This morning I sent my son off to school to face a week of K-Prep testing. Five straight days of filling in bubble sheets for hours. And as if that was not bad enough, after four days of multiple-choice tests on the fifth day he and his classmates will spend the day completing on-demand writing tasks. Who decided that a week of bubble sheets and hours of testing was good preparation for writing? The problems with on-demand writing are many and everyone who knows anything about writing knows that it does not give us any accurate information about writing ability – so the powers-that-be compound the problem by making it the final task of a long, exhausting, stressful week? Makes perfect sense in the education universe I expect, but it only serves to prove my point (yet again) that our current system of education is not about learning at all.
Can you remember the childhood joy presented by a large cardboard box? I can remember endless hours of play when the box traveled around the world and out of it – serving as a frontier fort, space ship, castle, and jungle wildlife rescue center. The options offered by a cardboard box were limited only by your imagination. This is also how I see learning – as a grand adventure without limits and boundaries.
I think my childhood cardboard box adventures are one of the reasons I love teaching. I see creating new classes as a grown up version of this exercise in imagination. In my early years as a teacher this meant cutting out windows and doors and maybe adding decorations. But then I got braver and didn’t need the box to suggest or limit my imagination. For years I simply punched out the bottom and turned the box on its side so it was more way station than destination. Now I don’t even need the box. I fold it flat and I find this gives me so much more room to play and invite others to join me. We can lie on our backs and aim for the stars and when that gets too much for us we can sit in a circle to reflect on our adventures and plot our next destination.
It is a marvelous time to be in education. There are so many tools available to support our work and our students. Even more exciting for a cardboard box adventurer like myself, there is so much information available to feed our imagination and our dreams. What we learn and investigate is not limited by the books available in our classroom or library and how we create and share those creations span almost limitless possibilities.
Yet it is also a terrible time to be in education. For too many of those plotting the course for education see learning as a series of boxes and there is nothing grand or adventurous about it. These small-minded people do not see education and learning as the cardboard boxes of my childhood or the unformed boxes of my dream classroom, these are small, uniform boxes spaced evenly on a conveyor belt, they are the tiny favor boxes designed to hold a few mints. Our educational “thought leaders” want to box up learning to contain it and they do not understand how these boundaries limit and prevent learning. Worse, they do not see how this damages our students, our teachers, and our country.
Today, we have grade level boxes shipped in by trucks from vast warehouses run by faceless corporations. The materials that make up these boxes are increasingly resistant to customization. They won’t hold color and they are almost impossible to cut or bend. Worst of all they are so tightly packed there is barely room to breathe let alone move once in the box. There is no assembly required. Simply unpack the box and check off the items on the manifest and you are “educated.”
Worst of all, the teacher training and professional development boxes are so large and heavy they require heavy machinery to maneuver them into place and they are so bulky they frequently knock student boxes or teacher-designed boxes into corners as well as damage and outright destroy them. Many good teachers have been killed and maimed in these incidents.
Standards are not bad things and standardization is not evil, but when we raise it up to be king then we have a problem. The emperor has no clothes and who could find them amid this welter of boxes? Learning can take place in a box but we can never forget that so much learning takes place outside the box and between the boxes. We need to let our teachers the freedom to choose their own boxes as well as the form and the shape of the boxes they use. They have the training and experience, but more so, they know their students better than anyone else. Even more urgently, we need to allow our children the freedom to design their own boxes. We are killing learning in our schools, one tiny box at a time. No one ever rode a bubble sheet to the moon.