They are there every year. They have been there for the past few years, starting their high school careers with faces anxiously upturned. I give them the run-down: the historical eras we will cover, the class routines, the homework policy and what will be expected of both them and myself.
In many ways they are just like the freshmen I taught when I started my career 13 years ago. They are introverted, extroverted, pleasant, cruel, motivated, sedated. They embody all of the contradictions of humanity, all in one room. And why not? After all, they are human beings.
Yet, on another level, they are very different from the freshmen I taught 13 years ago. Or maybe it is me who is different. Or maybe it is both.
I sort of remember the first high schoolers I ever taught. I would ask them a question, they would go beyond it. They would ask a question and bring to the class a new level of understanding. Sometimes, they would bring me to a new level of understanding as well. Their essays easily regurgitated the facts necessary to pass, but there was more. They saw connections. They synthesized. They reasoned inductively and deductively to give their writing a coherent feel. Above all, they were curious. Their minds were reaching for ever-higher regions of understanding.
Perhaps these are just the ramblings of an old man who remembers some halcyon days that never quite existed. Perhaps my first students had such an impression on me because I was more impressionable. Yes, one can still be impressionable at 21 years of age in a way similar to a child.
And I still see these same qualities in the students I teach today. They are still precocious because that is the mind of a human child, of children of most any species.
Those qualities are there but they are muted. They still ask questions. They still go beyond what is asked of them. They still help me develop new levels of understanding. They still do these things, but do them less frequently than the teenagers of old. Instead, they do certain other things more frequently. These things, I don’t know, they just don’t seem healthy.
We have students that pay attention to everything. By the look on their faces, you can tell they are following along with the lesson. They may not say anything but you just know they are absorbing history like a sponge. Then they approach you after class. Are they going to ask a question about history? Is there something they need clarified?
Then they open their mouth and ask: “what grade do I have for this class?”
It’s the middle of the semester. They received a progress report a month ago. They have received a grade on every homework assignment and exam. They know how classwork is graded. In their possession is a trail of numbers they can use to get an idea of how they are “doing” in the numbers sense of things.
But they want to know how they are doing now, right at this very second. They want to know how the last number they received has gone up or down.
It used to be that when a student asked me a question after being in rapt attention during class, they would ask something about the lesson. They wanted to know something that wasn’t necessarily covered in class, something that had been burning a hole in their brain for the past half-hour.
Today that look of rapt attention doesn’t necessarily mean they are paying rapt attention. It means they are looking for their opportunity to pounce to ask that one question that has been burning a hole in their brain: what is my grade? Sometimes they ask it in the middle of the lesson, the suspense being too much to hold in.
There are the students who complete one handout in class, then turn to me and ask “am I passing now?” For many of them, it is like they wish to know the exact moment their grade reaches an acceptable level, however they define “acceptable”.
This never used to happen. Grades were something that usually came later. They were something to be discussed during parent-teacher conferences or during moments you had set aside for students one-on-one. It was a conversation that took place once or twice a year for each student, if even that much.
Now, it is something that happens all of the time. Is this the result of the online gaming generation where achievement is measured in an ever-rolling number at the top of the screen? Every level passed or enemy killed, as it were, causes the number to go higher and higher.
Nah, I don’t think so. If anything, video games have become less beholden to scores and more about completing a digital story.
The students who have been entering high school lately are part of the Reform Generation. They have come up through the ranks of a school system that has been thoroughly “reformed” by our saviors in government and business. They are the No Child Left Behind generation, the Mayoral Control Generation, the Standardized Testing Generation, the Race to the Top Generation. They have been reared on a steady stream of data. Their learning measured in a number from 0-100.
Education for this generation is not a matter of learning stuff. It is a matter of doing stuff. It is a matter of doing enough stuff to get their desired grade. For them, school is a series of mechanical processes: filling in the right bubble, filling in the blank with the right words or doing enough assignments to keep their head above water. Sure, there is internal growth, spiritual growth. But the growth they are most concerned with is the growth of their number.
For the student of old, it seemed that learning was an intrinsic thing. A new idea sunk into their brain. It either deepened, contradicted or displaced some other idea they already knew. This would cause them to ask a question or to find a new synthesis or do something else to adapt the new idea into their existing (sorry for using this educationist term) “schema”.
For the student of the Reform Generation, an idea sinks into their head. They stick the idea somewhere in their brain because they were told it was going to be on a test. There are many ideas already in their brain that contradict the new idea, but that is of no bother to the Reform Generation. It is not about how an idea affects you and helps you evolve. It is about how an idea can be stored and retrieved like a data file. What the new idea does to them, how it might deepen or undermine their entire world, is lost. Either the idea does not affect them in any way or the effect the idea has is secondary to its use as a knowledge widget for future regurgitation.
This is the data-driven Reform Generation. People are trained to act like computers. The technocrats and bean-counters who run our school system are succeeding in fashioning the next generation in their own image. They are training the next generation to think, feel and measure everything in numbers. They are training the next generation to think that intelligence is a binary code.
Are these human children? Sure. Like I said earlier, they are still curious like all human children. But as a teacher of teenagers, which is a stage of life where the indoctrination of their past schooling competes with their natural, child-like precocity, I see where these teenagers are tending. I see the sheen of a computerized, technocrized, numberized adult starting to cover the wonderfully chaotic soul a child. I see the silverish shell of a robot starting to grow over the flesh-and-blood human child.
No, I will not tell you your grade now. You will have to wait until report card time. I will not give you a number for every little thing you do and don’t do. I will not put every little assignment, every little breath, every last piece of work you do into an online grading spreadsheet so you can learn the lesson that education means nothing unless there is a number attached. Your education is not a number. Your education is your growth as a human being. Not only is it your growth between September and June, it is your growth forever and ever. Not everything in life has a number. In fact, the most important things in life don’t have numbers.
When you get married, why don’t you ask your spouse for a number to describe how you’re doing?
When you go to holiday dinner with your family, why don’t you ask them for a number to describe what type of relative you have been?
When you go to your place of worship, why don’t you ask your deity to give you a number describing how good a life you have led?
Numbers are for computers, technocrats and bean-counters. You’re a human being. Education is your growth as a human being. I’m sorry but, as your teacher, I have an interest in keeping you human. When I see that silver shell growing over you, it is my job to give you the tools to crack out of it. How can you even breathe in that thing?
Let the computers compute and the bean-counters count beans. You are a human being. The best lesson you can learn as a human is that you can’t be boiled down to a number. Once you allow yourself to become a number you become another bean to be counted, thrown in the pile with millions of other beans.
Our job is to ensure that the reformers’ reforms never amount to a hill of beans.