Returning, Briefly, with a Response to Ripley

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Dave C

Note: It has been a few weeks since I fell off the blog, which was as much unanticipated as it is missed. I made a fairly major change in my teaching career, that was both unexpected and quite sudden. It is nothing tragic or anything, an opportunity arose and I changed my entire slate of courses for the second semester with a week’s preparation. I am sure I will write more on this later, because at the moment the new courses have completely taken over both my time and head-space.

Nevertheless, I still read about our profession along similar lines as I have been, a bit less than I was used to doing, however. So, when inspired I suspect I will still post on occasion. I just can’t keep up with the pace I had been setting for myself with the new challenge.

In Annie Murphy Paul’s recent blogpost, “Author Amanda Ripley On ‘Rigor’ In American Schools,” the writer presented The Smartest Kids in the World author with the question from a previous post on her blog, “Are American kids working hard enough?” It is an interesting read and prompted me to write the response below. I posted it, but am unsure whether it will get approved or not. So here it is with some minor adjustments.

While I am admittedly not a Ripley fan, believing it perpetuates an overly simplified myth that American schools are failing, as well as implying that we are doing something wrong because American students don’t score as highly on a standardized test that is even more dubious than those with a vested interest would ever admit. Still, there is something quite compelling in her response. Her suggestion, “if [parents and students] understand why it matters, and they find enough meaning, small victories and intrigue to make along the way to make the hard days worthwhile,” is perhaps the greatest insight I have read in her writing.

I would submit that this is where we continually get everything wrong in education. Culturally, we have perverted the reason why education matters to equate with material success and status, indoctrinating students into tragically believing all of their efforts should be about a grade, which leads to admission in a better brand name university, which leads to better employment, which leads to greater wealth and success in life. Yet why would they think that is not true when nearly every message they hear advances a similar or same agenda.

Additionally, we are now embarking on a ridiculous double-down accountability path that celebrates student failures as some kind of getting tough on academics strategy that is farcical and anything but helping students identify “small victories.” One need only read Emmaline Alvardo’s insightful testimony in the comments section for evidence. Worse still, think about it from a student’s perspective. When students score too well on tests, most often the two most obvious adult reactions are that they cheated or the test was too easy. Forget small victories, sometimes they can’t get any victories, and the students that intuitively recognize this tend to quit trying too hard.

Finally, think about it from a student’s perspective for a little while. Where is the “intrigue” in being essentially powerless and stripped of your developing agency when you walk through the doors of a school, where you will be told exactly what you are to “learn,” generally punished when you don’t, definitely punished when you exercise too much independence and resist adults prescriptions for your behavior and body of knowledge?

Standards dictate what you will learn. Teachers dictate how you will learn it (if you are even lucky). Tests will enforce to what degree you learned it. None of these factors, in most cases, present you the option to make decisions that are not about doing what someone has told you to do. Really, how often do students truly get to be in the driver seat of their own learning? Nearly all instances that can be suggested are more the exception than the rule. In fact, we typically even label those experiences as “alternative” in all flavored of the word. Wait, we also call them private schools, where the mandates of politicians and lobbyists have far less sway, because the ability to pay affords some autonomy.

Perhaps what is most profoundly ironic is that many of those that are so quick to quote someone like Ripley, advancing even more deeply flawed edreforms like, greater standardization, accountability, and testing, fail to see how they are antithetical to recognizing value, understanding meaning, capitalizing on small victories, and creating intrigue. I’m not even sure Ripley truly recognizes that. It kind of undermines one of the premises of her book.


One thought on “Returning, Briefly, with a Response to Ripley

  1. Laura Gibbs (@OnlineCrsLady)

    FANTASTIC blog post, as always – and I am glad all is well; it sounds like you will have exciting stuff to share later, too. Meanwhile, I so agree with what you have said here (and it’s why Ripley has been on my reading list for months now, but I just cannot work up the desire to read her). One of the things I like best about teaching in higher ed and even more so teaching online, is that there is LOTS of room for student choice, and I have never regretted adding more and more dimensions of student choice, creativity, open-endedness of all kinds into the courses I teach. Some students really thrive as a result, but other students are just befuddled: after 16 years of being told, full-time, every day, all year long, that the grade is what matters and they should do exactly what they are told, the idea of making choices is a totally alien idea and can even be very anxiety-inducing. For example, there are always some students who turn in work with the prefatory quasi-apology “I hope this is what you want….” – the idea of learning to satisfy themselves and meet their own goals is just something they cannot embrace. And no wonder, when what they take away from school is a transcript showing their GPA, and nothing more than that. Argh!


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