Teaching to Academia

Reading for a Refresh

Deep into the summer, yet a few weeks before school, the professional development books I stacked on the far reaches of my home desk morph from a thing to politely ignore to a an interesting to-do list.

This year, I have a book about Socratic seminars, three books about writing, one book about “ungrading,” and one book about the way the mind works. Of course, reading five books in the last two weeks of summer is too ambitious. But that’s sort of the joy of it, the almost endless supply of things I can learn to better my teaching skills. It is a necessity that some of these books will overflow into next year’s summer reading pile.

It’s a pretty good system. It’s not efficient, but I love the way this almost post-summer read-a-thon adds to this phase of the school year: Having been refreshed by summer, I will now let my mind wander around new ways of teaching. I will be changed. I will head into the new year with a new swagger.

This summer, though, I read a recently published PD book that has neither energized me nor made me excited for the next year. In fact, it has made me realize how far education has yet to go.

One of the main reasons is this: the writer, a prominent high school educator, ascribes to the for-the-sake of academics approach. That is, public school is to prepare students for college, for what is known as “Academia.”

This seems kind of a ridiculous thing to be even a tiny bit upset about, but I think it represents a long-standing problem in the education world and how those outside of the education world perceive said education world, which, it turns out, is everyone who has been through the education world.

Academia

Academics are the sort who research, who debate, and who write about their thinking. They publish. They become experts on topics. They nerd out. They discuss these things with other academics. Their work grows. And academics do all of this in a collegiate environment. Maybe some transition to the business or government world, but many do not.

The rest of us, us non-academics, may not live near a university campus, but doesn’t the above, in a loose but meaningful way, now describe every person in the nation? Aren’t we now all “academics”?

With internet search bar portals in our pockets, we can all “nerd out” at our whim. Perhaps we are not all great academics, but academia is no longer a proximity thing. We don’t need to get into a good school to have access to serious information. The internet, libraries, company research divisions, bookstores, they have all widened the participation in the access that academia used to solely provide.

Of course, not all of us has the funding real academics have, but resources are now far cheaper than they have ever been. For example, one does not need to be paid as a professional artist to do art, which is not to say that resources don’t make a better academic.

I mean, don’t businesses need their own wing of academics in order to be profitable in the long term? If you do not research or have your ear open to research, if you are not creative, if you do not try to see the world in new ways, don’t you lose out on the next thing, whether its a product or a way to do business or a budding new market?

And what percentage of high schoolers or even college students turn around and become academics? Isn’t the goal of school to prepare students for not-school?

So, it confuses me when I read education books that purport to teach students to do things the “Academic Way” when academia is no longer something that happens exclusively–if it ever did–in college.

“Academic”

Academia is not beloved by everybody right now. And that’s weird. Who does not like the playfulness of ideas, of experiments, of debates?

Perhaps some of this ire could be explained by the cost of college, the exclusivity of it.

Another reason for the wrath could be the perceived identity of academia.

Like a lot of modes in life, academia has created a popular identity. Academics have opinions; they debate experiments. Such academics are allowed to espouse their beliefs, hypotheses, opinions, and arguments while teaching a student body.

The backlash to that identity? Perceived uppityness. Academia as pinky-lifting and pretentious swillers of the cup of knowledge. It fits right in with the cringy “If you can’t do, teach.”

It seems ridiculous to care about such an identity and its negatives. But this identity is strongly associated with learning, and learning should not be relegated to certain institutions. Learning is the realm of institutions and individuals. The autodidact can thrive in today’s world of abundant information and literary resources.

If you make the identity of institutions that care the most about learning–nay, is their sole purpose–uppity, then what becomes of the goals of the impressionable young people developing their learning, getting old and more skillfull, coming up in the world, perhaps wanting to go to college or go out on their own?

Necessary Autodidactism

Learning should not be for academia’s sake. True, we find some sort of peace and drive when we are confronted with societal rites of passages, but we have acquired so much scientific knowledge about the act of learning that rites of passages are insufficient for this very important part of life.

Teaching high school should not exist to create college students. Teaching middle schoolers should not create high school students. If one learns and finds passion, heightening complexity happens naturally.

For instance, the cost of information has gone so significantly down that being an autodidact is a part of our culture. You cannot be successful if you aren’t willing to learn things yourself. But you can be unsuccessful if you do not learn the right way. (Not all information is good information.)

Businesses and governments and just normal humans all do research. We have always been scientists and creators, but now we have far more legit tools than ever.

If you travel, it’s nice to look at a map of an airport before you get there just to become familiar with the general layout. You don’t pour over that map, memorizing all its intricacies, where all the bathrooms are, categorizing the restaurants and kiosks available for your possible future cravings. A general idea of the layout is fine; you can figure things out if you have the gist. The future need not be totally known here.

You learn the most important skills for this sort of navigation before the map comes into your possession: knowing when you need help, knowing where to go for resources, and knowing that if you keep your mind open, a solution will prevail.

The goal of public schools should be to create wonderful thinkers that will do well wherever they go. Most importantly, they should prize life-long learning. Not prize the type of learning one will do in college, which is not exclusive.

