Why schools play “the game” with students

If you’ve ever worked as a teacher in a high school, you’ve probably had to play “the game” with your students. You become acutely aware of how awkward “the game” is when you start talking about school events with adult friends of yours who do not work in education. Here’s how such an exchange between adults goes. Chandra works as a teacher in a school. Gemma has a non-school-related job (investment banker, magazine editor, graphic designer, consultant, etc.).

Chandra: I can’t believe they made me chaperone that dance last night.

Gemma: Oh, did they put you on sex-and-drugs patrol?

Chandra: Yeah, it was terrible. There were students freaking in the middle of the dance floor. There were people trying to sneak off to the main building to smoke pot and make out. We didn’t have enough faculty to supervise.

Gemma: I remember my junior year in high school, Daniel and I were the only ones who were able to sneak out of our homecoming dance to hook up.

Chandra: Yeah, well…

As you can see, Chandra is playing the game, and Gemma is inadvertently calling Chandra on it. Chandra was probably once in high school as well, experimenting with drugs, fooling around sexually with other students, and trying to skirt the rules of the school. Now that she’s a teacher, though, she has to enforce the rules.


I would argue that Chandra probably does not really believe that high school students should not indulge in any risk-taking behavior at all. She probably does not regret any drug use or sex (unless she was raped) that she had as a young adult. She probably views that time in her life and all the “mistakes” she made as part of her growth into being an adult. Gemma not only feels that way but acknowledges it vocally. Gemma can do this, because she doesn’t work in education.

If Chandra started telling kids it was okay to smoke a little pot or to have sex in high school, she’d probably get a reprimand from the school administration and some parents. She might even get fired. Parents of teenagers, as a whole, don’t want to encourage their children to do illegal drugs or have sex, and they generally will not enroll their students in a school that encourages the teenagers in that way.

If a school existed (and schools like this may exist), it would quickly gain a reputation as being for “bad kids” and would attract students who don’t just casually experiment with drugs and sex but who take both quite seriously as endeavors.

I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve had to play that game. I don’t feel like a hypocrite for doing so, as I didn’t have sex or do drugs in high school. I was pretty much as straight an arrow as you could get. I didn’t drink before I was legally allowed to. I didn’t go to wild parties. I didn’t baseball bat mailboxes. I didn’t throw eggs at houses. At the same time, though, I don’t think that everyone should do what I did. I don’t think it’s healthy to force all teenagers to or to pretend all teenagers do run the straight and narrow.

I don’t know a good solution, though. I don’t want to be in a school that says to the kids, “Hey, make sure you lose your virginity some time in high school. We don’t want you doing hard drugs, but smoking the occasional joint won’t screw you up big time.” But I don’t like the other directions schools have gone, which is basically “Don’t do anything bad. We may have done bad stuff, but we’re all adults now and we’re going to pretend we never did that. You shouldn’t do it.” Who knows? Maybe the game is necessary for the sake of order. At least these days, when students go to college (university, to you non-Americans), the schools no longer demand students be squeaky clean. In terms of legal liability, they’ll play a little of the game, but not as much as secondary schools play.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Teach kids computer skills, not computer programs

Frequently, in online discussions of the putting of Linux and/or open source in schools, the idea of preparing children for the Windows-dominated workplace comes up. The idea is that most workplaces use Windows and Microsoft Office and will sometimes even require proficiency in certain Windows applications, so how would putting Linux and open source software in schools prepare children for using Windows software in the future?

In “Should students learn Windows? Or Mac? Or What?” Scott Granneman points out rightly that technology changes quickly. Most of his examples have to do with changes in interface (Mac OS 9 is not like Mac OS X), but technology changes are far more drastic than mere changes in interface. I grew up in the 1980s using all sorts of computers that are out of fashion now (the colors were green and black or yellow and black on monitors), and finished my pre-university schooling before Windows 1995 was popular. Never was I taught to use Microsoft Office or any modern Windows interface. In high school, I took one computer science course, which trained me in Pascal, a programming language almost no one uses now.

Somehow, though, I’ve managed to actually get jobs and function in them, sometimes even excel in them. Now, more than two decades after my first exposure to computers, I use Windows XP and Microsoft Office five days out of the week and also use FileMaker Pro and Mozilla Firefox, two programs I’d never used in college or high school. In fact, in college, I could barely find anything on the web, because I had dial-up, and Google didn’t exist. Now, I can do mail merges, create pivot tables, and find information quickly on the web.

Technology changes quickly. It surely does. It really doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of preparation for the future, what operating system or software you use with children in schools. Do you think I’m still using turtles to draw colorful lines all over a tiny black screen now? No. Did all the F-keys I learned to use in my mouseless word processor in high school (I used a program called T3) help me with Microsoft Word later? Well, not directly.

What’s important to teach children is curiosity, not to be afraid of tinkering with things, the playfulness that computer software allows. You have to teach kids to be resourceful and get to know different tricks with whatever software you put in front of them. Do not have them memorize steps (click on this menu, then this menu, then this menu). Have them learn concepts. Really, this is what more schooling (not just from a technology standpoint) should be about.

If you stuck me in front of a program I’d never used before, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out its basic functionality and even how to get things done quickly with it. So putting Linux in schools shouldn’t hurt children’s chances in the workplace if you teach them concepts instead of memorization and exploration instead of rote instructions. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll be using Linux in the workplace twenty years from now anyway. Or maybe desktop/laptop computers as we know it won’t even exist at that point. We’ll have some new technology that’s even better, even more intuitive.

