Education, In Essence

Every year that I spend working at The SOLD Project brings me new lessons and deeper understanding about what education means and the purpose it serves. For those of you who aren’t aware, my life role as an educator began at UC Santa Barbara, teaching undergraduates while I completed my doctorate. It was rewarding, and challenging – with the deepest challenge being how to engage kids in material that would make them better American citizens, while half of them were only in college because their parents had insisted upon it and they had no clue what other life purpose they should have.

Perhaps paradoxically, my favorite class to teach was also one of the most difficult (and the one almost everyone else tries to avoid getting assigned to) – Research Methods – but I loved it because nowhere else was there as stark a connection between effort and reward, both for me and for my students. The class brought humility to the students for whom the whole school schtick was far too easy, and then there were moments when I felt I was physically pushing my timid ones to overcome their fears. Life lessons served with a side of statistical analysis. My hours spent teaching that class (and consoling the lost) were longer than any other – but then so were the letters of gratitude slipped in my end-of-quarter evaluations.

At university, educators commonly bemoan students’ inability to craft complete sentences despite 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, and the major value we consistently work towards is cultivating children’s critical thinking and skills in analysis. Supposedly, primary and secondary schools attempt to teach this as well. If so, we on the college end feel we see little fruit of those efforts. Students trained on endless state and national testing continue to come to college wanting to be told what to think. By college age, you should be curious and seek information on your own steam. So our job as educators becomes teaching kids how to think – which means kids must relearn the capacity to ask questions, natural to them at the age of 4, a chore at 19. And we do the best we can, and if we can’t change the lives of our undergrads, we hope at least we might do better with our own children.

This is the background I had before starting my work with at-risk, disadvantaged children in rural Thailand. I had plenty of high-minded ideas about how I could come in and challenge these children to think critically, to analyze, and to help bring them up to speed to compete on a global stage.

It’s kind of laughable, really, the gap between my highfalutin’ ideas and the reality. The first year was a lesson in humility for me, a constant stepping back and back and back to realize that the “basics” with these kids was even more basic than what I had ever known in my middle class, born to highly educated parents, upbringing. I couldn’t teach them to write or analyze poetry if they didn’t even dare to put words to a page, or utter a question (because in some classrooms here, asking a teacher a question implies the teacher isn’t teaching properly – a major loss of face). I had kids who were too afraid to color for fear of coloring incorrectly. They copied each other incessantly, too afraid to do anything on their own. If they did anything wrong, then at least their friends were wrong with them and there was safety in numbers.

The realization blew my mind. So the second year of my teaching focused on building the kids’ self-esteem and confidence, to teach them not to fear trying and to teach them that they could produce something of worth and value.

When a volunteer came and started them on entirely new projects and they jumped right in, I began to hope that our efforts were working. When I saw a previously shy 13-year-old jump up on stage in front of 200 people and lead a dance troupe front and center stage, and a quiet 15-year-old belt out two solos in English in front of said crowd, I began to believe the foundation had been set.

But I don’t have forever with these kids. I’m not starting at scratch with 5-year-olds. I have some 5 and 6-year-olds, some preteens, some teenagers. We dream big for them, but realistically speaking, not all of them will go to college. Probably only a small handful will obtain higher than a high school diploma, though we hope to continue to keep our kids in school through the end of high school. Likely, very few will hold desk jobs, and even fewer will obtain upper-management positions. What can I impart to them that will be useful in their world?

If you spend enough time in rural or distressed areas, you begin to hear stories about people: how so-and-so got into this scrape or that, how that person’s neighbor went to jail for this crazy thing that was only sort-of his fault, and how the other person’s sister got taken advantage of by that guy everyone knows is a crook, etc., etc., etc. You probably know somebody like this too: someone who, no matter what they try to do, always ends up in some crazy situation or another and needs to be bailed out and everyone’s afraid of that one time things go too far and you can’t help them anymore. It’s not really about rural or urban, poor or wealthy, schooled or not…there are people like this in all walks of life, though you see them more often in less-advantaged areas.

And you wonder: how does this stuff always manage to happen to them? Why do they trust people no one else would go near with a 10-foot pole? How do they find these scrapes to get into?

The reason, I believe, is and isn’t education. Education, done well, leaves people not only more knowledgable, but also more capable of assessing situations and other people. It’s never taught directly, but these skills are a by-product of careful study and experience. Also, the more highly educated you are, I believe, the more you begin to appreciate your self-worth and value, and are thus less likely to trust where your instincts tell you something is off. Education isn’t totally the answer though because, when you’re facing a class of 30 or more students, it’s a blunt instrument. Children are individuals, not sponges. They come with their own histories and proclivities and the same information is not going to affect them all equally.

But, in essence, this is what I believe education is all about. Sure, you learn what year the WWII began, the makeup of mitochondria, algebraic functions, and how to communicate more effectively through proper spelling and grammar. But what I think education’s key underlying goal is – or what I think it should be – is to help kids learn how to function independently in the real world, in whatever capacity they find themselves, whether as sales clerks or high court judges. Knowledge and information is critical, of course, but so is critical thinking, exercising good judgment, and learning how to ask the important questions.

Which brings me right back to needing to teach these kids how to think critically – but I need a shortcut because I don’t have years with them, I have only moments. So this year, my challenge is to take the foundation of self-confidence that we’ve begun with these kids and turn that into a sense of self-worth and value. My belief (and hope) is that if the kids begin to believe in their own worth, they will be more self-protective and less likely to follow trouble. If we can cultivate their sense of value as individuals and human beings and that protective instinct, then maybe we can talk more cogently to them about how to determine who’s worthy of trust, how and why to avoid situations that feel wrong to you even when your friends or family are telling you it’s right, and what healthy, loving relationships look like and how to cultivate them, so you don’t end up in the arms of abuse.