What college gives students is a place to focus. It is a place where students can garner experience. It is a society of learners living in close proximity.

To make academia more elite than it is is to make it not what it is. Idealistically, we should all be a society of learners.

For instance, it is fashionable to teach students the Modern Language Association (MLA) style guide in high school English. It is a lesson in standards and formatting with a hint of design.

It is not how people format their work on the web. It’s not even how authors format their writing in books or in articles that we read in class. It is a format that has a very specific venue: English class.

When you get to college, and you aren’t an English major, this style guide will not be in your life. In fact, after college, you will not use it, even if you write for a living as a journalist.

(It is APA that is most used by the general college person.)

But when you leave college, there will be most assuredly an unspoken style guide wherever you go, if not a formal one. For instance, journalists usually use the Chicago Manual of Style.

The goal of teaching MLA is to key students into how to design writing. A style guide is related to the paragraph: both seek to make the entry into reading one’s work easier.

We get caught up in teaching MLA but really the point is to be teaching design. Sure, it is important to understand how to follow a style guide and where to find such manuals, but shouldn’t we be teaching a more broad lesson? Like, know your audience?

The Way

We all have this story:

In third grade, I was excited. This was the year I would learn the loopy writing that was sort of digestible to me but kind of still in this older mode, a grownup mode. It was a rite of passage.

Instead of keeping it that way, that cursive was something that students learn, the teacher, smartly enough, connected the need to learn cursive with success in high school. We were told that if we didn’t learn cursive, we would not be successful. High school teachers required cursive only on anything that had to be turned in.

This was a little bit intimidating. But it worked for me.

But when I got to high school, high school teachers were all mostly indifferent to how you wrote things down, not to mention that most final drafts of anything were typed up on a computer.

What is the cost of that intended or unintended lie? Was it more to help that teacher convince students to do something that they saw as important? Was this sort of carrot concerning high school teachers and cursive the easiest way to get their students motivated?

When kids don’t brush their teeth, it can be difficult to course-correct them and sell them on the longterm health benefits of such a simple act. But there are real things you can say, in multiple ways:

  1. Your teeth may rot, causing dentists to remove them and replace them.
  2. You may get cavities, which require fillings. Could be painful.
  3. Teeth health is linked to body health. Having clean teeth helps the rest of your body.
  4. It’s expensive to get teeth fixed.

These are all real reasons for kids to brush their teeth, whether they will buy such reasons or not. But a kid won’t get into adulthood and realize any one of these is in fact not true.

Perhaps such a test should be used in public schools.

Perhaps it is signaling, this pointing to the way of academia? As if this were the obvious thing we should all do.

Where else do we do such a thing? Where we float above all else the way we do things rather than prioritizing the thinking and deepness of our lessons?

I have promoted the way myself in my teaching career; I have ignorantly put MLA format over all else. I have taught formulaic writing, ignoring the bit of me that knew that I was being a hypocrite. Yet, I taught topic sentences and types of introductions. I pushed my students to always use commentary sentences–sentences that follow each external source quotation to explain how the quote relates to the topic sentence.

Should we be worrying about teaching to the next format, doing things the college way, or should we be worrying about giving our students the confidence to master their own thinking so that they can easily play in any sandbox they want? Should we prioritize timed-writing because it is something that may happen in college? Should we prioritize any mode of writing because they may happen in college?

Should we detach learning from our own lives and glue it solely on academia?

I think the one thing that I love about college–and I would love to get paid to go to college for the rest of my life–is that it opened a sense of wonder inside me. College made me into a life-long learn because the classes I took asked interesting questions and gave us a place to answer them in various ways. To play things out.

More and more I think that learning is like language. Language is instinctual. It is something we are built to do. And language, though many may think it, does not conform to strict structures. We like to think we can hold language to a grammar, but we are too creative for own good. Slang and incorrect grammatical structures always make it into our language. That is why language has evolved the way it has, otherwise we’d be speaking the same proto-languages we spoke 10,000 years ago. And such an unmoving grammar would have made things a ton easier for us to come together as a species. Think of the absence of dehumanization that comes with the concept of language barriers.

Learning is similar. Without learning, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. We are built to be fascinated and intrigued. To mess with stuff and see what happens.

The end goal of language is to communicate, not to be grammatically correct. Trying to put structures on our learning is a losing battle. For to prioritize a way of doing something misses out on the creativity that comes natural to all humans.

Thinking in this way about learning also aligns one of the original and oft forgotten reasons for public education: a solid democracy.

We want citizens who are life-long informers for themselves. And we also want citizens who can problem-solve, whether that’s in their personal lives, in their work lives, or in their civic lives.

It would be nice for everyone to have a collegiate experience, to really pursue a trade in a sandbox-like environment. But don’t we want to make such a sandbox-like environment non-exclusive? Don’t we want to keep the sandbox going, post-college or post-school?

Wouldn’t that make a better democracy, let alone a better educational practice?

Perhaps it’s too idealistic to think this way, but it is also an error to employ a pretentious identity on something that we want everyone to participate in for the rest of their lives: learning.