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.”

Algebra, Pigs and Freedom

Accountability sounds like a good idea. If it’s my job to teach children, and I fail to do that, I am responsible.

But teaching and learning are not the same thing.

I am more than willing to be held accountable for whether I prepare lessons, show up for class, and work with students to help them understand and use the information and skills I am teaching them.

But am I responsible for what students learn?

Are parents responsible for their children’s success in life? If my sixteen-year-old son hangs out with the wrong crowd and gets in trouble, or my fifteen-year-old daughter gets pregnant, what is my job as a parent? What should I have done differently? Am I a bad parent?

Because I talk with parents of children like this a lot, I would say that parents have a lot of responsibility, but at some point their control over their child ends. I have seen good, concerned, caring parents despair over their son’s or daughter’s refusal to do homework, their truancy, their inability to resist peer-pressure. I don’t know how to assign blame for a child’s failure, but I’m sure it’s not just one person’s fault. It’s not as simple as taking away the cell phone or banning rap music.

And teachers – are they responsible for their students’ success? If a student will not do any work, sleeps during class, cuts class, disrupts class, responds to no motivational strategies, what is my job as a teacher? What should I do differently?

I am a parent of a hundred kids – for fifty minutes a day. More

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