Is There a Future for Teaching?

April September is the cruellest month. It smells of sirocco, which with its warm breath and threatening clouds confounds the bright serenity of summer days thus foreshadowing the coming of autumn. There are still a few good days to be enjoyed of course, few, but they have the bitter taste of the awareness that something is just about to end. I guess this is the sort of melancholy which affects those who, like me, live by the sea, love the sound of the waves and looking out at the horizon. We are accustomed to live outdoor so many months of the years that home seems like a prison when September comes.

April Sempember is the cruellest month. In such a miserable state of mind the month begins with its most terrible mortal blow: teaching staff meetings. I believe that any teacher in any part of the world would agree with me if I say that the most salutary effect of summer vacations is: forgetfulness. Only few weeks and you realize that you have almost forgotten everything: papers, passwords, the inevitable conflicts you had in the past.  I am sure that two or three colleagues of mine must have given me reasons to get on my nerves last year, but actually, I can’t remember why at the moment and so I just say hello to them with a smile. That’s why before the first teaching staff meeting there is always a certain cheerfulness and excitement in the air, we are all tanned, friendly, light-hearted. Before.

April September is the cruellest month.The reading of the agenda of the meeting has the immediate effect of quickly awakening minds from the summer slumber and in that very moment illusory forgetfulness gives its way to memory and harsh reality. From the list of the issues to be discussed, school appeared to be a cautious bureaucratic system with no real identity or goal different from satisfying the wishes of families, who have actually become our customers and we know that customers must always be satisfied. So, if we don’t want to lose ground in the competition with other schools, we have learnt in time to dedicate a lot of our efforts in creating and customizing learning products, with the hope our customers might find them appealing, we have become travel agents, project makers, data analysts, advisors and what more! Is this what we wanted to be when we started?

April September is the cruellest month. After at least two hours of an endless discussion on school trips, on which destinations even the closest stations to go, hadn’t been all of us fully in such process of metamorphosis into somebody/thing we don’t know yet, had we had a shred of dignity left, we should have stood up and say, what has it all to do with me? And quit the assembly then. My friends, teaching once was a sort of romantic, generous job. Teachers were those who had the task of transmitting knowledge or better the curiosity of knowledge to generations. They made the difference, but now, if the nature of the activities we are involved into are often so very far from teaching, is it still so? In a time when information can be easily got on the web, if teachers no longer make the difference, why should society need them?

There are already apps with avatar trainers who teach how to work your glutes, abs, Pilates, Yoga, cooking etc. , I’m sure very soon they will be programmed to teach Latin, Math, History with customized lessons and looks as well. It seems that one of them has already been tested. His name is Will. So, my dear friends, if we accept to give up making the difference not only September will be the cruellest month, but also October and November and all the months of the years as the teaching system, as it is now, will have no reason to exist.

 

 

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Wilfrido or On the Necessity of Education

Some years ago, my husband and I had the great opportunity of joining a program of long distance adoptions in Paraguay. The idea of helping the minors of the poor countries and  their families providing them with an economical help so that they might receive the primary goods, education and the medical care they need, made us feel, I don’t know, better people, if this makes sense. Once subscribed, after few weeks, we received a letter with all the personal data of the adopted child, which, unexpectedly, turned out to be a very exciting moment, because we hadn’t been given the name of the kid yet. I still remember my husband slowly unfolding the letter, looking at the picture and saying with a big smile: “it’s a boy”.

His name was Wilfrido. In the picture a little brat of about five was doing his best to show us his gratitude with a big toothless smile, even if he seemed a kind of uncomfortable in his brand new school pinafore, maybe too large for his age. Once our adopted son had materialized in that pic, we started to be pervaded by a strange sort of excitement. We began to imagine how many things we might have done for him, as providing him with a high school education and even more if he proved to be talented, Harvard, Stanford, why not? At a closest inspection of the picture, actually, the boy didn’t really look like the student type. His eyes were so lively and that pinafore he was forced in could barely discipline his free spirit. Maybe I was wrong.

I was not. Wilfrido didn’t pass the first grade that year. We were shattered, but the following years went much better. He only needed a bit more time to get used to that pinafore. When he learnt to write he began to send his own letters. He always thanked us, of course, but he particularly enjoyed telling about his life and his family. He said that it took seven miles to reach his school from where he lived, which he did on foot or on horseback when his father allowed him. He also added that he liked studying after all, but I did not believe him very much on that point, it was a sweet lie full of gratitude.