Further Reading
Linux in Education: Concepts Not Applications
In Defense of a Linux Education


The Tracking Problem

Usually when it comes to educational issues… or any issue, really, I have strong opinions, but tracking in schools is an issue I have mixed feelings about. I’ve worked in five different high schools, and have seen tracked curriculum and untracked curriculum in action in various subjects, and I have to say it’s hard to find a good working solution.

For those unfamiliar with the term tracking and its attendant problems and benefits, tracked classes are classes covering the same material or curriculum requirement that are tiered into higher and lower levels of rigor. For example, in a 9th grade English class might have Honors English 9, English 9, and Remedial English 9. Of course, the course title rarely uses the word remedial in it, but it’s understood by both students and teachers alike to be remedial. One school I taught at had a little “grade inflation” for the titles. So remedial English was English, regular English was Honors English, and Honors English was Advanced English—presumably a self-esteem boost for all parties involved.

If you don’t have tracking, the classes you teach have too much of a diversity of motivation, ability, and knowledge for you to tailor the curriculum properly to suit most of your students’ learning needs, so you end up either teaching to your best students and leaving the struggling ones in the dust or teaching to your slowest students and leaving your best students bored. In most cases I’ve seen, teachers tend to teach to the middle-of-the-road students and offer extra help (outside of class) to the struggling students, but still leaving the brightest kids more or less bored.

If, however, you do institute tracking, the remedial classes tend to know they’re the lowest level and that doesn’t do much for their motivation. Their peers tend not to push them much, and so they don’t end up having to do much to get to the middle of the bell curve. Behavioral issues also tend to get compounded in these classes. And, worse yet, it’s often the most experienced teacher who ends up teaching the AP classes, leaving a teacher straight out of college or grad school with the remedial classes, which tend to be larger and full of a mix of learning issues, constantly distracted students, and low motivation.

I do have a rather radical solution (which, as I said before, I don’t feel too strongly about) to this problem, but it’s so radical that I doubt any school would ever adopt it. Get rid of the grade-level system and social promotion. This would have to be delicately implemented, as there would be cultural barriers to overcome in addition to policy ones. In other words, instead of having just English 9, 10, 11, and 12 or English 9R, 9, 9H, 10R, 10, 10H, etc.; have English 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and have a whole bunch of levels in various other subjects as well and get rid of this whole grade level business. You’re not a 9th grader or an 11th grader. You’re a student. One student might be taking English 3, Math 2, Spanish 5, History 6, Science 1, and Art 9. Another might be taking English 1, Math 5, Spanish 4, History 2, Science 2, and Art 1. That way, if you’re having trouble with one particular subject, you don’t automatically advance an entire grade or get held back an entire grade—you don’t advance to the next level of that one particular subject.

This is more in line with how students really are. Yes, there are many all-around spectacular kids, who excel in every subject. Yes, there are some all-around not-so-great kids, who do poorly in every subject. But I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle. I considered myself smart in high school, but I struggled in science and history big time, while simultaneously excelling in English, math, and art; and doing only so-so in foreign language study. If I had attended my own make-believe high school, I might have started off in Science 1, History 2, Spanish 3, English 5, Math 6, and Art 8. Kids in this make-believe school would get very used to the idea of having in any given class a mix of first-year, second-year, third-year, and fourth-year students, and there would be less of a stigma attached to being in Science 1, as even smart-in-other-subject kids would be in that class.

Of course, where this gets tricky is in college counseling, as it might be difficult for a guidance counselor to explain how this kind of curriculum prepares a student for college. We would know, of course, in real life that a student in my make-believe school is just as, if not more, prepared for college as someone at a regular high school, but on paper, it’d be ridiculous for someone who never got past English 2 to advance to university-level studies, even though plenty of high school seniors complete 12th grade English and cannot coherently express their thoughts in writing.

Well, that’s my mental barf of an educational theory. If I ever start my own school, I’ll keep this in mind.


Myths About What Schools Need

  • Time=learning. So, more time=more learning.
  • Good schools have good teachers. So, better teachers=better schools.
  • Testing discourages social promotion
  • Tracking solves most classroom learning problems
  • Lack of tracking solves most classroom learning problems
  • Individual teachers create educational revolution (think Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver)
  • Students do not care about education

What schools actually need

  • Student-teachers as paid interns for at least two years. Every teacher should have at least one. Gives student-teachers a chance to learn the profession, make some money, not feel rushed. Gives students more adult presence in the room, more individual attention. Gives head teachers a little more breathing room, work burden less stressful.
  • More flexibility in curriculum, with teachers justifying choices to the community not the state. Even “canonical” works need justification.
  • More student choices in constructing their own education: a distribution requirement or self-designed proposal of study.
  • More integrative approach: a less condemning attitude towards non-academics as supplements to classroom activity.
  • Panels on important issues such as racism, homophobia, student voice, etc.
  • Teachers’ reimbursed by departments for book purchases (make this one of the priorities in funding).
  • Allocation of funds by community size, not community wealth.
  • Smaller schools, more freedom for students.
  • More teachers, smaller class sizes.
  • Smaller class sizes.
  • More funding.