Why "Animal School" misses the point

I had a colleague bring this to my attention. It's an effective representation of a widespread problem, with only two flaws. Go ahead and watch, and then we'll talk.

Okay. Okay? Um... do you need a minute? Okay.

Here's the first problem. There's no explanation of why and how Animal School (the institution) came into being. Without understanding the rationale or purpose of this or any other school, it is impossible to say whether or not they are succeeding.

I'm not going to say what I think the purpose of schooling is - to enculturate the children of immigrants; to teach and raise up well rounded citizens; to create an explanation for de facto social classes; to equip children for the world of tomorrow; to build a productive workforce; to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble..... pick your poison. My point is there is some reason we do what we do in our schools. It's not an accident. It's a policy with a goal.

Understanding the reason for schools - surely necessary to repairing them, if indeed something is wrong - is not an add-on. This is a feel-good / feel-bad video that is effective at what it does, but it doesn't do nearly enough.

Which brings me to the second problem. The solutions offered are just Animal School all over again. Don't believe me? Go check out the website www.raisingsmallsouls.com. You'll read stuff like this:

Kids are like little spongers waiting to soak up & experience new ideas. With some easy art projects for kids, you can wake up the little artist waiting to be discovered in every child.

That's from the article Easy Art Projects For Kids posted by someone signed Adrina. She suggests parents bring home art books from the library ("Make sure to get art books that represent a wide range of styles, from Impressionism to Realism & from a lot of artists") and use "this as a jumping off point to discussing the differences between the styles."
However, don’t allow the child to direct the conversation strictly to what they like and are comfortable with. Part of the power of art is the variety and questioning the pieces that you aren’t familiar with.

She also suggests taking kids "to art galleries or museums... a great way to get them engaged in learning about art."
Having access to these institutions allows you to show kids genuine examples in the books you’ve been discussing with them. Make multiple visits to the museum. Before you go, get on the website and plan your own mini-tour based on the subject you want to cover.

She tells us that an "art curriculum for home schooled children does not require extensive preparation or knowledge." Does it require a museum? Does it require an art gallery? Does it require reference to the European masters - a.k.a. a bunch of dead white guys who lived in a different place and time? Does it even require a curriculum?

Let's ignore the tabla rasa and Eurocentric bias, and let's set aside the class-based assumptions about ease of access to museums and galleries (or even libraries). What if the fish or the bear don't care about art? Is that a problem?

Well... maybe. What's the goal?

Here's another post:
Many experts believe that gaining musical appreciation is very important for young people. Studies have shown that learning and music seem to go hand-in-hand. Often, mothers-to-be put headphones on their pregnant bellies so baby can begin absorbing music before he or she is even born. It is no wonder that parents across the country clamor to put their preschoolers into some sort of music class before they even learn to read and write. There are many benefits children receive when playing a musical instrument, and the piano is an ideal first instrument.

This is the opening of a blog post which appears to be an advertisement for Morton Manus' book All-in-One Course for Children: Lesson, Theory, Solo, Book 1 (Alfred's Basic Piano Library). At least, that is where the Amazon.com hotlink leads. The piece ends:
The benefits of piano lessons for kids are abundant. When children are matched with the right instructor, music can come to life. They’ll reach new heights academically, and their self-esteem will soar.

Yes... it will soar. Unless they are penguins for whom pianos are unsuitable.

Again I ask, what is the goal?

Under the modest heading The Benefits of Teaching Kids to Play an Instrument, our blogger writes - confusing the verbs "teach" and "learn" - "The question is not should kids learn to play a musical instrument but why shouldn’t kids learn to play a musical instrument?"

I can answer that: it is easy to fail, to be embarrassed, and to be harassed by teachers who think the key to success is trying harder.

Unless you think harassment and frustration lead to positive outcomes. Some people do:
Learning an instrument is hard work. It requires the discipline to set aside time to practice every day. It forces you to be dedicated to a pursuit even when it is difficult or frustrating.

By the way, our blogger also assures us that becoming "skilled at a musical instrument will boost their self esteem." Moreover, the "approval of the people in their lives – parents, teachers, friends – will increase their self-confidence."

And then the post tries to sell us one or more toy-like musical instruments for children. (None of them, curiously enough, an actual instrument like a piano, ukulele, recorder or harp.)

Okay. This is parenting stuff. What about schooling? Well, there is the article School Performance by Alan Carson which reminds us that we have "way too many kids who are unwilling to make the sacrifices to be good students." Does he mean the too self-absorbed zebra or the lazy-assed bear?
Nobody can give students an education; they must earn an education. Of course all adults involved in education must love children and do their best for kids, but the bottom line is that you can’t make students earn an education. In my opinion, as a country, our thinking is codependent. We’re trying to control and accept ownership for the behavior and decisions students are making. When kids underachieve, fail, and/or drop out, too many people conclude it is the fault of parents and educators. We have to own our part, but we can’t own more than the kids own. When kids want to learn, they can achieve great things.

There you have it. Is your squirrel doing badly in flying class? Does your duck bring home failing grades in running? "If their grades go down or the teacher e-mails you that work is not getting completed, we have a chat and ask:
• How did you get into this predicament?
• What do you need to do differently?
• What do you need from me?
• Would you like to hear what I have been observing?"

Oh, and get this: "If our kids are doing poorly in school, we eliminate distractions. There is a difference between what kids want and what kids need... They have to reach the conclusion that being irresponsible doesn’t pay."

And so Eagle will be forced to stay after school and write "Cheating is wrong" 500 times. This will mean he has no time to soar, but school comes first. Right?

I'm not saying all this just to bad-mouth Ellen C. Braun and the gang at raising small souls. The web is wide, and I've seen many sites that are much worse.

I'm trying to show that even the sort of people who can create a video like Animal School can and will also create unhealthy expectations, fixed curriculum and a blame-the-victim attitude if they don't dig deeper than "I like the bees - isn't this sad."

What are schools for? Why have we arrived at this place?

Who said, these four skills - or any four skills - are equally worth learning and therefore equally worth teaching?

I'd like to have something wise to say here. But all I can think of is this: to understand, we need to understand the dominant modes of production of capital, and also the curious fact that lots and lots of grown-ups don't like kids very much.

No comments: