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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Educational Welfare and the Shape of the Spoon in Chicago

The biggest threat to academic achievement in Chicago and across the nation is educational welfare. We can go on forever talking about the merits of standards based education, formative assessment, and differentiated instruction, but if we allow educational welfare to creep into our schools then we have lost the war. When teachers practice educational welfare they undermine academic achievement at every turn. Over time the recipients of educational welfare learn to be dependant, intellectual dullards.

Educational welfare occurs when a teacher’s lecture takes the place of assigned readings and/or homework. It works like this: During the course of a class a teacher becomes aware that students have not done their reading/homework and then “gives them” the material in the form of a lecture. Educational welfare does not teach students to read, think, or interact with the world; in fact all it teaches is passive learning and dependence on the teacher. In short educational welfare trades on the future of our students and creates docile bodies. A clue that this going on is when teachers talk about “covering” material. The worst offenders put it in the first person, as in “Oh, I covered that a week ago.” The problem here is that the teacher knows the material (hopefully) and “covered” it, but what about what the students know? Well for one thing educational welfare undermines the importance of homework. It creates dependence on teachers.

Some teachers foster this dependence by referring to their students as “my babies” implying that students are as helpless as infants. Since metaphors structure the way that we think, this disturbing, condescending remark reveals a defeatist and racist mindset in those that speak this way. Yet, we allow these folk to staff our urban schools in the form of teachers, principals, and other ancillary staff.

What to do? The best means to counteract educational welfare is in making our classrooms and schools intellectually safe environments where students have the freedom and confidence to enter in to civil, robust, informed debate. The only way to get to that point in a classroom is to place a premium on justice, learning, personal growth and productivity. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students must work collaboratively to create this place. Impossible? Such an education is a reality at Phillips Exeter, a private, elite boarding school, why shouldn’t it be the reality for all children? After all E.M. Forester is right, "Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon."

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