Thursday, June 18, 2009

Oh Brave New World....

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, there is an interesting little character dynamic that he sets up in his main character, Bernard. Bernard is supposed to be the cream of the crop, an Alpha -- intelligent, handsome, genetically designed to be the best. However, something bizarre happened in all of that, and while intelligent, Bernard is far from handsome. This mistake leaves him always aware that he is different, and kind of on the outside looking in. He notices idiosyncracies in the structured society that most don't.

As a homeschooler, sometimes I feel the same way. I notice things about how the culture of school is woven through our society as a whole that others don't, because I am on the outside. I notice it as a homeschooler in a family of teachers. Family dinners where lesson plans, school field trips, and standardized testing schedules are discussed are the norm when we are visiting. Living in a small town, especially a small town that I am not FROM, makes it clear as well.

A lot of the books that we have been reading lately - Anne of Green Gables, Little House, and also a book on the works of John Dewey -- have left me with a singular thought:

The direction our country is going and the attitudes about fairness might very well be shaped by the fact that everyone is raised in a school system based on grade levels.

In a one room school, where children entered school at different times, had to leave at different times (harvest, etc.), children were taught according to a set of primers. The teacher examined them to see where they would need to start, and then the child would start with that book, rather than the proper book for the child's age. The students were grouped according to those who were in the 1st reader, 2nd reader, 3rd reader, and so on, not by age. This generally put kids together in the classroom who were around the same age, but not necessarily. Socially, kids often grouped together according to general age, but not within the strict limits of one year of age.

If the child worked hard and showed that he knew the material, he could move forward to the next book, when he he was ready. If the child struggled, then the child could take all the time needed to master that skill, and moved on when the child showed proficiency. But -- because it was based on this, not being able to master a particular subject did NOT hold the child back in any others. The child could theoretically be in the 3rd math book but in the 5th reader.

The emphasis for this type of system is on the individual's accomplishments within a set standard. Really, the epitome of the American dream...focused on the individual being able to accomplish to their ability and opportunity within the group.

In a graded school, children are given work and activity that is considered appropriate for their age. All children whose birthdays are within a year of each other are deemed capable of performing the same work according to the same standard. Because everyone is using the same curriculum, a pace needs to be kept, so some excel -- some fall behind, but all are pretty much limited to the same courseload. Only those that REALLY excel beyond all practicality are moved up into a higher grade, where they are completely surrounded by older kids. Those that REALLY fall behind are kept back, where they are completely surrounded by younger kids. So the reality is the "problem" kids in the classroom are the ones who are so smart they are bored, or unable to keep up because of laziness, developmental disability, lack of interest, a homelife not conducive to homework, etc. The ones who aren't able to keep up are given assistance. They don't know what to do with the bright - bored ones. And as far as the kids go, both the bright ones and the ones who can't keep up are the ones who are picked on.

But those are the exceptions and so mainly, everyone does the same thing to the same standard.

For this century, really the social issue has been entitlement and fairness. Do you earn your merits, or is everyone entitled to a certain baseline of benefits in this country. Is it okay to be rich, successful? Or is that a system where the success of one person's success holds others back (sounds like grading on the curve). In previous generations, the ideal was that everyone had the ability to reach as far as their ability and hard work would take them, without giving a lot of lip service to the fact that we don't all start out in the same place. Now, the emphasis is on creating a level playing field....much the way a classroom is set up to be. Those who excel and get rich are considered evil, and the ones who fail are also...with the exception that they are still given help.

I'm sorry if this seems rambling, but really I'm just working through ideas. More may be coming...

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