong is the author of If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education -

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3 Responses
  1. Beautifully said. I’d love to hear more. I am a long time educator and currently work for public schools in special education. I am appalled by the blatant anti-life, authoritarian environment of public schools. The principals and teachers support each other in destroying childrens joy of learning and then laugh about “their bad behavior” in staff rooms. I feel like a complete outcast and feel like I am always trying to attack the public school giant with a toothpick. How can we, as outcast individuals, help public educators see the shortcomings of what the system they insist is good for kids? Would school vouchers solve this problem by creating free market competition and more charter schools in education?
    I could read more and more of your posts! And I loved the Rainforest article. Keep up the good work, I’m going to link you to my website and blog 🙂

    Tatyana from Oregon

  2. Gabriel Hernandez

    As a student in university I definitely feel this. I have grown tired of the idea about being more rigorous, having to focus more. I can’t deny that It’s important to have those traits, but I believe that passion and enjoyment is what makes us feel motivated to work with effort. I feel my career being stabbed by an icepick when my teachers give homework or assigns for weekends, when my mythology teacher basically wants us to do transcripts of his class, or my history teacher reproaches the students who don’t deliver extra homework. I have lost my privacy in the sense that I am constantly being surveilled (by myself) or policed to work more and disdain all times I’m just not working. Human beings are much more than work and we should be given time to explore this other side of us that is not about work. However, I’m afraid that our non-curricular activities have become like second jobs as well. Doing sports is no longer about enjoying it, is about wether I have become faster or stronger, or whether I’ll be able to enter some marathon or not; writing short stories has become wether it can be publishable or not. Wherever we look the idea of being productive is around us.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! You send a very important message to us about living sanely in our frenetic culture (it reminds me of the old musical title: Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!).

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