Minds Like Sieves

My Greek teacher used to tell me, “Your mind is like a sieve!” – usually because I’d put the wrong kind of accent on a word. He was a meticulous man, and expected the same from his students.

Though he never said so, I suppose he wanted our minds to be like stopped-up sinks, filling up and never losing a drop. It’s an imperfect metaphor (think about all that Greek flooding onto the floor), but I’m pretty sure this is how our governor understands teaching and learning.

A teacher’s job (perhaps his thinking goes) is to pour knowledge into those eager little sinks, making sure that the drains are properly closed and that there are no leaks. A bad teacher doesn’t keep the tap open, or allows the water to leak away, or maybe fills the sink with potato skins and banana peels so the disposal gets clogged and the sink fills with yucky gray water.

Here’s where the metaphor breaks down. Having a brain full of useless facts is just as bad as having a sink full of stagnant water. A student can pass a standardized test without ever really learning anything important. We graduate them; when they get to college, they realize how little they’ve learned.

Teaching is not just dispensing information. There are facts kids should know, but without critical thought, information is worthless.

Most teachers understand that we have to clear out the garbage before we can pour in anything new. Alas, our curriculum is all about the input. How do you ‘un-teach’ things that kids ‘know’? The curriculum guide doesn’t explain that; it just tells me to cover what will be on the test.

Another problem is that somebody keeps throwing garbage in the sink, and we spend all our time unclogging it. Every time kids turn on the television or surf the internet, they are learning things – but not learning to evaluate them. They believe things because they saw them on YouTube or read them at Ask.com.

Our governor doesn’t know about all the garbage. He just wants teachers to stop blaming the sinks. He suspects that we are pouring vast quantities of cooking grease down their drains. His solution? Drano — for us, not the clog.

If teachers are mind plumbers, our job should be to keep things flowing, not fill the sink. Students’ brains should be like sieves, filtering out what is incorrect or illogical. But it’s not simple; when you live surrounded by garbage, you don’t realize that it stinks.

It would be much better if we stopped treating kids like passive receptacles. “Fix a kid’s drain and his sink will work for a day; train him to be a plumber, and he’ll charge you $60 an hour, plus parts.”

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Narrowing the Choices

I spend a minimum of an hour a day grading papers. Some days it adds up to as many as three hours. In a normal week, it works out to about ten hours of marking up papers, sifting through sentences and paragraphs, evaluating the evidence of learning.

One of the side effects of all this activity is the inability to let my mind off the leash. I tend to approach every part of my life with the left brain, viewing everything I read through critical eyes, including my own words. If a person needed a cure for writing and reading too much, having an English teacher grade everything would put an end to even the most fervent love of words.

Alas, I do not need to be cured. I need to write more, read more. But it’s pretty hard to sit down and read for enjoyment or work on my unfinished novel when I’ve been bleeding red ink all day.

Nor do my students need to be cured. At an age when their minds ought to be soaking up information, they have learned to hate reading because it always comes with a not-so-secret agenda. “Read the following passages and answer the questions by filling in the circle corresponding to the correct answer. Be sure to darken each circle completely, using only a number 2 pencil. If you change an answer, be sure to erase completely. Do not make any other marks on your answer sheet.”

If the only point to reading is to prove that you read something by bubbling in answers, or writing short answers and extended responses, or occasionally making a book report, why would they want to read? Reading isn’t fun, it’s a test.

Modern education revolves around testing and grades. More

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