What Is Really, Truly ‘Best For The Kids’?
by Terry Heick
What’s best for the kids.
I remember hearing this phrase when I was handed a towering stack of fluency probes that represented about 3-4 hours of “in addition to” work per week.
I wasn’t against the idea behind it all (supporting the literacy of struggling adolescent readers), but rather the execution. All those probes, and all that data, and almost no room for adjustment of teaching and learning based on that data. It didn’t make any sense–in fact, it was actually taking away from my ability to do other “cool stuff” that might actually reach the mind’s of students.
These probes would be pulled out in meetings, and then sit in files until no one could remember what we were supposed to do with them next. In theory, they made sense; in practice, they were thoughtless and wasteful paper-trails to provide the appearance of accountability, which was icky.
The explanation for it all was, of course, powerful. This is what was best for the kids. If you had reasons against the idea before, they’d dissolve in the face of that one. It was a conversation killer. What could you say?
Who argues against “kids”?
But what does “best for the kids” mean? How about “best”–what does that mean? Best how, exactly?
And for which kids?
Other Ideas About ‘What’s Best For The Kids’
In an industry that increasingly turns away from emotion and abstraction for the harshness of “data” and research, it’s all a little weird. So, my turn for my opinion–my abstraction. What’s best for the kids? What would happen if, instead of reams of data and a drone of unending “probes,” we instead looked for ideas like these?
1. To understand and cultivate their own affections
This may or may not mean to be able to follow their curiosity or interests. But it does mean to first be able to see themselves and their own citizenship and degrees and points of connectivity. Who they are, and how do they relate to the contexts they call “home”?
What justifies them bringing all of their skills and experience and thought and creativity to bear? That sounds like something that’s pretty useful, no? Why does this idea sound so alien in a modern curriculum?
2. Learning literacy
Students deserve to learn how to learn. This seems best for the kids. Learning how to learn has always been the ghost in most classrooms, kind of floating around and maybe being glimpsed from time to time, but never realized. Just haunting.
3. Practical foundational knowledge
About these standards.
Every teacher I know–myself included–will read the Common Core standards and find it to be a logical index of academic content. I would love for my own children to be able to know and do all that the standards describe. It’s all perfectly rational–and decent answer to a decent question. None of them, however, even begin to heal the gap between school and life. “Schools” has never adequately answered the “Why do we have to know this?” question for the vast majority of curriculum, falling back on “balancing the check book,” and related imprecision and murkiness.
Some of this is due to K-12’s misconception of itself as a 13 year journey of “college prep.” The purpose of school is not to “get a job” or “get into college.” This is where we get ourselves, as an “industry,” into trouble over and over again.
Education is not an industry.
4. To be children
To be free from pressure and expectation and just be–and maybe begin to develop their own mechanisms of self-correction and thought–seems best for the kids. This doesn’t free us from measurement, accountability, or even pressure, but why does “what’s best for the kids” almost always make everyone involved miserable?
Best for the kids how?
Among other things, wisdom is knowing what’s worth study and understanding. I’d take that any day over some set of skills of dubious value. This flies in the face of an outcomes-based and standards-driven learning model that prescribes almost everything from the beginning, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Certainly it’s possible for skills, standards, and wisdom to cooperate, no?
6. Comfort grappling with uncertainty
If they can do this–not settle for ignorance, but rather honor the complexity of any given “thing,” and accept the limits of their own understanding as it stands right here, right now–they’re well on their way to knowing themselves as learners.
7. Adults with short memories
Students deserve adults with short memories. To be forgiven. This doesn’t mean to not be accountable, but for everyone to work from the common belief that childhood is about development and growth and love and not “accountability” and records and proficiency.
“What’s best for the kids” is adults that forget their failures, and help everyone remember what they’re capable of.
8. Unforgettable teachers
What’s best for the students is to have unforgettable teachers that model quirky, knowledgeable, human expertise that also just happens to care a lot about them too. Teachers that love knowledge and students, which kind of puts students on some pretty important terms.
9. Sustainable learning conditions
The opposite of this is to create the “perfect academic machine” that is research-based, standards-centered, and data-driven that produces reams and reams of proficient students every year, but absolutely tears teachers apart and sterilizes student curiosity making it happen.
10. To understand good work
I’ve been meaning to create a kind of framework for “good work” for a while now. Howard Gardner has a good book on the idea, and of course Wendell Berry etches out this idea over the course of his entire body of work–here, for example. But in short, if students don’t understand the value they bring to potential work and social interactions, what on earth are we doing here?
11. A world that doesn’t bleach them as soon as they graduate
I know this will make me sound like a hippie. The world doesn’t owe us anything. No kid is special. Bill Gates used to flip hamburgers and darn it he was lucky to do so. These kids today are entitled. Crappy schools and crappy jobs weren’t too good for me, why should it be any different for them?
Public education’s continued focus on “workforce training” and university-prep can only possibly yield a derivative learning experience that chases instead of leads. What’s best for the kids depends on which kid–their history, their curiosities, their legacies. Clearly there are some universal skills–reading, writing, and communication–that we can consider “standard.” There is nothing wrong with being able to expect some level of performance and skill out of our youth.
But phrases like “what’s best for the kids” are often used to hide adult-centered thinking. More than anything, “what’s best for the kids” is to graduate into a world where intimate communities bring their wisdom and affection on the caretaking of their own little section of the world as a way of living. A “workforce” that is human and not corporate, and that works through humility and love.
So then, what is the relationship between a school and a local community? Between this community and that? Between a teacher and a student?
And between “content” and a student’s fragile and tenuous expression of their best selves?
What’s Best For The Kids; adapted image attribution flickr user lisenupkids