The Goats Need A Plan

Reflecting on Chapter 5 in Alfie Kohn’s thought-provoking book, The Schools Our Children Deserve.

(To the tune of Raindrops on Roses)

Verbatim instructions, the students are pouting,
Feeling complicit, anxiety mounting,
Watching for cheating, can’t help, don’t you see?
This is what mandated tests mean to me!

Some kids who do try and some kids who don’t care,
What if I mess up? Will my data compare?
We’d rather be back in our class joyously,
This is what mandated tests mean to me!

When the kids quit, when they stress out,
Think that failing is bad,
I simply remember we all must comply,
And that makes me feel…
So mad.

Teaching and learning are extremely complex endeavors, becoming even more so when considering the wealth of information on how the brain works, multiple intelligences and different learning styles, readily available and ever-expanding technology, as well as the push for students to have “21st Century Skills.” Education – and all that it entails – needs to evolve in order to stay vibrant and relevant. Instead, it is becoming severely restricted.

I am reminded of a recent lunch-time anecdote; for some reason, we were talking about goats. One teacher explained that he used to tether his goats to a enormous truck tire out in the field. The goats would do their thing and eat stuff, but it was impossible for them to wander too far off, if so inclined. Mandated high-stakes testing and the inflated importance and controlling nature of CCSS have effectively tethered teaching and learning.

Evolution does not mean a return to the good old days before standards and testing, a simple removal of the tethers. The challenge lies in knowing where to go and what do to once that freedom has been achieved.  For me personally, I find it difficult to imagine the future of education, to visualize what is possible and a path to get there. To move from known to unknown, from questions to answers, from tentative to confident, from alone to connected.  I can figure out some baby steps, but feel unprepared for the giant leaps that I know are necessary. Thanks to social media, I also know there are plenty of educators who already have the wisdom and vision that I lack, who have been researching, developing, freely sharing and even implementing ideas. You have to intentionally seek them out, but they do exist. Although growing in strength, their collective voice is still drowned out by proponents of “reform”- basics, standards, and testing. People who fear change, people who want control, people who lack vision.  People who need to let that failed idea go.

The standards-testing-accountability culture has become so pervasive that it doesn’t just hinder evolution, it holds productive change hostage. There is no choice about participation; compliance is required. Schools do not have the freedom to opt out (although students now do), to choose different, healthier priorities and cultures.  The collective wisdom and innovative ideas of educators ends up being pushed aside or ignored.  Instead of discussing pedagogy and diverse learners, teachers spend time comparing data, aligning lessons with standards, and developing common assessments. Instead of encouraging creativity, inspiration, and growth, teachers and students are compelled to prepare for tests. Instead of respect, standards. Instead of trust, testing. Instead of embracing the wonder and very human nature of learning, information (determined valuable by a self-appointed, ignorant, arrogant few) has been reduced to a required to-do list of how-to processes and must-be-memorized, easily-testable facts.

As if teaching and learning– and people–are that simple.


Kohn (in Chapter 5) and additional food for thought:

On accountability and control-

“Telling teachers exactly what to do and then holding them “accountable” for the results does not reflect a commitment to excellence. It reflects a commitment to an outmoded, top-down model of control.”

“Unfortunately, we humans just don’t respond very well when people do things to us rather than working with us. That doesn’t necessarily doom the whole concept of accountability. The idea can be valid and valuable if we define it as a sense of responsibility to oneself, to one another, and to the community—and if it’s nested in a support model.”

From Elliot Eisner (Stanford University) as quoted in Kohn’s book:

“The challenge in teaching is to provide the conditions that will foster the growth of those personal characteristics that are socially important and, at the same time, personally satisfying to the student. The aim of education is not to train an army that marches to the same drummer, at the same pace, toward the same destination. Such an aim may be appropriate for totalitarian societies, but it is incompatible with democratic ideals.”
Kohn on extrinsic motivation (aka grades)-

“The more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

“Researchers have found that people’s interest in a task ordinarily plummets when they are acutely aware of being evaluated on their performance—even if the evaluation is positive.”


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