One day, Wilfrido and his family left the village never to come back again and I have never heard from him since then. I was disappointed, I felt I could have done something more for him, as if I had not been able to fulfill my task. Few years later I would have seen the whole experience from another angle. I  was in Costa Rica and I needed some directions. One boy offered to write down the address for me. He picked a pen and slowly started to move it on a piece of paper as if he were drawing. It took him five endless minutes to write that piece of information and even if we were a little annoyed at first, somehow we felt we didn’t have to hurry him. Eventually, he handed me the note. His handwriting was incredibly neat and elegant and when I met his eyes I could clearly sees a sparkle, I saw his satisfaction, pride and dignity. He might be one of the many Wifrido that people the world. Maybe I had done something good after all.

In a week time I will be back to school and I needed to tell this story to remind myself in such distressing, absurd times why I teach, because I think education can make people conscious, stronger and free and even because I feel useful every time I can see that sparkle in the eyes of one my students.

Copy,Edit,Paste.

We were very different from the students we teach, it is a matter of fact, but pray, when I say different I don’t mean better, just different. Making an effort to understand that assumption is, my opinion, essential, if we do aim at being of any help to the generations we are supposed to form. This epiphany came across my mind after the sixth school board meeting few weeks ago and after hearing for the sixth time in a row the same things: teachers complaining that their students are not able to develop any learning strategy different from memorizing useless notions which are usually soon forgotten and students complaining on the amount of homework and above all on the fact that they don’t understand what we actually want, that we should feel satisfied and praise them for the (pointless) effort they produce. At the end of these meeting each party goes home fully convinced to be on the right side of the question and the next day everything starts afresh.

Since I would like to try and work on bridging this gap between we teachers and our students, I will focus on what I consider the two most striking generational differences on which to ponder and a humble suggestion in the end. So, difference number one is: parents’ behaviour. Really, I do not understand. Whenever I have to attend P/T conferences, there is one common issue: since teachers give too much homework, parents feel somehow compelled to help their children do their homework  – if we are lucky – or they do it in their place. I’m wondering, this must be the reason why I didn’t have children, as, if after a day at work, you have to cook or look after the house and family and besides, there are your children’s homework waiting for you, well, it is hell. The parents of my generation never thought about doing our homework, for many reasons, but first of all because it was our duty and responsibility, however, they did check whether we had done what had been assigned, I can assure you and I have vivid memories about it and….bruises.

The second difference, of course, concerns the media. Being digital natives means not only that you have grown up online spending a lot of time on various social media, but also that you have developed the attitude of getting to information very fast and superficially at the same time. Messages must be simple, short, catchy  and whatever requires thought, pondered analysis is pushed aside as “démodé”. If this is the scenario, is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Learning proficiently is like making your own fix net of information and the new generations should actually have the effective digital native attitude, rather than the old Sisyphus one. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit, and this is exactly the 3 step learning strategy of most of my students have developed: study/memorize,forget,start afresh. That is why they always assume it is too much homework, because they keep on studying the same things they had forgotten, which, however, keep on surfacing even when they deal with apparently different topics.

The correct approach when you study is: copy, edit, paste. An example: if it took an entire hour to study 3 pages about the Magna Carta, I said study, not memorize, when you deal with the Petition of Rights, you’ll have just to copy the concept, edit it with the new protagonists and paste it. It will take 45 minutes this time. Furthemore, if your history teacher wishes to assign you homework on the English civil war, you already know the basic events and you’ll have just to do a little editing, hence 15/30 minutes will be enough to accomplish your task. If you studied the characteristics of English Romanticism and studied some poems, it should be quite natural to find the same issues when you study the Italian poet Leopardi, for example. In this way boredom and a great waste of time would be avoided. Homework is not your enemy, as all the time you spend on training in one of the sports you practice is not your enemy if you have goals. Working pointlessly and with no passion, that is your enemy.

 

 

On School Books

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With this post, the trilogy about teachers’ frustration, or at least my frustration, for what concerns parents’ expectation from the school system comes to an end. Hence, having analyzed old and new attitudes towards the “pointless” habit of assigning homework, I would like to add few words on school books and how they have changed in time according to the new methodological requests.

