English, Period 1
May 30, 2012
On an unusually warm winter afternoon, I was seated at a large table in one of the upstairs conference rooms of the River Forest Public Library. As I gazed through the floor to ceiling windows, I had a clear view of Roosevelt Middle School, where I had passed four happy and relatively carefree years. Seated around the table were several people who, to my amazement, agreed to engage in a discussion on education. Two were elderly gentlemen who had written numerous books and articles on the subject. Another was a writer of fiction whose gray hair and glasses hanging around her neck reminded me of my grandmother. A fourth was a boyish-looking middle aged man with an intent, serious expression on his face. It struck me that we could not have picked a more appropriate place to have a dialogue on education.
Peter Dimas: First, I want to thank all of you for taking the time to bat around ideas with me. Mr. Freire and Mr. Kohn, you must have spent countless hours thinking about education to come up with so many books on the subject. Ms. Lessing, it is really awesome that I am sitting next to a Nobel Prize winning author. And Mr. Gates, you are a legend. You probably have changed the world more than anyone else since I was born. I’d like to start by asking you, Mr. Gates, why you think it’s so important for us to double the number of math, science, and tech grads in the next few years.
Bill Gates (in an emphatic tone): That’s the only way we can stay competitive in a global economy. The United States will not be able to maintain its economic leadership without experts in these fields. And to succeed in today’s world, people need a knowledge of those particular skills.
Dimas: But is the purpose of education to help people get a job or to maintain the country’s economic superiority? What if people aren’t interested in math or science? I bet my English teacher, Mr. Bell, doesn’t think studying math is more important than studying English.
Doris Lessing: You have a point there, Peter. Knowing a specialty like computers, for example, doesn’t make one an educated person. With all due respect for your achievements, Mr. Gates, many computer wizards have read very little and consequently have no knowledge of the world. The purpose of education is to learn about our world and our place in it. We have a treasure trove of literature to learn from. Insofar as focusing on one area keeps us from reading, it can defeat the purpose of education.
Dimas: I get what you’re saying, Ms. Lessing. I agree with Mr. Gates that most people couldn’t survive today if they didn’t know how to use a computer. But most days I spend more time playing games on my computer than reading.
Lessing: And you are losing a lot that way, Peter. Reading stories can light up your imagination and can sustain you when you face challenges. It can feed your spirit and help create you as a person. It can be just as important, if not more important, to your well-being as a knowledge of math or science.
Paulo Freire: I agree with you, Ms. Lessing, that the purpose of education is much more than to enable someone to achieve economic success. From my perspective, the purpose of education is to enable persons to think critically and to solve problems -- to be able to form and change ideas based on respectful interaction with others. I think kids can learn as much from each other as they can from their teachers, and that a teacher can learn from her students as well. Learning is much more than being able to spew out facts relayed by a teacher.
Dimas: I really agree with you on that, Mr. Freire. Just last week I memorized a bunch of dates for a history test, and I already have forgotten them. And I really don’t see how knowing what year something happened can ever help me as a person.
Freire: Unfortunately, Peter, too many teachers engage in the process of “banking education.” They think that learning is a matter of teachers stating facts to students and students relaying these same facts back to the teachers. Students are given good grades not for thinking for themselves, but for memorizing what the teachers have thrown at them. This is dehumanizing to the students, because it implies that only what teachers say is worth learning. It also keeps students from looking at problems and trying to solve them. It gives students the message that there is no need for or benefit to soliciting and responding to the thoughts and opinions of others.
Alfie Kohn: Mr. Freire, we are on the same page about school environments being dehumanizing to students. In fact, too often teachers believe that kids can’t learn without being manipulated. In other words, teachers feel they must use bribes and threats to get kids to learn. You mentioned grades; grades are just a way of manipulating and trying to motivate students. But they are counterproductive. Dozens of studies have shown that people do better work when they are not promised a reward than when they are.
Dimas: I think it would be fantastic, Mr. Kohn, if there were no grades. It would take away so much of the pressure of school. But that isn’t realistic. Colleges will decide to admit us in large part based on our grades. But perhaps there is a middle ground. I like the approach of my English teacher. He grades certain assignments, but students get credit for completing other assignments. This alleviates a lot of the pressure associated with grades. And if there were no grades at all, what would motivate us to study and to learn?
Kohn: Peter, my experience is that kids have a natural curiosity and desire to learn. We don’t need to bribe them to get them to act on that desire. If we provide a varied and interesting curriculum, they will flourish.
Lessing (in an enthusiastic tone): I wholeheartedly agree, Mr. Kohn, that there is a natural hunger for learning, just as there is a hunger for food. I have witnessed it many times in my native continent of Africa. I have seen villagers who have not eaten for days talking about books and how to get them.
Gates: Mr. Kohn, although I don’t agree with you that grades hamper learning, I do agree that we must renew our curriculum with engaging, energizing content. According to a report prepared for my foundation, the number one reason kids drop out of high school is that they do not find classes interesting.
Dimas: I sure can relate to that. Last semester in my English class we had to read this James Joyce book that I just couldn’t get into. It was about this kid who lived in Ireland years ago when religion controlled everything. The book seemed to describe absolutely everything that went through the kid’s mind and went back and forth between the kid’s thoughts and what actually was happening to him, so I had a hard time following what was going on.
Lessing: Is there anything you can think of that could make your English class more interesting, and a better place for you to learn?
Dimas: Well, I think it would be helpful if we had more choice in our assignments. I realize that people have different interests and it wouldn’t be practical for each kid to have a different assignment. But it would be nice if we at least had two or three choices in what we read. If I had been able to choose between that James Joyce book and some other book, I probably would have chosen the other book. Also, it would be nice if we could choose an assignment with respect to a particular reading. For example, when we read a book in my sixth grade English class, we could choose to do a written assignment, an oral presentation, or an artistic creation relating to the book. I really liked that because different kids may prefer to express themselves in different ways, and I could pick the project that was the most appealing to me.
Freire: I like your suggestion, Peter. It would enable the students in your class to assume more responsibility for their own learning. But there would probably need to be some mandatory writing assignments, at least if a major goal of the class is to develop writing skills.
Dimas: I see your point, Mr. Freire.
Freire: Do you have any other ideas, Peter?
Dimas: Well, Mr. Freire, I think you are right that people learn the most by interacting with others. But, at times, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interaction in our class. Although we couldn’t do it all the time, perhaps more group assignments would encourage greater interaction.
Kohn: Thank you for sharing your perspective, Peter.
Dimas: Your welcome. I appreciate all of your views.