Educate by the Number

By Paul Houston | Categories: Uncategorized

When I was growing up, an aunt gave me a paint by number set as a birthday gift. Many of you may remember them. The sets had pictures with outlined shapes with numbers placed on each. The numbers corresponded to a particular color of paint that came with the set. All you had to do was fill in each area with the paint indicated by the number and you would end up with a respectable looking picture as a result.

There were several problems with this art set. First of all, there was zero creativity involved. If one is creating a picture, shouldn’t there be some creation in there somewhere? And, of course, if one of your friends had the same paint set, your wonderful picture would look exactly like theirs. So much for a sense of individuality. Also, there was zero passion involved in the process. All you had to do was follow the directions, stay within the lines, and not smear anything. The result was a pretty, but fairly cold representation of what a real artist may have conceived. It was simply a pale copy of someone else’s vision.

I bring this up because it reminds me of how we are approaching “school reform” in our current world. No, we aren’t painting by number, but aren’t we teaching by number, and leading by number? Aren’t we simply tasked with filling in the spaces created by someone else? And aren’t our results going to be about like those cold pictures in the paint by number set?

For years now I have railed against a system of reform in which those who are calling the tune have very little understanding of what actually goes on in a classroom. These politicians, corporate leaders, and foundation folks seem to have all the answers to what must be changed and how changes ought to happen. If only they could get the educators to do as they are told, everything would be beautiful. But would it?

The cold truth is that, unless you have lived in a school for an extended period of time, you have no idea of the complexities involved in working with a classroom full of diverse individuals. And the saddest thing to me is that most children really want to learn. In fact you can’t stop them. The trick is to make sure they are learning what they will need to be successful in life.

Classrooms should be places where those who have the knowledge, the experience, the passion, and-yes-the artistry, are supported and given a free hand to create little masterpieces. This in no way involves following dictates and staying within the lines created by others who may have a specific picture in mind, but one that has no relevance to the learner. Classrooms must be places where students are engaged in meaningful learning activities-not rote compliance to another’s vision.

The fundamental problem with today’s reform efforts is that they are, by their design and very nature, coercive. They call for strict adherence to “goals, standards, or assessments” or what have you. If students or teachers do not comply, dire repercussions are planned for them: retention in grade, remedial activities, loss of status, and even financial consequences. The problem with coercion is that it will lead to compliance but not to excellence. You will get a picture that looks just like all the others, but has no genius to it.

Those leading reform must lose their ideas of how it should work and listen to those most invested in the outcome of learning-the teachers and children. I have been amused by the recent idolization of Finland as a model of reform. Beyond the fact that it is a very homogenous country with a very strong and vibrant social safety net-both of which disqualify it as a model for us-their system is completely different from anything being currently proposed for America. Finland has the strongest teachers union in the world and there are few standards laid out for teachers. Their secret is that they recruit the best people into the profession they can find, reward them accordingly, and give them the leeway to do their job. This is no paint by number country.

And neither are we. Our genius as a nation has been our celebration of individual creativity and the support and nurturing of such creativity. If we are truly concerned with the future of America and what education must do to make it bright, we must throw away our paint by number approach to reform and allow true artistry to emerge. Only then will we see what is possible from our teachers and children.

Watch Paul Houston talk about the Common Core in a Common Core Conversation with Paul Houston.