As soon as you open a school book of your children, I guess you may promptly spot what’s new: pictures. Nowadays school books are mostly made of pictures rather than words. Even books of subjects which are less likely to require pictures, as for example, philosophy, are assembled with colorful paintings, drawings, fun activities and such. Books must be engaging and attractive, and to be attractive pictures work better than words, of course. I do understand this, because in my school days books were dull. When my philosophy teacher, for example, assigned us 12/15 pages to study, my first thought was: are there any pictures? We were really lucky if there was at least one, as once, books were made of words. If I had to study the Socratic method, for instance, I would have read pages and pages about the way Socrates succeeded in eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close logical reasoning, plus extra essays on his famous disciples like Plato, plus notes at the bottom of every page without a trace of a picture. All grey.

Nowadays, it would impossible to propose such a book and I would not do it myself either. All these words would cause a shock to the Instagram , Facebook, “Why bothering about writing, there are emoticons” generation. The same topic, very likely , would be better and easily explained on modern books just using three drawings, yes, three would be enough. The first one would show Socrates while speaking to his disciples who look at him in silence😕, then in the second one he starts to asks questions and questions thus catching his disciples’ attention 😮and the final one the enlightened devotees eventually start to speak while Socrates displays his satisfaction 😄. His method had worked 👍.

Teaching has become mostly visual nowadays, which is fun for us teachers too. However, I have noticed that too often when our students are asked to read, because it happens sometimes, and analyze a text, they don’t understand the meaning of many words. For example, one day in a class with students of about 19 years old, we were talking about the “welfare state”. I gave for granted that they knew the meaning of the word, as even if we have borrowed it from the English language, it is commonly used on newspapers and political debates every day. However; nobody, and I say nobody, knew exactly the meaning of the word “welfare”and things did not improve significantly, when I translated it into the correspondent Italian “stato sociale”. A thick fog surrounded them. They were 19 and potential voters.We are so focused in transmitting knowledge with the help of images that we do not realize that words are starting to become meaningless for many of them and us too .

Hence, I cannot help but wonder, when every now and then we are asked to give our opinion on such “irrelevant” matters like Brexit in the U.K. or to vote the reform of the Italian Constitution, as it will happen here in Italy on the 4th of December, we should assume that all these people are informed as they can read and fully understand what they read, otherwise, upon what ground will they choose? I guess that the 40 something millions of citizens who are demanded to decide to vote YES or NO for the reform of the constitution, should, as prerequisite, at least be acquainted with the 139 articles which form the constitution plus the various sub-paragraphs and then analyze carefully the amendments to form an opinion. All this without the help of explanatory pictures? I have my doubts.

On the Necessity of Parents’ Doing their Children’s Homework.

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As I said in the previous post, rebellion is in the air. A rebellion against the oppression of homework and the tyrannous teachers who spoil the quality of students’ life assigning it. However, while analyzing these vigorous movements, I have realized that here in Italy, as usual, there is an anomaly. In fact, they do not seem to be grown out of the necessity of those “ill-treated” students, as it would be normal to assume, but rather, their parents’. It seems a kind of weird, I know, but it actually explains the nature of the phenomenon and why this generation of parents feels haunted and frustrated about homework habit: THEY do their children’s homework, that is all .

pin3Of course, I cannot but unconditionally sympathize with them, as that was the “duty comes before pleasure and leisure” generation, my generation. Our parents would  have never dreamed of questioning the necessity of homework or openly criticizing teachers and I would have never dreamed of complaining with them about the loads of work to do. Had I tried, their only solution would have taken the form of the reduction of my extra activities, which I didn’t want, of course, therefore ; I tried to organize myself the best I could and in a way or another, I managed to survive. Hence; not only these parents were regularly and unquestionably in the habit of doing their own homework, but  somehow, they feel compelled to do their children’s as well, sparing them the trouble of doing it, but why?

Of course, it cannot be pure masochism, as it would seem at first glance. Therefore; I can only guess that if, after a long, tiring day, those parents are still willing to take books, pens and paper to live their old homework doing nightmare again, their drives must be powerful indeed and from my experience I can single out two of them in particular: fear of failure and lack of time, better known as “let’s find a shortcut”.

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This happens, because  homework is generally considered only as the boring acquisition of notions, but it is not or at least it shouldn’t. Homework, actually, concerns the consolidation of what has been done in class and above all, work organization. Hence; those parents who constantly help their children do/organize their homework, actually, don’t trust them. They don’t let them grow and test their own learning method and besides they might undermine their self-esteem, as the subliminal message given is that without their help they would not be able to reach the goal otherwise. Believe me, this is how it works.

