Friday, January 05, 2007

Promoting the Culture of Learning

To continue the discussion began by Russell Eisenman at American Thinker concerning education and teaching all kinds of students, I begin my topic where Mr. Eisenman left off: understanding the culture of students. In offering my ideas, I readily admit that I was not a university teacher, but rather a mere, but very successful remedial reading teacher in a small town’s middle school. I agree with Dr. Eisenman’s view that having a sense of humor as you teach helps when you are trying to maintain control while surfing the wild waves of the reluctant to learn adolescent heart. With a sense of humor I was able to taunt my students with declarations like: “Reluctant to learn? What are you? Stupid?” or “Why don’t you just gnaw off your arm so you can really be handicapped?” and actually make a point with my loveable little knot heads. However, Dr. Eisenman left off just as he began to discuss culture and learning and I believe that topic needs redirection in education today.

Our present education system is caught in the culture trap. A generation ago, culture was roughly singing and dancing. Before that, we worried about culture; meaning knowing what fork to use in case the boss invited you out to dinner. Today, culture has come to mean simply race and all the accoutrements ascribed to race. In a radical manner, I would like to return to the Miss Manners/Emily Post definition of culture in the subject of education and propose that common decency and good manners is more relevant to the culture of learning than in understanding the culture of race. Good manners and treating others in a fair and gentle way trump racial profiling every time when it comes to establishing a culture of learning in our public schools.

Children have a great sense of justice and when a wise instructor wields this tool effectively even a discipline problem child willingly accepts punishment for disregarding a well-stated campus or classroom rule. In fact, having a just response for infractions is the bedrock in promoting a culture of self-discipline, which in itself is the foundation for the building blocks that comprise a culture of learning. My favorite years of teaching came when working for a principal that promoted a universal discipline program for the entire campus. Each teacher adhered to the disciplines of the program and I never taught at a campus that worked better. The hierarchy of authority was clear and understood by all, which allowed teachers and students alike to thrive in the liberty that existed.

Personal achievement in self-discipline sets a pattern for achievement in learning. As the Shakespeare line states: “This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Success is simply building upon achievement and setting a pattern that promotes success. Through the establishment of a campus culture built upon self-discipline the turmoil that describes many public school campuses becomes a non-issue. Our campus culture was a casual quietness that allowed for the development and revelation of the uniqueness of the individual for both students and teachers. With discipline under control, the joy of teaching flourishes and the students are introduced to the joy and success of learning.

Our classrooms were a culture of learning because it was enhanced by the culture of Miss Manners. Learning the rules of civil conduct is of great value in the culture of education. As Voltaire sardonically quipped, “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.” Good manners are a great equalizer regardless of race, home-life, or even intelligence. Knowing how to interact with others in a proper manner is the basis for civil society and to ignore this fact is to do disservice to our children and the future of our civil society in political terms. A classroom operating in this manner produces safety. For students living in a volatile home life the campus and classroom becomes an orderly and safe environment where individuals operate in an understandable and systematic manner. For students struggling to grasp the lesson being taught, there is patience without ridicule. For the achiever there is respect along with development of humility.

There was something wonderful that happened in these classrooms. The students opened up and participated in discussions about the lessons that revealed that they were not only learning and processing the information, but were internalizing the material into their own personal experiences. Now, that is the holy grail of learning. Because I observed that my remedial reading students failed geography, Texas history, and American History, I developed a curriculum of novels and biographies to enhance their historical context. (I should also note that this curriculum also naturally reinforced American ethics rather than the social anarchy being taught in many schools.)

Everything had a bigger purpose as we practiced their reading skills. Development of reading skills such as the main idea, vocabulary and context clues were mixed in with education in historical perspective sprinkled with discussion of character development both of the novel’s characters and that of the students. The program was very successful in real educational terms even in light of the absolute reluctance of some students when it came to standardized tests. The culture of kindness in the classroom allowed me to humorously joke with those that I knew were Christmas tree patterning as they filled in the dots of their scorecard. The reluctant to learn young man is a hard nut to crack and humor is a much better hammer than a screeching woman. The point is that having a principal that promoted a campus culture of self-discipline established the healthy environment for the fragile commodity of the culture of learning.

I would advise all educational experts to resist the sociological drift of the culture of racial profiling and instead study methods of establishing the culture of self-discipline and order in our public schools. It is plain sophistry to believe that race plays a part in learning as if parents of differing races want their children to be ignorant. When discipline is presented as a student’s responsibility, administrators are freed from the culture of political correctness and are able to effectively silence any silliness a parent may use to explain away their child’s bad behavior. (And believe me, silly parents exist.) This idea also effectively reveals incompetent administrators (who exist in alarming numbers), which alert school boards can effectively remedy. An effective community of parents can then hold school board members accountable for their inaction through the ballet box. This idyllic world’s only requirement is a culture of self-discipline: in the community, by the parents and administrators/staff, and ultimately imparted effectively to the students. The culture of education happens when an aura of administrative competence on a campus fosters development of student self-discipline, which in turn establishes order, which engenders the culture of manners, which in turn protects and allows the fragile culture of learning. It sounds so simple that we find we must complicate the absolute simplicity of the truth with educational and sociological scatology. Self-discipline, everyone, self-discipline.

1 comment:

lisasmith said...

Amen and well said!! As a former teacher who has taught in the atmosphere of discipline and respect as well as in one of relaxation and inconsistency...teachers and students alike flourish where self-discipline is established and taught. May I develop self-discipline in my own children as well.