Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning is a Mess


I spent five hours today wrestling with two wireless printers, four laptops, and a wireless router. Getting them to work together has been daunting. This along with rereading a book and discussing school standards has me thinking about learning and just how messy it is.

I've talked about the Common Core Standards. They are the plan created by business people and politicians to standardize learning, pre-K through 12th grade. It's a bad idea and wrestling with the printers is an example of why.

I first worked on this printer problem years ago when we bought our first. It took a few days to get it to work. Then I introduced another wireless printer and broke everything.

A standards approach expects that learning how to hook up one printer will inform my hooking up another. Not so. Two printers bring on a whole other level of complexity. My prior knowledge (as they say in education) was of almost no use to me. I got frustrated and pushed the thing off until I was ready to learn. Standards would have demanded that I get down to the task immediately.

Today, for reasons that aren't any clearer to me than to a kid in science class, I was ready to work the problem. Soon enough, I was ready to give up again. I posted on Facebook about my troubles. I shooed my kids away. I complained to my wife. I was Mr. Happy Pants.

Most of my frustration was that I kept failing the test. I failed to print thirty or forty times. Were this a standards-based course, the teacher would have marked me a failure and moved on. Thankfully, in my non-standard world, I stuck with the problem.

I figured out how to set a static IP address but set one that was out of my router's range. Then, having figured out what IP address would work, I couldn't get the printer to find the network any more. All of which is to say, I progressed through steps one, two, and three of the learning, but because the problem changed, step three couldn't be applied. I had to take on an entirely different problem.

Finally, I got things together. There will be glitches, but now I have a basic understanding of some concepts. I'll forget most of what I've learned beyond the fundamentals and have to learn it again when I change some piece of this puzzle I've created.

Real learning, not standardized learning, is like this. The standards don't describe learning so much as map out an idealized version in which every thing is remembered and brought to bear against the next problem.

If only things were so neat.

Before attacking the printers, I finished my fourth or fifth re-reading of Stephen King's On Writing. I can't imagine where re-reading plays into the standards. Why would one bother to re-read a book that has already been consumed? But of course, in real life there were things that I had forgotten and ideas I had skipped. More important, that book creates a feeling in me. I go back to get that feeling again. That's what I want to learn.

There are teachers who believe in these standards. I don't know why. We witness learning every day in our classes. It is individual, circular, messy, and impermanent. Some teachers believe these standards are better than other standards. Maybe, but stepping in one pile of dog shit is about the same as stepping in another. Some say that the standards are better than no standards at all, but that's just wrong. Standardization is a bad idea when it comes to kids.

So I say to hell with the standards. Who needs them so long as we write on?