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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Honoring Opinions About Education

By Peter DeWitt — July 10, 2012 5 min read
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In response to NY Times columnist David Brooks:

Everyone has an opinion about school. It happens because most people have been affected, positively or negatively by their school experience, so therefore they have an opinion about how it needs to change. Opinions are as diverse as the people who hold them but it is amazing how one can come off accusatory and sarcastic while the other comes of inspiring.

In a recent NY Times column (Honor Code), David Brooks gave the example of how Henry V, “one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters” would be medicated and verbally abused by today’s teachers. Any good column will play to some sort of stereotype, so Brooks seems to be playing to the stereotype that all public school systems try to force children into neatly packaged caricatures of what students should look like.

Brooks writes, “By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.” I do not have the obvious experience in the public school system that Mr. Brooks must have but I can assure that we do not suggest that students should be medicated. When parents bring the topic of medication up in conversation, I suggest talking with their child’s pediatrician because I am not qualified, nor do I agree, with having a child put on medication just so they can sit still. There are examples of when medication works but I believe our society is too overly medicated.

As a school principal I applaud diversity, and encourage those students who think outside the box but I know it does not happen enough, which leads to the second opinion on education that has more value. Sir Ken Robinson (Are Schools Killing Creativity) has the same concerns as diagnosing children with issues that they may or may not have. He tells the story of Gillian Lynne, a famous dancer. When Ms. Lynne was struggling in school her mother brought her to her pediatrician. As the pediatrician and her mother left the room, the doctor turned on music and shut the door. Ms. Lynne began dancing and soon after, her mother enrolled her in a dance school which began an illustrious career.

Finding Creativity
Most schools work very hard at finding the core of each child’s creative spirit. It is getting harder as we go through increased high stakes testing and accountability. With a focus on the Common Core State Standards, which do not put much of an emphasis on the arts, teachers are finding it much more difficult to find time to teach outside the box but they are trying.

This is unfortunate, because Sir Ken says, “Its education that is supposed to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.” He goes on to say “that the arts are as important as literacy.” When we opt out of these programs in favor of more generalized curriculum, the students who need that “out of the box” thinking the most are the ones who are truly losing out.

All of these changes to education are coming at a price. Many who believe that schools were not doing a good job teaching creativity are only going to be less satisfied with our current direction. Everyone is being forced to teach the same thing to all students. Although Brooks may be correct with his thinking, he is pointing the finger at the wrong people. Schools no longer have much control over what they can teach. Although we can control how we teach it, many teachers are concerned, because of comments like David Brooks has in his column, that no matter what they do, they will be penalized.

What Mr. Brooks needs to know is the same thing that Sir Ken talks about in his amazing presentation about creativity. It is that schools were created to get kids prepared for industrialization. Over the years it is the teachers that work in those schools that have tried to get students to think creatively.

Honor Code
David Brooks’ argument was that boys are lagging behind girls and he seems to be pointing the finger at the public school system. He says, “This is roughly what’s happening in schools across the Western world. The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.”

As a school principal, I understand that students rebel or become disengaged because they feel they don’t fit in. In addition, we understand that students rebel and become disengaged when they struggle with the curriculum that is being taught. Teachers work hard to try to re-engage students by differentiating their instruction and finding creative outlets for those students. Most teachers and principals do not create a factory line of kids ready to take medication. They do not receive kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies because they recommend a certain number of kids for medication.

Fortunately for us, Brooks has advice for all of us who spend our days with students. “If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.”

He goes on to advise that, “Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp”.

In the End
Most schools are working on overdrive to meet the creative needs that Sir Ken Robinson suggests. However, they are also feeling shell-shocked by the comments of writers like David Brooks. Schools are trying to celebrate diversity, celebrate all of the virtues he suggests, at the same time they teach children how to deal with failure and success.

They are doing this at the same time that they are working overtime to meet mandates, raise test scores and jump through unnecessary hoops that are only getting in the way of teaching the creativity that they know is so important so that students can be prepared for college, the workforce and the next big international study that comes out way.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.