Education’s at a Crossroads

A story on NPR a couple of weeks ago caught my attention. In it, a researcher tried to answer the question, “What does ‘lazy’ mean?” I’d link to it for you, dear reader, but my search found an NPR story about laziness offered nearly every year! Someone’s obsessed, apparently. But I wasn’t obsessed enough to find you the story. Or maybe I was too lazy.

A person is being lazy if he is able to carry out some activity that he ought to carry out, but is disinclined to do so because of the effort involved. Instead, he carries out the activity perfunctorily; or engages in some other, less strenuous or less boring activity; or remains idle. In short, he is being lazy if his motivation to spare himself effort trumps his motivation to do the right or expected thing. Neel Burton, M.D., 2014

I grew up in a home where laziness was fairly well drummed out of us. No smacking the snooze button on the morning alarm in our house. No shortcuts on chores either, to that I can attest! I tried that once and got a comeuppance. My dad totally set me up to be punished for the shortcut (he stood there and watched me), but the past is past. Let bygones be bygones and all that swill. (See…I’m not bitter. Really.)

Some years ago, I talked about the habit of making my bed every day with a direct report during a conversation about planning, being consistent, managing people. I raised the issue of developing habits to which apparently he’d given little consideration.

He came back to me and reported that he’d read the book I’d recommended, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. I’m glad someone listened to me now and then!

Habits are good, but changing your procedure can help find efficiencies and that’s not a sign of laziness. Centerpiece’s story about the 2014 London tube strike revealed the following:

“Our results suggest that a significant fraction of commuters became aware of a better route to work thanks to the strike. This is puzzling, since the alternative journey could have also been discovered beforehand through voluntary (as opposed to forced) experimentation.” Centerpiece, August 2015, p. 15.

So, in light of this finding, perhaps sometimes our habits jail us behind ineffective and inefficient concrete walls. Taking a sledgehammer to our usual ways of thinking or doing might bring about the escape we need to a better future. Or maybe it won’t be that encompassing and we’ll just have a happier morning. I’d go for that, wouldn’t you?

The NPR speakers ventured into the text of a speech that G.W. Bush made in 2000, in which he used the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” They completely bungled, perhaps purposefully, what I believe was his true intent behind those words. Here’s an edited snippet of that speech:

And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Several months ago… In 43 years, we have come so far in opening the doors of our schools. But today we have a challenge of our own. While all can enter our schools, many — too many, are not learning there.

There’s a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society. And whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination.

My friend Phyllis Hunter (ph), of Houston, Texas, calls reading the new civil right….No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and the darkness of self-doubt.

Photo by Tim Arterbury on Unsplash

I saw that “soft bigotry” on display when I lived in a small town in rural Virginia for fifteen years. My three kids attended school there during that time. I asked an English teacher friend why my seventh-grader wasn’t being asked to write a book report. Her response should flatten you.

“We don’t assign that anymore because most of the kids won’t do it.” My mouth fell open.

“Well, if they got a Zero on the assignment, they’d learn, right?” I asked.

She shook her head. “They’d all just fail the year.”

Now, those are low expectations. And the implication was that the students were lazy.

One of the findings the NPR guest revealed struck me, as he said that when someone doesn’t do something it might be because they’re just not interested in the task. I can only imagine if I’d told my parents I wasn’t interested in mowing the lawn. Just wasn’t feelin’ it. Do you know?

Now, task interest is certainly an issue that educators must tackle when building a curriculum, such as including a variety of assignment choices that measure the mastery of a skill/knowledge and appeal to the senses of all the students in the classroom. As a former high school teacher and college professor, I remember doing this…at times. Sometimes, there’s really only one way to skin that particular cat, and everyone has to do the exercise to demonstrate they’ve got it.

Maybe a book report doesn’t “make the grade” as the best assessment of reading comprehension. But, unfortunately, what I do know is fifty percent of that small community was functionally illiterate. I am not making that up.

After all, that’s happened in education over the past year alone, a wholesale revisiting of our educational system seems in order. Seriously, the system’s processes, goals, and outcomes need an earnest overhaul. One might assume that the 2020 pandemic could serve as the same kind of disruption the London tube strike served.

Our kids deserve this. Don’t they? I’ll cross my fingers that education managers don’t take the lazy way out.

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