guest post: value of experience

Katie Humphreys has a Bachelor’s Degree in History and is a graduate student in Museum Professions specializing in Museum Education at Seton Hall University, with an anticipated graduation date of May 2012. Her thesis topic is museum programs serving adolescents whom have been affected by the juvenile justice system. To balance out the depressing nature of her research she has taken up sewing and the Cannonball Read. Currently underemployed at a local historic site, she has grand visions of running K-12 programming for historic sites; including onsite school class programs, outreach programming, summer camps, and teacher trainings. Her thoughts, ramblings, and retweets can be found at @krhumphreys or her blog

I spend an inordinate amount of time invested in the prospect of education and what it means. I have viewed it from many angles, and the more I learn about education, the more I know that we don’t know anywhere near as much as we think we do.

I’ve been a student, in scenarios from public K-12 education in different states to three different colleges for my undergraduate education and later two graduate schools and an eventual (although still pending) degree. I have also been a substitute teacher, a classroom teacher, and a museum educator. I am not yet thirty.

What you hear about in classrooms today is not so different from what was happening in them over fifty years ago. If you don’t believe me please read the memoir Teacher Man by Frank McCourt in which he details thirty years of teaching in the New York City school system starting during the Eisenhower administration. It will sound oddly familiar. How teachers should behave with students, the idea that all teachers are really just biding their time until they can move into administration, the structures of a proper education. One of the few differences I have been able to ascertain is the current focus on a little something called Return on Investment and its impenetrable link to high stakes testing.

Modern education is lousy with the kind of vocabulary you would expect to find in a Master’s of Business Administration course load. As a society focused around the free market economy is thought by a great portion of the public that the reasons for a ‘failing’ education system arise from the differences in how public education is managed in relation to American business. It may be clichéd for a teacher to say this, but I cannot abide that viewpoint.

In my experience Return on Investment is only viewed as a short term goal to be measured on a standardized test. There is also a push from administration to ensure all things which are taught must directly link to the learner’s ability to take that knowledge and turn it into a way to earn a living. It is through this sort of rationale that arts programs, physical education, the social sciences, and other so-called character building disciplines have been squeezed out of public education and have been replaced by double length periods of math and reading with a bit of time left over for science education – since this is deemed the most important sector for economic growth in which the United States is not currently keeping pace with other industrialized nations.

So what do we end up with? Six, seven and eight year olds who are burned out, who haven’t been allowed to run around, draw, engage in creative play, or any of the myriad things which define the development of children. Instead they are being asked to be mini-adults, and to approach education the same way we expect adults to in the post-secondary setting. Never mind that the lecture based education methods generally employed in post secondary education are shown to be perhaps the least effective method of educating others.

In reality, the activities which should be undertaken in education, at all levels, and the various incidentals which are required for the sort of teaching that leads to the best kind of learning are often times at odds with the business model, and its offspring accountability based on high stakes testing. Teachers and students need more time, more access to creative supplies, time and opportunity to engage with applicable technology, and the freedom to pursue what is of interest to the learners. These things are not universally valued in the current educational milieu.

But perhaps the thing which is most undervalued is teaching and learning in context. I left classroom teaching to pursue education in the museum and historic site setting for just this reason. I now have the opportunity to bring students and everyone else who comes to visit into the context of the 1840s. One of the inherent deterrents from the type of teaching I have done for the past two years is that informal and free choice learning are not viewed as having a valid return on investment. The consensus is that if any learning of value happens in this sort of situation, it cannot possibly be measured, and even if it was measured, it certainly cannot be of long term value to the learner. I argue that these assumptions are simply not true.

I argue that there is never a diminished value of learning. As a society we never know what piece of knowledge we have picked up along the way will become important. An easy example is making small talk at a dinner party. Everything we know; every social nicety we have ever learned, all the random facts we have gleaned in a lifetime are in use.

Researchers believe that the vast majority, perhaps as much as 90% of the learning we achieve in a lifetime does not take place in a classroom, so how can what we do most be of a diminished value? In this case how can there be a bias towards formal, classroom based education? Perhaps, simply, because this is the time people know they are supposed to be learning. By nature informal and free choice learning scenarios are hidden in the day to day activities we undertake, from visiting an aquarium, watching the Discovery Channel, or reading a magazine. These activities are generally viewed only, if at all, through the lens of entertainment. Which certainly they are, what they also achieve are new opportunities for knowledge.

Culturally we need broader knowledge bases, not quick monetization schemes. There was a time where being a well rounded person was considered the goal of an education. Now, the goal at the end of your school experience is a job, and perhaps if you are lucky- a career. The evidence is in the new career and 21st century skills standards which are appearing in states’ learning standards, goals, and curricula.

But can you learn a career from a book? Or in a classroom? Not alone. I have done all my best learning in situ. How did I learn to manage a classroom full of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen year olds? I substitute taught in middle schools and junior highs for three years and worked in a grocery store where I was in charge of my peers. It is this anecdotal evidence, which is valuable, that also lets me know that exposing people to the most possibilities and remove them from the ether of ‘you can do anything’ will only help young people discover who they are and what type of career they might like to endeavor upon, and therefore what types of learning they want and need.

Spending more money is not the answer to the getting the best Return on Investment either. A 2011 report from the Center from American Progress points out high-spending school districts are often inefficient in terms of that spending. For example, in Florida only 17 percent of districts which were in the top third for spending were also in the top third for achievement. Similar numbers were shown for Minnesota. But, these measures are based on the high stakes testing model focusing on language arts and mathematics. Perhaps it is time to look for another avenue, where investing time and energy in people and educating the entire person is the way to go. With a focus on assessments which are not multiple-choice tests which but instead are authentic performance assessments which chart academic growth.

That would be the sort of Return on Investment I’m looking for.

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