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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

JFK, the Boston Bombings: why can't we express emotion properly? A call for new school standards

I was in college when John F Kennedy was killed. We were finishing lunch at the fraternity house. We walked around in shock, or were glued to the TV. Those were simpler times. Less political. Everyone loved the President.

Not knowing what to do with myself, I went to my next class. All the class was there. It was an Economics class. The professor thought it would be a good thing to discuss the potential economic impact of Kennedy’s death.

I never took that class (or economics as a subject) seriously again. I didn’t know what I thought he should have done, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a discussion of the economics of assassination.

I was reminded of my feelings about those events, and that class, by the recent events in Boston. The news coverage is more elaborate now, but the newscasters said then, and said again this time, most of the time,  that they had no idea what was really going on.

But there was something different this time. While everyone I knew then was simply in shock or angry or numb, the people in Boston, at least according to the TV coverage, were singing, waving flags, applauding, and going to Red Sox games where Red Sox songs were being sung. There was a lot of cheering for the good old USA, and lots of being proud of Boston. 

Didn’t people die? Weren’t people horribly injured? I would have expected more crying and less cheering and singing.

It is possible I am out of touch after all. The world changes as you get older and young people’s behaviors change. But this is a column about education, and I can’t help see this as another failure of our education system.

Why would it be wrong for children to be discussing their feelings and thinking hard about what can be done 
to prevent such horrible events? Or thinking about why people do things like this? 

Why can’t adults think clearly about these events. Heightened security at the London Marathon?  Did someone expect a series of Marathon attacks? Heightened security at Airports? Maybe in Boston if the bad guys were leaving the city, but at every US airport? 

This is not meant as a criticism of Boston of course. Look at this headline from Yahoo Sports:

Citi Field breaks into ‘U-S-A!’ chants after Boston Marathon bombing suspect is taken into custody

Of course I am not the only one to be appalled by this. From the 21st century wire:

How did Friday become such a huge ‘patriotic moment’ for the people of Boston? Was this some kind of victory for America? 

My answer to all this simple enough. Its school. In school where we should be discussing things, expressing points of view, trying to figure things out, we are instead preparing for tests. We are learning right answers and one of those is that the USA is the greatest country on earth. We are not learning how to think. We are not learning how to express emotions in a reasonable way.

This is, of course, not limited to the US. I received a letter from Spain yesterday from a mother concerned about her son. She said (among other things about how her son hated school):

As most kids his age, he loves music and sports ( I do encourage it as far as I can). He also writes beautifully, I know, because he complains in writing and always impresses me how successfully he does it too. But at school they don’t encourage it at all as they’re always more concerned with spelling and so on than with the content. So he just complains in writing instead of using that talent more creatively.

At school his results in music are always low as they value the theoretic part of exams (you’d never believe what all that is about), so, the practical part of the subject is always buried  and he loses interest in that also. Same goes for sports. I wonder if our Spanish sports talents such as Rafa Nadal was successful in theoretical sports at school?

Of course if he was engaged in music and writing it would be because he had been emotionally engaged. Learning is emotional because we care about we learn, and get excited about what we learn, and share what we learn with others.

Well that would be the case if school were about what people wanted to learn. Yesterday there was some discussion in the press about college readiness of High School students (as there usually is, this being the topic of the day) and a report from the ACT (the testing people for my non-US readers) complained about how students aren’t college ready. The translation of this is that they need more test preparation (sold by the ACT of course.) Here is a paragraph from that report:

Especially at the high school level, where there are differing degrees of familiarity with the improved standards, state and local efforts to implement the standards have not yet achieved their goals. This suggests that not enough teachers are yet ready for the necessary changes in curriculum that are likely to accompany the switch into a classroom environment driven by college- and career-ready standards.

The translation of this paragraph is they want more testing, more test prep, and making sure the new standards in math science etc are being met.

I would like to call for some new standards too. 

I would like to see a happiness standard. 

If kids aren’t happy in school, the school is failing and we need to fix it.

I would like to see an emotional readiness standard.

If kids can’t express what they are feeling, in writing, in discussion groups, to friends, then they need to learn how to do so. If we express emotions about bad guys getting killed by dancing and waving flags and singing we have clearly missed the lesson on how to express empathy, relief, fear etc.

I would like to see a clear thinking standard.

We need to teach people how to react to events they don’t like by planning new courses of action that make sense. Learning to plan a course of action is very important, but if that happens in school I missed it.

And, lastly, I would like to see the following standard:

Schools are not allowed to bore their students so badly that they see school as being irrelevant to real life.

Here is an ACT question that comes from the practice tests you can find on line. I fell asleep reading it. But I learned that no one can express or feel real emotions because any real emotion you might have while taking this test would not be dealt with well by the school administering it.

It starts like this (and goes on and on):

Passage I
Unmanned spacecraft taking images of Jupiter's moon Europa have found its surface to be very smooth with few meteorite craters. Europa's surface ice shows evidence of being continually resmoothed and reshaped. Cracks, dark bands, and pressure ridges (created when water or slush is squeezed up between 2 slabs of ice) are commonly seen in images of the surface. Two scientists express their views as to whether the presence of a deep ocean beneath the surface is responsible for Europa's surface features.
Scientist 1
A deep ocean of liquid water exists on Europa. Jupiter's gravitational field produces tides within Europa that can cause heating of the subsurface to a point where liquid water can exist. The numerous cracks and dark bands in the surface ice closely resemble the appearance of thawing ice covering the polar oceans on Earth. Only a substantial amount of circulating liquid water can crack and rotate such large slabs of ice. The few meteorite craters that exist are shallow and have been smoothed by liquid water that oozed up into the crater from the subsurface and then quickly froze.
It is followed by exciting questions such as:

  1. According to the information provided, which of the following descriptions of Europa would be accepted by both scientists?
    1. F. Europa has a larger diameter than does Jupiter.
    2. G. Europa has a surface made of rocky material.
    3. H. Europa has a surface temperature of 20°C.
    4. J. Europa is completely covered by a layer of ice.
  1. With which of the following statements about the conditions on Europa or the evolution of Europa's surface would both Scientist 1 and Scientist 2 most likely agree? The surface of Europa:
    1. A. is being shaped by the movement of ice.
    2. B. is covered with millions of meteorite craters.
    3. C. is the same temperature as the surface of the Arctic Ocean on Earth.
    4. D. has remained unchanged for millions of years.

3. Which of the following statements about meteorite craters on Europa would be most consistent with both scientists' views?
  1. F. No meteorites have struck Europa for millions of years.
  2. G. Meteorite craters, once formed, are then smoothed or removed by Europa's surface processes.
  3. H. Meteorite craters, once formed on Europa, remain unchanged for billions of years.
  4. J. Meteorites frequently strike Europa's surface but do not leave any crater

Go here to see the sample tests:

Then ask yourself why people who have gone through a system that is this devoid of emotion, that fails my standards so badly, that is so irrelevant to anything they will actually do in life, do not know how to express emotion  or find solutions, when bad things happen.

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