Bicycles, attendance and the purpose of education

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. ~ Edward M. Forster

So I’m listening to a piece on CBC a couple of weeks ago regarding an idea someone in British Columbia has of licensing bicycles. Essentially, so the argument went, if people had to license bikes, thefts would be reduced, people would be more responsible, etc., etc. I’m sure most of us could come up with a rationale for such a thing. Personally, I don’t have a well-developed opinion on the matter. I don’t own a bike and I’m not familiar with the challenges bikers face. I have to say that, from the perspective of a motorist, bike lanes seem like a good idea. But that’s about it when it comes to my thinking on bikes.

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The people interviewed on CBC, of course, had far more to say about the issue than I could be expected to have. Of greatest interest to me, for the purposes of this particular blog, was the alternative suggested by someone that bicycle use and all the associated concerns (whatever they might be – as I said, I’m no expert of any kind in the field) should be rolled into a course that would be offered in the public schools. Since any proposed bicycle law was viewed as difficult to enforce, having schools develop and institute a bike curriculum was felt to be a better approach. Let’s leave that for a moment.

I haven’t been teaching in over five years now so I’m not quite as tuned in as I once was to what’s happening in schools these days but my attention was captured just yesterday when a bus went by with a lovely poster announcing, on behalf of Anglophone School District South (our local district), that student attendance was important. That jogged my memory. I recalled that I had heard and/or read another article that was summarizing the push that was being undertaken to improve student attendance, something that was equally an issue when I was still in the classroom.

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While these two items may seem entirely unrelated, both, in their way, point to some of the absurdities that the school system and teachers must deal with as they go about the incredibly difficult task of trying to be all things to everybody when it comes to the education of children.

A dedicated course on biking? Really? I’m not saying in any way that it is a bad thing for young people to learn all they can about bikes. At the same time, does anyone really imagine that amidst the many demands already placed upon the system and the teachers who labour there that adding just one more thing doesn’t make so much difference? Think again.

From virtually the onset of my own career as a teacher, though, – over 30 years ago – I’ve watched schools be considered as the natural repositories of responsibilities that might have, at one time, been deemed inappropriate for an educational setting. From courses with such names as “Family Living” through “Outdoor Pursuits”, the very idea of a school has moved far from its original conception as a place where young people went to learn basic skills that would enable them to succeed as citizens in adulthood.

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Please, don’t mistake my intentions: much of what has been added as far as curriculum goes has a place and can be easily defended. At the same time, the notion of the school as an agent of socialization has come to mean more than, in many cases, the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. The emphasis on inclusion at the expense of virtually any other consideration (discipline, learning environment, effect on other students, etc.) is the clearest example of that.

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This latest push on attendance, though, is another manifestation of how expectations and the means of meeting those expectations seldom line up. When I saw the poster on the bus telling anyone reading it that student attendance mattered, I couldn’t help but chuckle. DUH! Does anyone question for a second that it matters?

At the same time, from my own experience, I felt the pain of those who had to devise a campaign for this big push to improve attendance. Over my time in the classroom, I saw any number of attendance policies come and go. At the core of all changes was the conflict between those who believed that only if some kind of consequence was involved could attendance be improved and those who insisted that it was all about making school more attractive to those who tended not to come.

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When I am confronted with the reasoning of the latter group, I confess I want to weep. These are the “school as socialization” theorists who picture human beings as eager learners who somehow get turned off when they are actually expected to be responsible for something. Never mind that as soon as they leave the cozy confines of public schools, a very unforgiving world expects a great deal.

As for the attendance policy here in New Brunswick, all attempts to encourage attendance must be undertaken in the face of the stark reality that not attending carries no consequence. To be clear, if I am a student and I choose not to attend class, the most I might suffer is a letter telling me I should come. Granted, the longer-term cost of no education is not being factored in, but you get my point.

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Initially, the argument was floated that poor attendance was the fault of teachers. They just weren’t interesting enough or something along those lines. Happily, we’re not so far gone (most of us) that we would allow that “opinion” to hold sway.

In different ways, both the bikes issue and the attendance policy point to how disconnected and confused we are when it comes to what we imagine schools can and should do. At one time, I would argue, society’s expectations of a school system were fairly clear. Over the last 40 years, especially, those expectations have diversified to the point where no one could easily specify just what they are except in the very broadest of terms. And as we all know, it’s difficult to arrive at any destination when we don’t know where we are going in the first place.


