Other People’s Words

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One of the techniques I teach my students in nearly all of my classes is that when they take notes, whether in class or while doing work outside of class, they should try to put their notes in their own words as much as possible. The reason for this is simple: When you are able to paraphrase someone else’s ideas, that shows likely understanding of the ideas themselves. On the other hand, when your “understanding” is limited to repeating someone else’s phrasing (as best you can), that likely points to your brain not really grasping the concepts behind the words. That’s the “understanding” that usually results from cramming for quizzes and tests and such, and leads to the kind of “learning” where you can regurgitate things on an assessment, but then you forget it all within a couple of weeks, in part to make room for the next bit of cramming you need to do later. Being able to paraphrase the things you’re learning makes it more likely that the stuff in your brain will make the transition to your long-term memory, and you’ll actually remember it later on in life.

As younger and younger students have been subjected to the horrors of standardized test batteries in recent decades here in the United States, this difficulty has only grown all the more. One of the most illustrative examples of this comes in Jonathan Kozol’s excellent book The Shame of the Nation, where in one chapter he’s talking with elementary school students who are being forced to display “mastery” of certain things in order to pass the standardized tests they have to take. When Kozol asks them to define the word “mastery,” the students can only recite the definition of the word as given to them by their teachers, who are being forced to teach them in this very shallow and unhelpful way, and the definition that the students recite is, at best, only oriented towards the goals of whoever designed the curriculum they’re learning under, and has next-to-nothing to do with the actual definition of the word. This would be bad enough on its own, but when Kozol keeps pressing the students to define the word, they start talking down to him, as if he, the bestselling author, has a problem if he doesn’t “get” the definition of the word that they’re being taught in this very problematic curriculum.

Kozol also describes the physical spaces where these students are being taught with these new curricula, and pretty much every traditional notion of classroom decorations — again, keep in mind that these are elementary school students — has been thrown out the window. Everything has become a bullet-point list, prescribed items filling each day’s requirements laid out in stark black and white. If it’s not oriented towards the ultimate goal of passing those standardized tests, it’s deemed superfluous and chucked out the window. Needless to say, this includes pretty much anything fun, or anything oriented towards developing students’ internal motivation to learn, to make education enjoyable for the students. The students need to learn this new material because those in power say that they have to.

These kinds of education “reforms” have their roots in movements that began before even the turn of the millennium, but they were elevated to the mainstream by the whole No Child Left Behind nonsense, and pretty much every national education “reform” that followed not only failed to address the problems of NCLB, but often made them worse. The reactionary politics of the past few years have acted like a turbo-booster to these issues, and given the current political climate, it’s easy to see all these problems worsening in the next couple of years. Especially given what’s happened to education here in Wisconsin since the start of Scott Walker’s governorship, there s a growing part of me that worries about Florida-style “reforms” being forced on the state if another Republican wins the gubernatorial election in November, and for educators like me, those election results would functionally be equivalent to a pink slip.

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve tried to emphasize to my students the importance of developing critical thinking skills that just don’t get taught in the testing-centric curricula of recent decades, that the problems they are likely to face in their adult lives don’t require the same kind of memorize-and-regurgitate skills that are emphasized (if not relied on exclusively) in this kind of teaching, that, in short, most of life’s problems can’t be solved by just filling in some bubbles on a Scantron sheet. It’s hard to avoid seeing the links between the authoritarian style of control behind these new curricula and the kind of “leadership” so many Americans crave these days, though, and these expectations are coming just as things like the pandemic and the growing climate crisis are demanding new ways of thinking about the problems we’re facing and how to make sure we don’t just dump these problems on the generations to come. I’m still struggling to come up with the right words to help people understand the dangers we’re all facing, but more and more, people who have been taught under these authoritarian regimes just want to boil everything down to the simple action of shutting people like me up. As elected officials make that process of shutting us up easier, the problems just keep getting worse, and it’s hard to see a future where we can address these problems without first fixing the damage that’s been done to American schools for over a generation now.

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