Michael Langan is an assistant principal in a Pennsylvania middle school, where he has worked as a teacher and administrator for two decades. In the following post, he details five ideas in education that he once accepted as true but came to learn, through experience, as not what he originally thought. This appeared on Alternatives to School, a website started to offer ideas on how to improve education.
By Michael Langan
I have worked in a middle school for 20 years, and over the past eight years I have changed, and not just in the wrinkly, grey-hair way. My thinking and philosophies have changed as well.
Below are five dumb things I used to say. I considered calling them something less caustic, like five misguided things or five illogical things, but when I think of how and why I thought them, the word “dumb” really feels appropriate. Does that mean I was dumb? No; it just means I tried to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. So here are five dumb things I used to think/say:
1. School is your job. Just like I have a job and your parents have a job, you too have a job. I said this to kids often in my role as a teacher and parent. I said this to answer the question: “Why do we have to do this?” I said this as a reason to explain grades. The thinking behind it is that we all have jobs, and school is to prepare kids for future jobs that they probably are not going to like, so they had better get used to school. It is unreasonable to expect kids to be paid money, but they can be paid in grades. We adults all went through school. We realize that much of it was boring. We realize that like us, the student will forget much of the content because it is irrelevant to everyday life. So, we rationalize the purpose of school, and all we can come up with is that it must be to prepare kids to be disengaged employees.
What I believe now: School can be so much more. School can be a playground for a kid’s mind. School should not be a job but can be an exploration of life. We do not need to make things hard to justify a professional’s salary. All we need to do is supply a child with space, safety, resources and time. Why we have this notion that learning is serious business is now bewildering to me. Learning is joyous. Learning can cause dissonance, but in an engaging way, like walking through a haunted house at Halloween and wondering what could possibly be around the corner, while at the same time wanting to run backwards to the safety of the known. Grades are not needed and, in fact, they are a problem. Learning for learning’s sake is rewarding. We need to trust a child’s natural instinct to learn. We need to trust a child’s innate curiosities. We’ve tried trusting adults to pave the way, and it isn’t working. Let’s start trusting the children and stop acting like school is a child’s job.
2. Algebra teaches you how to think differently. This was the answer I gave to students when they asked me why they had to take algebra. I believed this because it was the only thing my brain could come up with that made sense. I could never think of an actual example from my life of when I used algebra, but I just figured I wasn’t aware of the algebra in my life.
What I believe now: Algebra is a gatekeeper. School is a filtering system, and algebra is one of the ways we filter kids. We create two tracks for kids — a track for kids that would like to go to college and a track for those that would like to go into a trade. Algebra is one of the classes that we use to determine which track a child goes on. It doesn’t matter if the kid wants to study philosophy in college, or if a child wants to go into hotel management. If one wants to get to college, one must get through algebra first…and of course, feel free to forget everything you learned in algebra after the course.
3. Homework will teach you how to do things you don’t want to do. I would say this to kids who didn’t understand why they had to do 20 math problems they already knew how to do, or to explain why they needed to cut and paste various items onto a piece of poster board. My thinking was that students needed to learn how to “just do things” without wasting time thinking about the value of what they were doing. I would add: “Life is filled with things we do not want to do; do you think I want to do my taxes?”
What I believe now: Homework is something teachers give for several reasons. They may give homework just because they need some more points for the gradebook. They may give homework because they think they are supposed to give homework, because that’s what teachers have always done. They may give homework because some parents expect homework and it is viewed as making the teacher a “hard teacher.” These parents falsely believe that the students’ having to manage all this work, combined with other obligations, is preparing them for the future. Again, It is one of those “we must teach the kids how to deal with things that suck so they know how to handle things that suck” types of things. Some teachers think that if you do the homework, then you are more likely to remember the content for the multiple-choice test (but then feel free to forget the content after the test; the rest of us adults did).
Homework may also be about control. How can we have some control over the student outside of the classroom? How can we still maintain a small piece of the child’s mind? Through graded homework, of course. What all these adults are not taking into account is that many students do what they don’t want to do from the moment they wake up on a school day. They drag themselves out of bed much earlier than they’d like. They get on a school bus with kids they may or may not like. They move from class to class sitting, listening, and regurgitating all day, every school day. Isn’t that more than enough? Aside from that, they have plenty of opportunities to learn to do things they don’t want to do when they are not at school. Like brushing their teeth, being dragged to the grocery store and sitting through Aunt Betty’s retirement party.
4. My strict deadlines are teaching them accountability and responsibility. The thinking behind this comment is very prevalent in school. There are deadlines in life, and we must teach kids that deadlines are serious business. “My deadline could be saving you from prison for not filing your taxes. You will thank me later.”
What I believe now: Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback. We all have our own set of priorities. If a student hands work in late, it may be for many reasons. It may be due to a major personal life issue, or it may simply be that the assignment was very low on their priority list. Teachers use strict deadlines and high point values as a means of coercion, to raise the threat in the hopes of making their assignment higher on a kid’s priority list. We don’t think of raising the relevance of the activity, or finding more engaging activities; that would be too difficult for the adult, so instead we raise the point value and become inflexible. If they don’t do that activity on time, they will get a zero.
5. Difficult/strict teachers help you learn how to deal with those types of people…it’s good for you. This is what I told my students or my own kids when they complained about having certain teachers – those that appeared to not like kids very much and appeared to be inflexible, angry, and argumentative. I thought “iron sharpens iron, and whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger. The more you have to deal with these types of people, the more you learn how to deal with these types of people.” I would even go further with that statement: “I have people that I have to work with that are difficult, and some of my bosses may be unreasonable.” This statement confirmed the “school is your job” narrative.
What I believe now: Difficult teachers help the child hate school. Difficult teachers confirm the fact that the kids are powerless. Difficult teachers are the worst kinds of bullies in school because they can hide behind their title, their inherent power, and their rationalizations that they are being rigorous vs. unreasonable. If I have a difficult, inflexible boss, I can choose to get another job. I can choose certain avenues against the employer with a lawyer. I have many choices, but the child has very few if any choices. The child is stuck with that teacher for the entire year. That child is missing opportunities to learn, and that child is missing opportunities to have a positive relationship in an environment of his choosing. School should be a place where a child feels safe to grow, explore and investigate interests. It should not be a place where students “learn” how to endure angry adults.
Inspecting these basic, commonly held beliefs has led me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole. As I continued thinking about and questioning the concept of traditional schooling, more and more of our practices and beliefs seemed illogical (dumb?). I do not yet know what grand thing I am going to do because of these realizations. I wish I could write a glorious statement about how I will be creating a new school, etc., but I can’t. What I have been doing in the meantime is talking to other educators and to other people interested in education. These five beliefs are a good place to start when I have these conversations. I do know that through these conversations, I have changed the story that many people believe about education, and I feel that each time the story gets changed, it gets us closer to the tipping point. The more people who truly inspect and question the traditions of schooling, the sooner true change can occur.