On a journey such as this and as the weeks progress, you find yourself starting to view what you see and what you hear through the lens of your own practice, your own environment and your own political backdrop. You start to bring into focus those unsettling and unshared thoughts you’ve held for long about learning and teaching, content and knowledge, children and teachers and even the very purpose of school. You feel a growing courage to no longer speak in whispers after hearing the courageous voices of experience and passion.
That happened during my final week following a passionate call to action by philosopher, poet, educator and writer, Jonathan Kozol. His address was The Big Questions are Already There in the Hearts of Children.
Jonathan Kozol was sacked from his first job as a primary teacher for ‘curriculum deviation’, a single event that radicalised him. Now after fifty years as a philosopher, teacher and author, he shared his journey which wended its way from the halls of Harvard, to segregated schools in Boston to a walk in the Bronx neighbourhood with Mr Rogers of TV fame.
Kozol began teaching fourth grade in a deeply segregated school in Boston where, in his own words, the curriculum had little to do with the black students. Although he had studied English Literature at Harvard, it was the mother of one of his students who introduced him to the poetry of Langston Hughes. He shared this poem with his fourth graders.
Does it dry up?
Like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore
And then run.
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
Kazoo was sacked for deviating from the curriculum but he continued to teach and to write and is still a powerful advocate for equality in education.
Although his talk referred directly to the USA situation, it resonated with my own thoughts about the emphasis on content in rather than knowledge out, on the emphasis on testing over teaching, of the eroding of a teacher as a professional to a deliverer of services and the redefining of the child as a product.
Why is this so important? Because it undervalues what is also important in childhood – nurturing of curiosity and wonderment, developing children with the confidence to pose discerning questions, participating in deep discussions and with the right to pursue subjects that interest them. And because of the emphasis on testing to the ‘norm’, there is a real possibility that we may underestimate and undervalue the child.
While testing per se is not a bad thing, and the curriculums are full of ‘sweet words’, what concerns me is how teachers are judged both by parents and the system by the only measurable tool – the test. The pressure for a teacher to ‘cover the curriculum content’ and to reach ‘the outcomes’ both detracts from the teacher as a professional and skews the focus from outcome to income – not on what is being learnt but what can be tested.
And with the emphasis on the ‘drill and grill’ method, teachers feel they must teach to the test and inquiry is the loser.
And then there is the bias of omission – on what is not being tested – curiosity, creativity, spontaneity, originality, self-reflection, self-correction……….
Back to Kozol.
What, he asks, can we do to stop this juggernaut of business and politics influencing schools with the intention to prepare young minds for the market place?
He calls to the intellectual arena, the scholars, authors, poets and those with the audacity to speak out and interrogate the status quo. Loudly.
Ask, he says, when did you first think for yourself? Who helped you think?
Wonderful teachers, says Kozol, should never let themselves be drill sergeants for the state.
What happens to a dream deferred?