Now You See It, Now I Don’t: How Schools are Failing Our Children

My fourth grade daughter reports that of each school day, she only enjoys 40 minutes. And surprisingly, it’s not lunch and recess.

For less than an hour, she and a handful of other “advanced” students leave the regular classroom and spend time in “enrichment” class. There, Evelyn and her cohort read (more) challenging texts, debate how to solve difficult word problems, and craft creative responses to writing prompts.

“Something I really like is when we break into groups and each group has a set of algebra problems to do,” says Evelyn. “I feel like I learn better that way because I have something that I can share with the other people, and seeing what other people did helps me too.”

As far as enrichment goes, Evelyn’s teacher requires nothing remarkably collaborative, challenging, or interdisciplinary. Yet compared to how learning happens in my daughter’s regular classroom, the approaches taken by her enrichment teacher look revolutionary.

When she goes back to class after enrichment, Evelyn must then make up the work she missed in class; she often brings home a stack of worksheets and worry about whether she will earn an NP (Nearing Proficiency), MP (Meeting Proficiency), or EP (Exceeding Proficiency) on her next standardized test. (How someone can *exceed* proficiency is beyond me, but that’s quibbling over semantics.)

In other words, the learning she and her friends do in enrichment isn’t seen as replacing or even extending the regular curriculum. She still must complete every worksheet in order to ensure solid results on the standardized test that Delaware requires she take three times a year, every year.

When I talked with my daughter about some of the classroom projects Cathy Davidson writes about in her book, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, she expressed admiration and a tinge of jealousy. The process-based methods used by innovative teachers like those at Voyager Academy and Quest 2 Learn were both alien and appealing to her.

Mostly what she longs for is to learn in interesting ways. Nearly every subject–from science to social studies, language arts to math–has the potential to interest her and her classmates, but the perpetual testing cycle and limitations of time and focus discourage fun, curiosity, and questions.

The elementary-aged kids I talk to know that the system is broken; they know that standardized testing, at least in its current form, is a chain hanging around their teachers’ (and by proxy, their educations’) necks. But they’re trapped.

“Standardized tests just show what you wrote. They don’t show what you actually know,” explains Evelyn. “Something like a project can show how much a student cares about their work.”

Evelyn, limited by her formal school experiences as well as by her youth, would probably admire Davidson’s idea of an “exciting end-of-grade test” (130). Davidson proposes an end of year “synthesis” that students would create that would use what they had learned that year. The project would show “each child what he or she could do in the world,” and these ideas would be on display at an “idea sale” (130).

In my searching online for a video intersecting with Davidson’s theoretical concepts and my hopes for my children, I found a video made by a class of 7th graders in Joanna Sanders Bobiash’s Grade 7 class at École Wilfrid Walker School. The video, which won the 2009 “Best in Class” Best Buy Contest, grew out of a collaborative text written by the students based on their goals for the future and the impact of technology on their lives.

See the video here (I’m having trouble getting it to embed from tubechop).

Now, there are many other more polished videos available on Youtube, even those ostensibly made by middle schoolers. This one did not stand out to me because of its professionalism; the video footage and editing is fine and the audio quality is okay.

What moved me deeply was getting to hear the words and voices of young adolescents speaking their goals and dreams. Not by themselves in private. Not to a friend or family member. But as a team, to the world (and in two languages, no less!).

One young woman says, “I want to share my work with the world and learn from their feedback.”

That simultaneous confidence in reaching out and acknowledgement of what one has yet to learn, it seems to me, are at the heart of Davidson’s manifesto: “Confidence in your ability to learn is confidence in your ability to unlearn,” writes Davidson, “to switch assumptions or methods or partnerships in order to do better” (86).

Schools that encourage and reward that simultaneous confidence (learning) and awareness of personal shortcomings (unlearning): that’s what I want for my daughters and my son.

But when another thick packet of worksheets and workbook pages land on the kitchen counter, it’s hard to feel hope that a place like Ms. Bobiash’s 7th grade class and Q2L and Voyager Academy are more than rare mirages in an educational morass.

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9 thoughts on “Now You See It, Now I Don’t: How Schools are Failing Our Children”

  1. Janel,

    I’d like to start off with what I guess is a clarification question: what is it that you would like to see more of at Evelyn’s school? Is it that thrust toward more collaborative projects? Is it less standardized testing? Is it both?

    Now that I’ve posed that question, I have a bit to say about Davidson’s use of the term “idea sale.” To be quite frank, that phrase disconcerts me to a remarkable extent, whether she intended it to have negative connotations or not. For some reason it makes me think of Worlds Fairs, which, however innovative they may have been (and don’t get me wrong — I like and study them extensively in my own time), always managed to commodify ideas in such a way that felt both like bragging and like marginalizing other “lesser” ideas (specifically ones from other nations).

    To me, then, Davidson’s “idea sale” seems like a poorly-conceived educational utopia that could very well reinforce the same hierarchy of subjects we see in university’s now, where “practical” degrees in business attract more interest and attention than do those in “impractical” fields like the arts/humanities.

