Let’s say that one of these babies (me) became a teenager and wanted to learn how to speak another language. I started to learn French my freshman year of high school. I was given a book that started with simple sentences and rules of syntax and grammar. As the course progressed the sentences became more challenging; we learned about tenses, and questions, and other complexities of language. Behaviorists call this “rule-shaped” learning. The purpose of rule-shaped learning is to fast-forward the student to a point where contingencies can take over. I studied French for six years and had to pass an exit exam in my college which demonstrated that I could read and write French. When I went to France, and started to speak it, others assumed I was fluent from my few initial words which evoked a conversational barrage that was incomprehensible to me. Sadly, I was never immersed in a French-speaking place long enough to become fluent. Fluency means that all the rules fade away and language is a skill to express oneself. Rules are training wheels for beginning learners but hamper practice after a certain level of achievement has been reached.
Education today is flooded with rules, called standards, and assessments, which proclaim to measure how well students are learning the rules. Teaching is complex professional behavior, comparable to lawyering and doctoring. Becoming a teacher takes training, evaluation, constant learning, and experience. Teachers can live with standards but need the autonomy reach their own successful differentiated methods and styles. Constant measurement and assessment distorts their ability to teach effectively. Teachers learn from the total immersion of themselves in their jobs. They learn from administrators who are experienced in what makes an effective classroom. They learn from their colleagues. Training rules are not laws; useful if they help and discarded if they impede.
Today’s teachers have their wings clipped by rules. Some are so indoctrinated that they fear to stray from the rules and trust their own judgement and ingenuity. They are losing their freedom as our schools become more autocratic, mirroring what is happening to our country. It feels safer to “go by the book.”
Critical thinking, buzz-words for education, means to reexamine what is before us and make new kinds of decisions. We need to reevaluate some of the rules that are imprisoning us, especially since today’s education has been mandated to produce students with high-level skills, creativity and ingenuity. When you look at the engagement of babies in their first year of life, the joy of learning is palpable. How much engagement visible in today’s K-12 classrooms?
Artists, entrepreneurs, high achievers in every field know how to think “outside the box,” a value esteemed by the marketplace, where rules don’t apply. These folks are in total immersion with some aspect of our world. Yet we have drained our schools of the joy of learning that is our birthright.