Maybe I’m back to my highfalutin’ ideas again. This may or may not work (and next year, I’ll most likely be right back at the drawing board again), but I’ll keeping trying because their lives are valuable. Each life is a miracle and has value. If they believe that, then maybe they’ll do an okay job of protecting their own.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
Tuesday, February 5, 8:00 p.m. CST: Fiction {Host: Jade}
Wednesday, February 13, 8:00 p.m. CST: Memoir {Host: Hyacynth}


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10 thoughts on “Education, In Essence

  1. I wish you were my elementary school teacher. I would have a good foundation. Thai schools want students to be sponge and do as they are told. Asking teacher too many questions is a case of challenging authority. I recalled when we had to draw a map of Asia, copying from a book. Everyone had the same drawing and coloring but I got lower grade than my friend. I was too afraid to ask why. There was no critical thinking at all. I remember all exams were multiple choice or true/false. Throughout my schooling in US I barely asked any question because I did not know how to make a question. I was never taught critical thinking. You are on the right track for these children;)

    • Thank you!! – That must have been so frustrating to grow up in a school environment like that. Maybe you didn't ask many questions out loud, but I think you always had a good instinct about what's good for you and what's not. The women in our family are not fools and take no guff from no one ;)

  2. Fear is such an obstacle to learning. Not just the learner's fear, but the teacher's (or parent's) fear as well. Teaching anyone to think critically means they might blossom differently, believe differently or grow up differently that we'd like. They might go beyond – grow beyond – their teacher! Somehow, instead of this bringing joy, it can be threatening. And the teacher looses their ability/desire to also/always be a learner. There's so much to love about this piece…for one, I just learned a ton about YOU and I loved that! Mostly, though, I think it's the fearlessness that comes through. Coupled with humility. That's a powerful combination!!

    • Thank you, Adrienne. That's a perspective I've never thought of! I think it would be awesome if my students surpassed me, and even if they reached a wildly different conclusion, if they could back it up in a well-reasoned way, I would just find that fascinating. HOWEVER, I'm not a parent and haven't raised a child, and I think there are some things that I would probably have difficulty accepting. I would be thrilled and proud if my child did amazing things I could never dream of. I would accept different religions and sexual preferences. But if politically we were as similar as Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart…honestly, I would probably love my child immensely and wonder where the heck I went wrong! :) Seriously, though, I think my goal in motherhood would just be to raise a child who doesn't suck as a human being. As long as my child treats other people with decency, concern, and respect, I will figure I've done something right.

  3. I needed to read this. I see now what you speak of — a curiosity and a desire to learn. I have to be careful to fuel that desire and not squash it by default thinking of education … the kind of teacher you are — the one who self reflects and learns along with her students and grows — that's the kind of teacher and mother I strive to be for my little ones. Thank you for sharing your heart so openly and humbly today about teaching the young people in our lives.

  4. This was so interesting for me! I just started teaching a college-level course in psychology, but I have absolutely NO teaching experience, and I feel like I am just stumbling along with so much fear of teaching the material the "wrong" way. Thanks for this insight!

    • I think as long as you keep yourself approachable and encourage dialogue with your students, there isn't really a "wrong" way to teach. Beyond that, I would just recommend trying to organize the information for them and relay it in a way that's as easily digestible as possible and be sure to repeat key points a few times because they won't all get it the first time. Also, there are different types of learners: some learn by listening, some by seeing, some by doing, etc. Try to incorporate lessons driven by the different methods of learning so you can reach more students. But honestly, being friendly and personable will go a long way with them. I'm sure you're doing a fine job!

  5. The project that you're taking on with these kids is incredibly impressive – I can imagine it's challenging, stressful but oh so worth it in the end. We all remember those educators who taught us curiosity and encouraged it – I certainly do and I'm sure that your kids will remember it way down the line as well

  6. I always love getting a look into your world, which is so different form my also {mostly} sheltered middle class Midwestern life. I love what you say about education being more about learning fats, in fact I was just arguing that with my husband yesterday. I went to a four year liberal arts school (aka $$$$) he did community college and state school…he feels college is barely worth the money it costs to print the diploma these days and there are other, better ways to be successful. My argument was very much yours that there is so much more I learned away at school than my degree (you know the one I'm not using!).

    • I came away from so many years of college with kind of complex feelings about its value – which would take me a whole other (lengthy) blog post to explain. But to state it briefly, I do think our society undervalues trade & technical colleges, that college isn't for everyone – or at least, not directly out of high school, and that a lot of people would be well served spending a year or two after high school doing apprenticeships or traveling and getting more life experience so they come to college a little more mature and prepared. The pressure to send everyone to college, especially in this economy (and the problematic way universities are run) has lead to a kind of dumbing down of the education and expectations for college level work. More and more, professors have to spend class time teaching students what they should have learned in high school (how to study, how to write a paper) – and what it takes to get an A these days is sorely diminished compared to what the rigors used to be. In the 6 years I spent teaching there, I can definitely say I saw the average quality of papers steadily decline. Having said all that, I do still stand by what I said about learning critical thinking and analysis, self confidence, and becoming better citizens through higher education, and obviously a lot of a professions would be impossible without a higher degree at a good institution, and for good reason.