I have witnessed my sister-in-law for years, undergoing all this since first grade. Her constant presence had made the time dedicated to homework odious for my nephew and disappointing for her (and the entire family as well). Year after year, he had learnt to accomplish his duty only to avoid his mother’s pressures and shouts or to please her. Therefore;  homework was something pointless with a lot of drama added every day, which he did only for her mother and not for him. When she could not help him any longer, guess what? He failed, because in all those years he had not learnt how to manage his time, as her mother did it for him and worst af all, he had not developed any effective learning method. He had only learnt notions which were soon forgotten once the minimum goal was achieved.

For what concerns parents’ habit of doing homework as a sort shortcut to finish sooner, this point cannot be understood if we don’t comprehend how  adolescents have changed in time. The life of an average student nowadays is, let me say: busy. Teenagers practice at least one sport three or four times a week plus other extra activities of any kind, spend a lot of time facebooking, whatsapping, playing with video games, hanging out etc., hence; it seems difficult to find any extra, quality time for any additional effort. The point is that their parents are just fine about it, they are happy to see their children “have a life” (I’m employing the words they used in the many letters of complaint) and don’t want this routine to be spoilt,  that’s why they often replace their children in doing their homework.

My dear parents, you’ll be surprised, but I also think that your children need to have a life, all teachers work in order that they might have the best life possible, but we can’t do this without parents’ support. Let’s try to co-operate for once so that WE might have a life, as well. Therefore; stop doing their homework, and help them only if they ask you. Let them  “err“, “fall” and learn from their mistakes so that one day they might “find open before” them” the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

The Sentimental Education

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in 1Simplicity is very often the best way to express the complexity of a state of the soul and William Blake, somehow, was a master of simplicity. Innocence and Experience are the two simple, effective words, that better portrayed for him the two opposite states of human soul. The age of Innocence is that phase when you are a child and you see the world that surrounds you with the curious eyes of wonder and imagination. In that stage the soul is highly receptive and absorbs every external input, hence life seems a joyous, frantic carousel of emotions. Unfortunately “Innocence” is a transient state and as time goes by, we drift towards Experience, that is, the age when our eyes, now opened wide, are no longer dimmed by the enchanting powers of Imagination. The more we become aware and overwhelmed by loads of responsibilities, the more we grow pessimistic and distrustful towards our future. We should try not to lose sight of that little child , that “fanciullino” , as the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli called him, we used to be and retain a little room for him in our soul, but how? How can we fight the deteriorating effects of time over him?

ed 4Education was a possible answer or better a sentimental education. Many philosophers of the eighteenth century started to focus their attention on childhood, being that period of life when are we so responsive. John Locke warned that “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences “, therefore education should work on those impressions to “open and dispose their (children) minds as may best make them capable of any, when they shall apply themselves to it.”  Furthermore, he maintained that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later, because they are the very foundation of the self.

in3Jean Jacque Rousseau wrote in his book Emile that all children are perfectly designed organisms, ready to learn from their surroundings so as to grow into virtuous adults. The instinctive goodness of a child is spoiled by society that for the French philosopher was malign and corrupted.That’s why he also advocated an educational method which consisted in removing the child from society, for example, to a country home, thus enabling him to live more in close contact with nature, which he regarded the only source of pure, uncontaminated values and emotions. He also maintained that child should grow up without any adult interference and that the child should be guided to suffer from the experience of the natural consequences of his own acts or behaviour. When he experiences the consequences of his own acts, he advises himself. A teacher, therefore, shouldn’t but encourage the natural curiosity of a child and guide him to experience the sensorial world, only once this world has been molded  – at about the age of 12 – the tutor is allowed to work to develop his mind.The associationist philosopher David Hartley focused his attention on childhood as well and  he assumed that also  “our moral character develops in that phase as a result of the pleasure and pains caused by physical experiences“. Therefore if a child is well guided to experience the world and learn from the emotions he receives, he will be able to grow a more rounded mad with firmer ethics and more inclined to find joy and positivity in life.

That was almost three centuries ago and I have to say, all this interest in childhood was just philosophy, as the majority of children left school at six and were regularly exploited at work. Nowadays children live a more pampered life, at least in the western world, therefore there should be a more fertile ground to impart the lesson of those philosophers, but how do we educate our children? Are we really paying the due attention to make them develop their sensorial, emotional world, considering that all this should frame their moral character once they become adults?