The simpler things seem, the more complicated they become

The single best machine to measure trust is a human being. We haven’t figured out a metric that works better than our own sort of, like, ‘There’s something fishy about you’.
– Simon Sinek

The dehumanizing I referenced yesterday at the conclusion of my blog is a commonplace in modern society. Its most recognizable manifestation is heard in the common complaint that we are, as individuals, too often treated as numbers or that the system (whatever system you might choose as an example) doesn’t deal with us personally. In the latter instance, all you need recall is the last time you phoned any organization and were treated to a variety of voice prompts that may have, if you persisted long enough, led finally to a live responder. Increasingly, though, as the technology advances, it is entirely possible to conduct your business without ever actually conversing with anyone. I suspect we don’t take much time thinking about the pros and cons of such a system, other than to complain, perhaps, about how annoying it is. But then, why should we? Irritating sometimes? Yes. Reason for a crusade against automation? Hardly.

I mention this, however, as an example of how we have come to accept technology as a complement to virtually every activity we undertake as human beings. I received a Fitbit for Christmas so now I can monitor my physical activity. I can know how many steps I walked, how “active” I was (beyond simply walking), check my sleep patterns, link to other apps, and monitor food intake and calories consumed. I’m sure it does other things of which I am unaware.

Some thirty-five years or so ago, I remember having moved in the middle of a strike by some union or other from the phone company. I ended up without a phone for the better part of six months. If anyone wanted to contact me, or me them, a real effort had to be made. I actually enjoyed the sense of freedom that seemed to be a consequence of being so “offline” if you will.

These days, I am very familiar with cellphone anxiety (if it isn’t a recognized condition, give it a while). It can strike me when I’ve gone out, regardless of the reason, and forgotten my phone at home. I’ve seen it at work in others on any number of occasions. If anxiety is related in any way to frequency of use, then young people are in greatest danger of infection. Who has not been privy to a room full of teens and twenties where virtually everyone is, in some way, attached to his/her phone, even if involved in conversation or some other activity?

I no longer need to use a key in my car; if I want to watch a show, I have any number of avenues that will allow me to watch it whenever I feel like it; if I’m traveling, a physical map – if I even have one – is there exclusively as a back-up to my GPS; I don’t have to remember an appointment – I simply enter it in my phone and make sure I set an alert. Add anything that occurs to you – by way of technological innovation – that has significantly changed the way you live your life.

While much discussion could be had over the positive or negative elements of all, or any one, of these changes, whatever they might be, I am more interested in what I believe is the “meta-message” (to coin a term) that arises from the growing predominance of technological advance in public consciousness over the last fifty years or so. While naysayers exist, the dominant conclusion that is trumpeted again and again – whether through news outlets, corporate entities, governments, individuals or some other means – is that technology is GOOD.

And I’m not suggesting for a moment that it is bad. What concerns me, however, is the application of that meta-message, “technology is good”, to areas where it should be viewed somewhat more critically. From the outset, I have wanted to use this blog to argue for the realization/recognition that few things are simple. By making so many of the commonplace features of daily activity “simple”, “simple” has a tendency to become a value in itself. Technology, in its application, aims to simplify tasks, to lessen the need for human activity or thought. No need to remember a phone number: put it in your phone. Televisions without a remote control? I’m not sure if you even CAN change a channel on a TV these days without one.

If technology can provide increasingly successful simplification of onerous tasks, it becomes all the more likely that we, as a society, would accept the idea that technology can be employed to “improve” pretty much anything. Our acceptance of that notion is all the more understandable when just such a claim is made by the “experts”, regardless of the field in which they are working. The result of this process is the “techno-faith” I’ve tried to outline in earlier blogs.

And this is where “techno-faith” and education collide. When we use our cellphones, we rarely stop to ponder – if we ever do – how they work. They work and such is the nature of modernity. If we think about it for even a moment, though, I’m sure we can summon at least a smidgen of awe over what it is we are able to do. From virtually anywhere in the world, I can be in contact with anyone else who has a phone on him/her (providing I have the number) no matter where he/she is in the world. The people who design such things understand how it all works, but we don’t have to bother ourselves with such matters.

When it is an object such as a phone that we are concerned with, our faith in the technologists and the developed technology seems justified. Today’s phones are better than those from even 2 or 3 years ago (maybe even 6 months ago). But what happens in schools if an idea takes root that we can treat children in the same manner as any other “thing” that we would hope to make “better”? In the peculiar doublethink of modern educational theory, we talk about embracing diversity even as we strive to develop “tools” (the system’s word, not mine) that – should the technology of delivery/instruction be perfected – will lead to near-uniform “outcomes.”

The “experts” in education want you to have the same faith in the system they say they are building (fixing, tweaking, creating, modifying, reforming – choose your participle) that we are asked to have in Apple as it releases its latest iPhone. In this instance, Apple alone has credibility.