November 12, 2010

Pants on the Ground

In my sermon last Sunday, I mentioned a story where I accidentally glued my sweatpants to our kitchen floor. I was trapped while laying tile and in a very awkward position. I eventually determined that the only way out was getting out of my pants.

After church, this came up in a conversation. In a joking way it was mentioned that many of the worlds problems can be solved by dropping your drawers. Thought about it a little bit, and it's true! Just look at what all can be done by removing your pants.

1. Make a tourniquet for a severely cut arm.

2. Inflate them and use them as a life preserver.

3. Totally freak out and scare away a burglar.

4. Make a donation to Goodwill.

5. Cool down if you are overheating. (Once was on a summer youth trip when the AC went out in one of the vans. We stopped at a convenience store, put all the guys in that van, and proceeded to make do if you know what I mean.)

6. Wade a stream.

7. Solves the should I tuck or not dilemma (accept for a few diehards who would keep tucking. You know who you are.)

8. Beat out a fire.

9. Totally embarrass your daughter and scare away her scuzzy boyfriend.

10. Airport security is a lot simpler in a pantsless society.

11. You can't "sag" if you are not wearing pants. At least I hope you can't.

12. Makes it easy to get that Tetanus shot.

And of course...

13. Ants in the pants.

Admittedly there would be a few problems. Where to put your wallet and keys? Old dudes in whitey-tighties. A nationwide run on bleach. But you could still visit your favorite restaurant. The sign says no shirt, no shoes, no service. It says nothing about pants.

November 3, 2010

I Learned Something

It's everywhere you turn. On the nightly news, on the cover of magazines, talk radio, podcasts, the Internet. The headlines scream it out, "Schools Failing", "Can the Education System be Fixed?", "America Falling Behind". NBC recently dedicated a whole week with numerous news programs focusing on education. And this may be one of the rare times when the media is actually correct that things are bad. Obviously, not every student in America is flunking out, but the problems are real and large.

However, while this may be news, it is not exactly new. These problems have been discussed for decades. Numerous solutions proposed. Spending increased. New standards adopted. Yet, here we are, still looking for a true fix to the problem. Most recently, there has been the widespread call for a better means of evaluating teachers. We must pay good teachers more, and get rid of the slackers. Only, we can't seem to agree that this is a good idea, nor on how you actually evaluate a "good teacher." So we keep arguing, and thinking, and debating.

Recently I had an experience that may shed a little bit of light on the situation. Every other Saturday I teach a class on parenting. This seminar is a court-ordered class and the majority of those attending are doing so because they are in the midst of divorce proceedings and they have children still living at home. Needless to say, many of those ordered to attend are not so happy to spend half a Saturday doing this. To lighten the mood, I start off with a quip about how this class is going to be way more fun and interesting than defensive driving. This is typically received with nervous laughter.

Last class I taught began even worse than normal. A monsoon came that morning, and everyone was drenched. There was a mix-up with the key to the building and people had to wait outside in the downpour. If it was possible, those attending were even less enthused than usual. But, believe it or not, four hours later several people told me as they were leaving how much they appreciated the class and that they really learned some things to help their parenting. One man even admitted that he came in not expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised by the material.

Now, according to the debate raging in this country, I must be an excellent teacher. I took a tough crowd, made tougher by circumstances, and convinced them to learn some new things. Some people actually enjoyed the class! And I will admit that I felt it was one of my better classes. Some days you just have it. However, on the evaluations participants fill out, a couple of people seemed to believe it was the worst experience of their lives. One person, when asked what they learned wrote, "Not a damn thing!"

So, if I'm such a good teacher (and I am!) then how did these few people get so little out of class, while others raved about what they had learned? Most people I know would say, "well, they had such bad attitudes, they weren't gonna learn anything no matter what." I agree. The problem in this case was not the teacher or the material, but rather the student (at least I hope). But then the question must be asked, "How do we evaluate education if the problem is sometimes the students themselves?"

It seems the one thing we refuse to consider when discussing education in America is that the problem may lie with the students. Specifically, that many students are unmotivated to learn. We all know of students (Abraham Lincoln being our favorite example) who seek to learn no matter the barriers placed before them. How do they learn without good teachers? Determination and motivation. Those traits seem to be conspicuously lacking in many students today.

Now please understand, I am not blaming seven year-olds for our educational woes. I am blaming the motivation and determination of many students for crippling the educational system in our country. There was a time when education was seen as a privilege that allowed you to seek a better life. It is still that way in many countries. In some developing countries there is an almost violent struggle to get your child into a school, because education is so valuable. But in America, many kids don't see the value in it. Many (including parents and children) assume that prosperity is some kind of right that just happens. So while our kids play video games and disrespect their teachers, they assume that in the end it will all work out. Meanwhile, kids in other countries know the real score and are passing our kids by.

So how do we build in some motivation for our students? How do you create a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge? Let's start by getting one thing out of the way. Good teachers make a difference. But, how much? A good teacher can probably take a student on the borderline and push them toward motivated learning. The better the teacher, I am sure the farther over that line they can reach. But only the rarest teacher can reach well beyond the line. So we can't count on a rare occurrence. We should get rid of terrible teachers (teachers that make kids who are interested in learning lose interest) but that still leaves us with our problem.

I am also sure that improvements in classroom management, better curriculum, etc... can have some sort of positive effect. But, can any of this overcome a student who is dead set against being there and learning? And can it even make a dent when that student is put in a classroom with several other students who are also determined to not learn?

At some point we must look at the student directly. The key to learning may be the learner! There is debate about how much difference a good verses great teacher makes. But we all know that someone really determined to learn is almost impossible to stop. A decent teacher with a student who is a voracious learner equals lots of learning.

So how can we motivate a large population that does not seem to care about their own education? Economists would say we must find the incentives. Something drives people to learn. There is some kind of payoff. As mentioned earlier, if you are in a poor, third world environment the incentive for learning may be survival, or drastic improvement of life. On the heels of this comes family pressure, since you may be the only one fortunate enough to have the opportunity of education. But what are the incentives in America? Should we pay students for attendance and grades? (Before you scoff, this is being tried with some success in a few school districts, and besides it kind of fits the idea that you have a job and there is a pay-off for showing up and doing it well.) How big a role do parents and family play in providing incentive? I'm thinking beyond a quarter for every A, but rather a family providing both examples of learning and incentives. Why should a seven year old learn to read if mom and dad know how but never pick up a book? Are parents viewed by their children as learning and growing even beyond "school"? What role does society play? Have we removed incentives for learning by focusing on screen-based entertainment? (You don't have to read or use algebra to play your Wii and watch Jersey Shore.) Have we elevated technology as the answer to the point that students believe if they can use Facebook and Twitter they are de facto computer scientists? Do the safety nets we place around people rob them of the motivation to improve their existence through education?

The bad news is that the problem may lie with the students. The good news is that the answer lies with the students. That class I taught had a couple of really unmotivated learners. But most of the people, even while struggling through a difficult time in their lives, seemed to interact with the material and at least made an attempt to apply it to their life. Of course they have a big motivation. I was teaching a parenting class. Most of them are about to become single parents. That could be considered quite an incentive to learn.