    Why not just call the “idea sale” an exposition or “think tank” — something that does not imply any kind of commodification or value-judgment system?

    1. Chris,

      What do I want to be different at Evelyn’s school?

      Lots.

      I want there to be more than 45 minutes a week each for gym and music and art. I want the librarian to be less focused on controlling how the kids treat books and teaching about cyberbullying than on helping kids learn how to navigate the library, search online, and reading and talking about books and the ideas in them. I want there to be significantly less time on rote memorization of facts, year in and year out, all of which is done in service to a bunch of tests instead of in service to the educations of the kids who are there 7 hours a day, 180 days a year.

      If I were a homeschooling parent, which I’m obviously not, I truly believe that I could cover the “essential” common core curriculum with my kids in 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, by mid October. Think of all the time we’d have to do *actual* enrichment and pursue their interests and questions.

      It blows my mind that three times a year (October, January, and April), students are subjected to standardized tests. I thought once a year in alternating grades, when I was in elementary school, was bad enough.

      I’d also definitely like there to be more project-based learning and collaborative problem solving.

      As for your concern about Davidson’s word choice, I definitely took issue with her use of “idea sale” too. However, I’m pretty sure it was a tongue-in-check reference to the typical end-of-year fundraising events put on by public and private schools. There are fun fairs, bazaars, bake sales and car washes, and I think she was trying to frame the show-and-tell / display in that manner. By the way, I see “exposition,” which you propose, very tightly linked to the same historical problems as “sale” and “fair.” If you look at how she’s describing the proposed event, it’s not competitive or sale-oriented, so perhaps she took a lexical shortcut that didn’t quite work.

      To be clear, I do still see such a presentation/show/fair/idea fare as assessment-based. Let’s be honest: competition and wanting to produce something good to show off are good motivators for many people, from students up through highly successful entrepreneurs. And there does need to be some way of determining whether the student has met certain requirements in such a way as to warrant passing to the next grade level.

      In short, if my kid’s school planned something like this instead of resigning teachers and students to yet another round of monotonous testing, I’d be all for it. Whatever name it’s assigned.

      1. Janel,

        I had no idea that schools in the area subjected students to standardized testing that many times a year! I suppose being away from it for so long I’ve either forgotten or suppressed all memory of the ones I had to take.

        That said, I definitely see what you’re saying in terms of being able to get through the curriculum in under two months’ time. It astounded me, for instance, to hear that my brother’s high school English class spent an entire month getting through *The Great Gatsby.* I’m not sure if this is the place to suggest it, but I think part of what’s failing elementary schools and high schools is the 5-days-a-week schedule, so I’ll just mention it and move on.

        And perhaps indeed I missed Davidson’s tongue-in-cheek-ness with the “idea sale” thing, so thank you for taking me to task!

    2. Chris and Janel,

      I share the skepticism, the real worries, that you both voice about Davidson’s boosterish vocabulary: “idea sale.” Having said that,

      Chris: Great critique!

      Janel: What a wonderful, heartfelt response! That’s what I hoped for in my own kids’ schooling, too, and at the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I worry that the chances of such things happening are diminishing rather than advancing in an age of “accountability.”

      ~Joe

  2. I hope my passion about this topic (and anger at the current public school system) didn’t come across as irritation or anger at you, Chris, because that wasn’t what I intended at all!

    Your question was helfpul because I realized after posting that I hadn’t indicated what I’d changes I’d want to see, specifically. I alluded to ideas Davidson used as illustrations for a new way of learning. So thanks for your response. Seriously.

    I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on failings of the 5-day week… if not here, then where!?

  3. And thus did Janel articulate why any time No Child Left Behind is mentioned around Michael, his roommate mixes him a stiff drink.

  4. Janel,

    I think I’ve probably already written my main response to your post above, but let me second Michael’s request for a stiff drink. Here I suspect we see the limits of Davidson’s techno-utopianism. You can’t rewire a bad educational system; you need to replace it.

    Joe

  5. As a person who is considering entering this flawed education system soon as an educator, I am interested in all of these replies. One of the things that especially concerns me is that there do seem to be some schools (private schools, particularly Montessori schools) which seem to be doing a better job with education. The problem is that these schools are expensive, located out of the reach of low-income areas, and difficult to get into.

    I am very, very interested, though, in thinking more about what a better system might look like, though.

  6. Hi Janel,
    I felt as if I have read this book but eventually I realized the way Cathy is wording her ideas is somewhat so persuasive a marketing campaign. pitch. However Cathy doesn’t necessarily have answers for how to navigate our new, modern landscape. She mainly tours innovative classrooms and describes the teaching methods she finds there. By recounting her visits to companies that have implemented cutting-edge practices—including Wikipedia, IBM, and Specialisterne, the Danish software company that has built a hugely effective workforce by hiring employees with autism, she states a condition that pre-disposes them for success at their detail-oriented and highly repetitive job of checking digital coding. Specialisterne is a perfect example of “collaboration by difference,” one of the Internet-age ideals Davidson insists we must take on board. 

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