Some Unintended Lessons

By Ronald A. Wolk — November 01, 1991 2 min read

One Chicago substitute took over a 5th grade class that had already faced 23 subs. “The cards were stacked against these kids,’' he says. “Anything they learned, they taught themselves.’' Not quite. The system taught them that it doesn’t value or respect them and that they are not deemed important enough to have a regular teacher.

The Bill of Rights was ratified 200 years ago, but it was only 22 years ago that First Amendment rights were extended to students. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, ruled in favor of three teenagers who had been suspended by their principal for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Prior to Tinker, administrators had almost total control over the student press, and they were not shy about censoring what they deemed unfit for publication. After Tinker, student journalists enjoyed more freedom than ever before.

Then, in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier that students do not necessarily enjoy the same rights as adults; if a student newspaper is part of the school curriculum or schoolsponsored activity, the administration has far more latitude in censoring stories.

Since Hazelwood, some schools have reverted to the pre-Tinker days. The incidence of censorship has increased. Free expression has been curtailed. Administrators often find it easier to censor than to struggle with the complicated questions of free expression and individual rights. Such actions surely send young people messages about democracy that are more powerful than any learned in civics classes.

The subtitle of Howard Gardner’s book is How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. Gardner’s premise is that children bring a lively but “unschooled mind’’ to school. They have mastered a language, developed a sense of right and wrong, and can think about many complex things at high levels. They have formed theories about themselves and the world. Their theories are robust and logical, but often flawed.

More often than not, Gardner argues, schools ignore what children bring and proceed to teach the accepted curriculum. Because schools do not challenge children’s theories directly and build on them, students may subscribe to two often contradictory sets of theories--one for life in school and one for life in the real world. As a consequence, Gardner says, there is an unschooled 5-yearold mind in all of us that comes to the fore when we are confronted with circumstances for which the artificial world of school did not prepare us. The message students receive is that what goes on in school is not really relevant to life and that what students care about and are interested in is of no concern to schools.

Near the end of his book, Gardner writes: “Education that takes seriously the ideas and intuitions of the young child is far more likely to achieve success than education that ignores these views, either considering them to be unimportant or assuming that they will disappear on their own. The ideas of the young child--the youthful theorist-- are powerful and are likely to remain alive throughout life. Only if these ideas are taken seriously, engaged, and eventually trimmed or transformed so that more developed and comprehensive conceptions can come to the fore--only then does education for understanding become possible.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Some Unintended Lessons